Wednesday, August 11, 2010

trouble in the jungle

Okay, boys and girls, time for a quiz. Your question for today: What's the worst oil spill you can think of?

Did you say Exxon Valdez? Oh, sorry, no. In the grand scheme of things, the estimated 30 million gallons it released into Alaska's Prince William Sound are chump change. Try again! Okay, the Deepwater Horizon disaster must have been worse, you're thinking. And you are correct. But even this year's catastrophe—which, depending on who you ask, leaked anywhere from 206 million to 348 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico—pales in comparison to a systematic leaking of some 18 billion (with a "b!") gallons' worth of petroleum-infused toxic waste into the waterways and soils of the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest over the past 30-odd years.

Known to many as the Amazon Chernobyl, this horrid large-scale spill has poisoned once-pristine rivers and vegetation, killed untold millions of animals, and plagued thousands of Ecuadorian and indigenous peoples with various types of cancers, birth defects, and other ailments. Of course, with all the pollution taking place in a relatively remote jungle over several decades in a country you probably can't even place on a map, it'd be no surprise if you'd never heard of this environmental catastrophe. Well, you have now. Keep reading.

I learned about the calamity affecting the Ecuadorian region of Lago Agrio (Spanish for "sour lake") through a documentary released last year—and available now on DVD—called Crude. The film charts the struggles of some 30,000 Ecuadorians and indigenous peoples who've banded together to file a class action lawsuit against the Chevron Corporation, owners of the former Texaco, who were the initial drillers of oil in the 1,700-square-mile Lago Agrio area. The suit charges that Chevron should be forced to pay an estimated $9 billion—about two weeks' worth of their annual revenue—to clean up the contamination caused by Texaco's lingering oil pits and install new water systems.

Of course, prosecuting one of the wealthiest and most powerful companies on the face of the planet ain't easy—and Chevron is playing hardball. The script of this true-to-life drama has Michael Clayton written all over it, with corporate finger-pointing, alleged assassination attempts, and legal shenanigans the likes of which U.S. courts could only dream of (the case is being tried in the perpetually corrupt Ecuadorian legal system). At the end of the day, it's impossible not to take sides with the individuals who have no choice but to consume their polluted waters and face the consequences: a destitute mother who struggles to come up with the money to pay for cancer treatments for her teenage daughter; a baby, not two weeks old, covered head to toe with a dangerous skin rash common among those exposed to polluted waters; even a poor white goose, whose intake of oily water has clearly affected her nervous system to the point where she's paralyzed, webbed feet flailing in the air, staring at the cameraman with the look of certain death in her eyes.

The picture is grim, and it's an uphill battle for these folks, yet the film suggests some hope. One ray of light comes in the form of a Vanity Fair article, which exposes the issue, at least temporarily, in its high-profile pages. Another comes from Trudie Styler, wife of the rock star Sting, who teams up with her husband to raise awareness and money for the victims of the Lago Agrio disaster. As the film shows, their case has become a veritable David-versus-Goliath scenario, with no immediate end in sight. But with a scrappy legal team led by the feisty Ecuadorian prosecutor Pablo Fajardo and a savvy New York litigator, Steven Donzinger, it's still within the realm of possibility that David may actually win...if the trial ever ends. Anyway, check out the links below if you'd like to learn more. &infin

If you've got 10 minutes: See the 2005 New York Times op-ed about the Lago Agrio disaster and/or Trudie Styler's call-to-arms in the Huffington Post. You might also try this more recent article in the British Independent, or make a quick visit to the watchdog site ChevronToxico, which is devoted to the issue.

If you've got 15 minutes: Watch the 60 Minutes segment on the Chevron lawsuit.

If you've got 30 minutes: Read Vanity Fair's tell-all article about the lawsuit, from its 2007 Green Issue.

If you've got 100 minutes: Here's the website for the Crude documentary; it's also available on Netflix or for purchase from Amazon.

Images by the Rainforest Action Network on Flickr


  1. Wow. First I've heard of it. Thanks for spreading the word.

  2. Anonymous8:45 PM

    That's pretty amazing! And, apparently, the story has been around some time. So, how come most people haven't heard about it? It should be on page 1 everywhere. Well done, Maia!


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