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Monday, November 10, 2008

New Photo Book Proves That Chevron Caused Ecuador’s “Amazon Chernobyl”

From Ecoworldly,

By Levi Novey, October 24th, 2008.

“We often hear of environmental catastophes but almost never meet the people who suffer the consequences.”

An Ecuadorian boy with a serious birth defect

Using photographs to illustrate their subject, Dematteis and fellow scribe/photographer Kayana Szymczak present a damning case against Chevron, whose oil operations and despicable waste disposal practices from the 1960s onward have devastated the northeast region of Ecuador. The health problems and catastrophic destruction caused by Chevron’s pollution of the rainforest is now referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl.” Chevron dumped waste oil in unsealed pits, burnt it into the air, and put it on roads to keep down dust. The company’s other option would have been to pump the waste back into the ground, something that it was already doing in the United States– in fact, Chevron was the first company to adopt the practice.

An Ecuadorian Woman Stands by an Open Waste PitWithout sentiment, Crude Reflections presents the gruesome evidence of human suffering that is occurring in Ecuador. This indictment is crucial now, right as Chevron tries to weasel their way out of facing a major court decision that has been in the making since a case was first opened in 1993 against them by Ecuadorians. The verdict will justifiably announce the company’s wrongdoing to a world audience and possibly bankrupt it as well.

Stories like those of Jairo Yumbo (pictured at top) show how immediate and serious the pollution and health problems have become. Jairo’s father, a coffee and cocoa farmer, explains that a stream near his house that his family uses for drinking and bathing water is polluted with crude. His son was born with a deformed hand that doctors told him was a direct result from the pollution. When he took Jairo to a clinic run by Chevron “they said that his hand had nothing to do with the oil, that it was a result of a medicine we took to stop having children. We never took any medicine, but I preferred not to say anything; I just left. The oil company people always become angry if we said anything or complained.”

Jairo so far has been much luckier than countless others. Crude Reflections does not spare its readers from the inconvenient truths that might make some close the book in disgust or put it down with depression at the agony they see. Many of the people featured in the book have died from cancer and horrible birth defects, including some children as young as 12 years old. It is no wonder that Ecuadorian’s have sued Chevron (formerly known as Texaco) in the aforementioned class action suit that includes 30,000 plantiffs in 80 communities and five indigenous groups.

Some Notes and Thoughts about the Photos Themselves

The photos that the authors use to illustrate the demise of Ecuadorian adults and children –as well as the destruction and gross contamination of Amazon Rainforest–as a generalization, are not intended to be artistic. They are simple and get their point across without overstatement. Many are portraits. And some of the most interesting photos are of individuals from indigenous groups that are fighting to protect their tribal lands from oil development.An Ecuadorian Man Dying of Cancer

Some of the photos that we see show people days before they died– something not meant in bad taste, just as coincidental and truly representative of the horrific intensity of health problems caused by toxic materials. Angel Toala is one of these people (pictured right). He died of stomach cancer just one day after the photo you see here was taken.

Those photos that are meant to be artistic intentionally, such as one of actress Daryl Hannah standing poignantly in front of an oil pit with crude spewing down her arm, instead seem out of step with the book’s otherwise consistent regard to depict people and landscapes directly without influence.

While you might be thinking that the book is filled from front to end with doom and gloom, this is not the case. The book also includes photos that show resistance and strength. Protest marches against Chevron are depicted, as well as a few other efforts to promote awareness of the catastrophe in an empowering manner.

A Few Criticisms of the Book

Crude Reflections is not a perfect book, as few are. An introduction penned by both the popular musician Sting and his wife seems distracting (although on my second read of the book I found it more tolerable). Even though their words and message are on target and appropriate, there is something that doesn’t seem quite right in this case about using their celebrity to help engage readers with the material– the subject is shocking and important enough to care about on its own merits.

The organization of the book could also be improved. It does not have sections, and at times seems to meander along without a clear destination. It is repetitive and gets somewhat lost when it begins to cover various indigenous groups, whose connections to each other aren’t always clear. While the implicit argument for protection of cultural diversity is made, it is never really stated concisely why it is terrible that some indigenous cultures might disappear in Ecuador. Even though we intrinsically know that death of cultures is bad, the book spends enough time on the topic of indigenous groups that it should be explained more thoroughly and with greater care.

The conclusion of the book presents material about the environmental importance of the Amazon rainforest powerfully. This information should actually be in the introduction, rather than at the end of the book. Here are several key segments of the concluding text that help drive home the utilitarian value of the rainforest for those who perhaps aren’t persuaded by other reasons for its stewardship:

In 2.5 acres of pristine rainforest in northeastern Ecuador, there are as many tree species as are found in all of North America…Consider that one-quarter of all modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plants in the rainforest, from an area covering less than 7 percent of the earth’s surface. Currently, less than 1 percent of rainforest plants have been studied for their medicinal properties…The entire system is now at risk of collapse.

This same information receives an earlier mention in the book, but is easily missed. It should be provided upfront.

A Final Note about Chevron’s PR Pushback

Some of the best features of Crude Reflections are that it is in both Spanish and English, and that it only takes about an hour to read through with a thorough study of the images. This is especially important because it ensures a larger audience who can tell the story of what has actually happened in Ecuador. Chevron, on the other hand, has launched a substantial effort to say that the Ecuadorians are suing the company for greedy reasons that have no merit.

The company recently tried and failed to get the Bush Administration to urge Ecuador’s government to drop the legal case being waged against the company, by blackmailing Ecuador with the potential threat of dropping certain trade preferences the country receives. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, and Ecuador recently voted on a new constitution. The affirmative vote has made Ecuador the 1st country in the world to legally grant nature rights via its Constitution.

Chevron has even had an internet troll make comments on EcoWorldly, trying to say that the information we are providing about the company’s role in the Amazon is untrue. The Amazon Defense Coalition has reported recently that a San Francisco based employee of the company is writing pro-Chevron articles for wide distribution on a website, without disclosure that he works for Chevron (perhaps this is the person who is visiting our website). For these reasons, please be aware that Chevron would like you to think that the case against them is a fraud and a conspiracy.

It’s not.

If Crude Reflections serves a greater purpose beyond showing us the faces of people who have suffered the consequences of an environmental catastrophe, that purpose is proving Chevron’s guilt in causing it to happen.

Images from the book courtesy of authors, Lou Dematteis and Kayana Syzmczak.

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