David vs. Oil-iath

By Elizabeth Palmberg 10-06-2009

I just saw a really good movie in which an overweight, pasty-looking guy makes outrageous statements related to capitalism. No, it's not Michael Moore -- rather, it's a flack for Chevron, standing in the middle of the Ecuadoran rainforest telling a judge that his company is not responsible for all the black sludge poisoning the indigenous communities there for the last several decades. The documentary is called Crude, and it's about said poisoning: More oily pollution was dumped in that rainforest by Texaco (now owned by Chevron) than was spilled by the Exxon Valdeez.

Some 30,000 indigenous and other rural Ecuadorans are suing Chevron for all the cancer, other diseases, and environmental devastation they are suffering, and -- in a feature of the Ecuadoran justice system that was, surprisingly, not created by some special patron angel of documentary filmmakers -- the judge and lawyers in the case all headed out to the area in question, viewed by various national media and a documentary film crew, to make observations and arguments in the field.

I was particularly impressed by Pablo, the lead Ecuadoran attorney for the plaintiffs, who came from the affected area, saw the contamination as a teenager when he was working in the oil fields, then got a law degree with a scholarship from the Catholic church, and has continued working on the case six days a week despite the murder of his brother, apparently by persons upset about the Chevron lawsuit. (The seventh day of the week, Pablo works offering free legal aid to the poor).

And I was also impressed by the 18-year-old girl who, like so many in her community, is suffering from cancer. In an attempt to help pay for her chemotherapy, she must work in the fields before taking an 18-hour bus trip to get each treatment.

I was not so impressed by the portly Chevron lawyer who, standing next to a pond where Chevron-Texaco and no one else had put oil overflow for years, made speeches claiming that his corporate masters are being treated unfairly. (The backdrop for all of this, of course, is populism. Chevron is afraid that, under President Correa, they won't be able to influence the judge in their own behalf.) To see Chevron's lawyers, speaking right after Pablo's impassioned words on behalf of the marginalized, try to apply a similar rhetorical fire to their own wildly opposite ends is truly surreal.

The lawsuit is still pending -- Chevron's strategy all along has been to delay as long as possible in the hopes that the Ecuadoran lawyers will not be able to carry on (and that the U.S. lawyers who took the case on contingency will get tired). The latest twist: After working for years to get the case transferred from U.S. courts to Ecuador, Chevron is now trying to use the investor-state provisions of a trade agreement to pin any liability on the Ecuadoran government, claiming that the Ecuadoran courts can't be trusted. (This is yet another example of why investor-state litigation provisions are a lousy idea that rich corporations use to try to push around small countries).

Spoiler alert: the case is still pending. It's a cliffhanger I really want to see turn into a happy ending.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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