‘You’d be in the middle of this dense rainforest and then you’d just come across these pits. Wastewater pits. The whole landscape’s just scarred with them. There’s foam and scum, and it reeks of oil. Some of them have been marked by danger signs, but the further you go, some of them aren’t. It was a fascinating experience, just to go and see the scale of it.’
So says Mark Donne, director of the short documentary The Afectados – ‘the affected ones’ – by independent filmmakers Brass Moustache. His interest was piqued when he heard about what Amazon Watch calls ‘one of the worst environmental disasters in history’, and wanted to find out why, unlike similar incidents such as the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he had never heard about this story before.
‘Looking into the case itself, you become so befuddled with just how litigious it is,’ he says, ‘with claims and counter-claims and governments and corporations and all of this high echelon activity. And the people at the bottom – the people that are actually living it – are still in the same position twenty-two years later.’
Specifically, the position is that (as explained in the film) indigenous people in the Ecuadorian Amazon are claiming to be suffering from such health issues as skin disorders, cancers and spontaneous miscarriages, after exposure to oil pits left following oil company Texaco’s withdrawal from the region in the early 1990s. This came after nearly 30 years of Texaco’s operations across ‘an area larger than Glasgow’, when billions of gallons of wastewater from the oil extraction process was supposedly dumped in local waterways, having hugely damaging impacts on both the local environment and the health of local people.
An Ecuadorian court initially awarded the afectados $18billion in clean-up costs and damages, reduced on appeal in 2011 to $9.5billion, and upheld by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in March this year. But Chevron denies responsibility, arguing that Texaco ran an approved programme to tie up their operations upon their exit from the country in the 1990s, as well as claims of corruption behind the original court decision in Ecuador.
Amazon Watch explains the situation as follows: ‘While drilling for oil in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest region, Texaco – which merged with Chevron in 2001 – operated without concern for the environment or local residents. The company deliberately dumped billions of gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, spilled millions of gallons of crude oil, and abandoned hazardous waste in hundreds of unlined open-air pits littered throughout the region. Due to Chevron’s toxic contamination of their soil, rivers and streams, and groundwater, local indigenous and campesino communities continue to suffer an epidemic of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and other ailments. Chevron has never carried out a meaningful clean up of the mess it is responsible for, and its infrastructure continues to poison the communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon.’
Donne and his team headed to the Educadorian Amazon, not – he says – to repeatedly point fingers, or to become distracted by the ongoing legal issues, but instead to hear from local people, and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions.
‘I anticipated that if we tried to something which was more straight documentary more straight journalistic,’ he explains, ‘we’d probably come up against the same type of intimidation that other journalists and outlets had come up against. Then you end up losing the essence of the story, because you spend so much time trying to placate the government’s side, or placate Chevron’s side, legally, that you don’t actually get anything said. So I decided not to say anything ourselves; just call the film The Afectados and talk to no one but the afectados.
‘It was quite difficult getting people to talk, because there have been various monitoring groups and legal representatives going down and trying to talk to people. It was tough getting people to agree to speak, and to get them recorded, to get them on camera. A lot of them were quite nervous about that.’
As Donne acknowledges, there is also a problem trying to separate issues with recent oil extraction – because the state-owned Petroecuador is still drilling where Texaco left off – from the historic incidents he was trying to talk about.
‘Quite often you’d talk to folk and they’d complain about the noise, or the smell of the oil extraction. That was fairly routine. But then there’s a different level of conversation when you begin to talk about – not so much the case itself – but if you mention Chevron-Texaco, then they all know about that. They’ll immediately start talking about how they treated the environment there; how they behaved, and how they behaved towards locals.’ He explains how, although he couldn’t get anyone to say so on camera, he heard stories of people being attacked, and even killed, for being too public with their complaints to the authorities.
‘There are lots of people involved, and in the middle of it all you’ve got these people who are living with this stuff on their doorsteps, with friends and family having different cancers and things. They’re quite defiant, they’re quite resilient; they just want justice. I think that comes across in the film – they’re pretty fed up. But there’s a weariness about them as well, they seem quite jaded in one regard.’
He developed an interesting style of structuring the piece, by splicing into the first-person interviews a reading of Pablo Neruda’s poem The United Fruit Company, from his 1950 book Canto General – as recited by Academy Award-winning actress Julie Christie.
‘I’m familiar with a lot of Neruda’s work and I knew that poem particularly well,’ says Donne. ‘It just really rang through to me, that idea of these marauding companies coming in and just leaving in their wake this destruction.’
Christie herself has commented on the parallels, stating: ‘I find it both striking and distressing that in 2015, a poem written by Pablo Neruda in 1950 can still be a fitting statement on the relationship between a transnational company and poor, indigenous Latin Americans.’
So what has the official response been?
‘Actually I was quite surprised,’ admits Donne. ‘When representatives of Chevron saw the film, I expected them to be far more vigorous. But actually they said “Well, the filmmaker has failed”. We’d “failed” as filmmakers, because if we were really concerned about spillages in the Ecuadorian Amazon we would have talked to the present people, Petroecuador, because they’ve spilt oil there too. It was a bit tepid to be honest. But the film itself has been really well received.’
Ultimately, Donne says he hopes to draw attention to the tough situation facing the afectados, and to make sure that the public eye is on the ongoing legal proceedings, to make sure that they aren’t abandoned to face their fate. Furthermore, he believes this case presents a unique chance for Chevron to gain some positive PR by fully accepting responsibility for the damages.
‘This is still a live opportunity for Chevron,’ he explains. ‘It is the third biggest company on Earth, it can easily do the right thing and just say “Look, this has gone on far enough. We can accept that while we disagree with x, y and z, these people are still suffering, it hadn’t been cleaned up, and as a gesture of goodwill we want to help with that”. It’s such an easy good news story for it.’
‘But of course, the afectados and other people would argue that they don’t want to do that, because then that could act as an example to other communities around the world who’ve had their environment and landscapes and human health impaired by dirty oil extractions. So they don’t want to have that kind of example.’