USA (105 mi) 2009 d: Joe Berlinger Official site
USA (105 mi) 2009 d: Joe Berlinger Official site
A rumble in the jungle that has the capacity to change the way multi-national corporations do business with South American countries, basically getting their way through a series of high-placed bribes to ravage the earth, including the rainforest, in order to extract precious resources by the cheapest means possible, even if that means leaving behind some of the world’s largest toxic waste materials, as is alleged in a now 17-year old pending lawsuit (filed in 1993) by the inhabitants of an Ecuadorian rainforest where their water supply has been systematically poisoned by the Texaco (now Chevron since a 2001 merger) oil industries, which turned the rivers into a permanent waste facility for what is alleged to be 18 billion tons of toxic waste, or pay heavy court damages to clean up the mess, including damages to the 30,000 indigenous people still living in the region who are constantly exposed to not only extremely high levels of cancer, but also a poisonous water supply that is so toxic it can lead to instant death within 24 hours. According to many outside visitors, that water even smells like gasoline. Chevron’s scientists, like the tobacco industry before them, alleges there is nothing wrong with their product, that the same illnesses could have resulted from poor sanitary conditions, as there are no sewage treatment plants in the vicinity, so they bathe and wash clothes in the same water where they dispose of human waste. The remarkable success of this film is contrasting the well-dressed Chevron lawyers who haven’t a problem in the world sitting in their sleek air-conditioned offices with the people actually living in the tropical vicinity who have livestock that died, family members that died, wild game that has vanished, so they have no means to support themselves, as everything has already or is continuing to die off, where many people continue to be sick. Perhaps the most devastating evidence was the skin lesions that almost completely consume a 20-day old baby who is brought in to seek medical treatment. Those with cancer need to come up with $500 per weekly treatment session if they wish to obtain medical services, which are only accessible after riding a bus 18 hours just to get there. Who, living in the jungle, has that kind of ready cash available, when many don’t earn that weekly amount over the entire year?
A first-time, young Ecuadorian lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, a man who previously worked for the oil industries when Texaco started their operations in the region and saw first hand just exactly how they disposed of toxic waste, a lawyer who still resides there in his unassuming 2-room house, a man with no other legal experience whatsoever, is handling the case against a stream of Chevron lawyers. Fajardo is assisted by a New York lawyer named Steve Donziger, a media expert who represents a U.S. law firm that’s actually financing the law suit, and nonprofit groups like Amazon Watch, but Fajardo has the testimony of those still living in the vicinity, where the affected area is a targeted 1700-square-miles, about the size of Rhode Island, as this is their ancestral tribal home, people with nowhere else to go, as this is the only world they’ve ever known. Chevron, on the other hand, got in and got out, as in 1992, after 30 years of drilling, they transferred oil rights to an Ecuadorian company called Petro-Ecuador who has an even worse environmental record than the U.S. corporation, so one of Chevron’s arguments is to lay the blame on the Ecuadorians. Fajardo, however, having grown up in the region, knows what areas Texaco dumped toxic materials, areas that Petro-Ecuador has never worked, and can identify thousands of dump sites left behind, despite methods used to cover the top ground with dirt, all of which remain hazardous underneath. Some people inadvertently built their houses right on top of what were waste dumps, as what they saw was an area of cleared ground, perfect to build a home. But animals all around them that use the nearby river or creek for drinking water mysteriously die, so how is anyone to know where it’s safe, especially when the company claims there’s no scientific trace of any problem?
Early on, Chevron moved the court jurisdiction from the United States to Ecuador, a country where they had 8 different Presidents over a 10 year period, thinking they’d have a better chance bribing or influencing the locals, so the mounds of legal evidence that have accumulated for nearly 20 years fills a storage room. But lately they’ve been having second thoughts, arguing they cannot receive a fair trial in Ecuador now that they’ve elected a left-leaning President, Rafael Correa (still the incumbent since 2006), who actually sides with the victims in this case, so the company is now calling him a socialist and urging the United States government to cut all diplomatic ties. It was somewhat confounding to see press conferences set up in the middle of a jungle, where native people are displaying demonstration-style photos of their sick or dead children while both Fajardo and a local Chevron attorney accompany a judge to various inspection sites where water and mud samples are taken, usually accompanied by several dozen locals witnessing the proceedings, so as the lawyers are making their legal arguments to the judge and the cameras, they are also playing to the people who happen to live there, with both sides continually trying to persuade them. This kind of Greek chorus was fascinating, as they are usually a speechless and unseen human life force with little power or influence, yet in this film they’re hearing the arguments of what could turn out to be one of the cases of the century.
One of the saddest parts of the story, especially seeing how raw and primitive the conditions are living in a tropical jungle, is generating publicity to famous American celebrities who can raise money in behalf of their cause. This part of the story is really pretty sickening, but absolutely essential, as Chevron’s legal strategy has been to prolong and postpone the process until they force the other side to go bankrupt. So fundraising is essential, like a political campaign, which is simply not a natural part of any native person’s life and must seem just as strange and foreign as the oil industry itself, who brought strange explosions and excavation into what was otherwise a pristine jungle where they had been perfectly suited for centuries to live off the land. When Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting and co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation shows up in the jungle, having read a 2007 story for Vanity Fair, a cover story article on the history of the case, and she professes solidarity with the indigenous people, needing a translator, of course, to express her sentiments, one gets a sense of theater and manipulation, which only escalates when Fajardo is flown into New York City for a Sting rock concert promoting their own environmental organizations, all set to a Police performance where we hear the constant refrain repeating over and over again, “Sending out at an S.O.S.” All in all, the comprehensive picture shown here is meticulously detailed, where we hear the mouthpieces on both sides, but the ravaged earth and native people, powerfully silent throughout, are easily the most eloquent spokespersons as we are able to see how their lives have been uprooted from anything resembling normalcy to a point where their survival as a species, both the rainforest and its inhabitants, are both in jeopardy.
On February 14, 2011, an Ecuadorian judge awarded an $8 billion penalty against Chevron, the largest environmental penalty ever awarded, along with an additional $8 billion if Chevron did not promptly issue an apology for despoiling areas around drilling sites once operated by Texaco, which since has been bought by Chevron. The oil company refused, quickly filing an appeal, claiming that “by imposing this award, the court, in effect, penalized Chevron billions of dollars for exercising its fundamental right to defend itself,” calling the ruling “illegitimate and unenforceable,” also filing suit against the plaintiffs for racketeering, which targets not only lawyers, but indigenous persons named within the lawsuit. The award was reduced to $9.5 billion on November 12, 2013 by the Ecuadorean National Court of Justice, the nation’s highest tribunal, which amounts to almost half of Chevron’s 2013 profit.
On March 4, 2014, Chevron Corporation won a U.S. judge’s ruling that a multibillion-dollar pollution judgment issued in Ecuador was procured by fraud, as U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York said he found “clear and convincing evidence” that a 2011 judgment on behalf of rain forest dwellers in the country’s Lago Agrio area was secured by bribing a judge with a promise of $500,000 from the proceeds and ghostwriting the ruling, and that attorney Steven Donziger’s legal team used bribery, fraud and extortion in pursuit of an $18 billion judgment against the oil company issued in 2011. The villagers had said Texaco, later acquired by Chevron, contaminated an oil field in northeastern Ecuador between 1964 and 1992. Ecuador’s high court cut the judgment to $9.5 billion last year. At a six-week trial last year, Chevron accused Donziger of fraud and racketeering and said Texaco cleaned up the site, known as Lago Agrio, before handing it over to a state-controlled entity. The judge said Texaco, and by extension Chevron, “might bear some responsibility” for pollution at the site but that it was irrelevant to the question of whether fraud had occurred. “Justice is not served by inflicting injustice,” Kaplan wrote. “The ends do not justify the means. There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct.”
Chevron Corporation is now seeking $32.3 million in legal fees from Steven Donziger and others who this month who were found by a judge to have used fraud to obtain a multibillion-dollar pollution judgment against Chevron in Ecuador, claiming it spent more than $10 million gathering evidence to build the racketeering case against Donziger. A lawyer for Donziger, Deepak Gupta, said Chevron’s “eye-popping” fee request was a “transparent attempt” to intimidate anyone who might be thinking of suing the company for wrongdoing. In a recent court filing, Chevron said the $32.3 million in fees included 36,837 hours billed by its lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Randy Mastro, the lead lawyer for Chevron, most recently billed at a rate of $1,140 an hour, the filings show. Mastro was hired in January by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to conduct an internal inquiry into the scandal involving lane closings at George Washington Bridge. Gupta, Donziger’s lawyer, said Donziger could not pay the fees. “Steven is a solo environmental lawyer who works from the kitchen table of his apartment,” Gupta said. “Chevron knows he can’t actually pay those fees -- and that’s the point.”
The Ecuadoreans have sued Chevron in Brazil, Argentina, and Canada, where the company has assets that can be seized. The Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled in December 2013 that the 47 villagers have the right to pursue Chevron’s Canada assets. The other cases are pending.