Thursday, February 9, 2012

oil in ecuador

A few weeks ago we were asked to research historical and/or current events in our field study area. I decided to look at the issue of oil extraction in the rainforest. I'm sorry to say that I was almost entirely ignorant on this subject before going there last year, and picked up only the faintest understanding of the situation while I was there. One thing that makes it difficult to get into this for me is that the situation is obviously complex, and it's difficult to dedicate time learning about a chaotic, real-world issue that I know I will likely never understand. It has taken me so long learn about this, to sift through the information and think it over, and I still feel wildly uninformed.

When I went to look for more information about this topic I first encountered two types of sources: one was news articles like this from the BBC and this from the WSJ, mainly aimed at describing the state of the legal battle between Chevron and Ecuador wherein Ecuador claims billions of dollars in damages and wants Chevron to clean up toxic waste that was left by Texaco (recently acquired by Chevron) between 1972 and 1992. It turns out that an Ecuadorean court and a US court both agreed with the plaintiffs, but Chevron has vowed to keep fighting. That's interesting for some legal and expository info, but what is really going on? I mean in the rainforest, not just in the judicial system.

The second type of source I found was the websites of the ChevronTóxico campaign (along with other sites like AmazonWatch) and the Chevron company website's page about the controversy. Here I can see that both sides have a very obvious bias, yet my instinct is definitely to side with the environmental and health concerns of indigenous people as portrayed in videos like this one: Carmen Zambrano es una de las 30.000 afecta[da]s por Chevron-Texaco en Ecuador. (The film medium brings a new element into the discussion as well, which I will try to come back to in a minute.)

They seem to have ample evidence of the negative effects of toxic pollution in the area, but what of Chevron's claim that Texaco already spent time and money to clean up the area and that the evidence against them was fabricated? For example, I found this opinion piece from the Miami Herald cited on Chevron's website. The article looks at ties between documentary filmmakers and political activists involved in the issues they report on in order to condemn the filmmakers. But the documentarians have to have some sort of connections to the issue in order to be aware of its existence and/or gain access to film people about it, right? (I already have problems with documentaries as research, obviously I prefer a more academic method, perspective, and presentation--film's just too strong--but anyway.) The article specifically mentions Crude*, a documentary about the situation in Ecuador whose director has strong ties to the lawyers on Ecuador's side of the case. There is also an allegation that the lawyers were filmed in situations of "startling legal misconduct" and now Chevron is demanding more of the raw footage from the film to be used as evidence against those lawyers.

Speaking of film, I also had a little bit of a suspicious reaction to this ChevronTexaco PSA, a commercial that is more than a little over the top but the same heavy-handedness helped me become aware of the strong emotional arguments and images that are being used to convince me of Chevron's sins.

So just for a moment I want to do a thought experiment and try to see Chevron's side. Are corporations like people (as Mitt Romney and others would claim)? Probably not, but there are people within the corporation who really believe the story that they are presenting to the world. They really feel embattled as a result of all this bad press and they probably truly believe that they have done their best, or at least fulfilled their obligations in handling the cleanup. I think it would be very difficult for a company to act ethically and also to be competitive in the industry. Ethical action would require so much foresight, by just the right people within the organization, and it would be difficult to understand the ramifications of contamination that's happening on another continent and in a rural area. But there are communities in the rainforest, and if they have been effected it should not make a difference that no one at Chevron knows these people personally.

I think that the representatives of the Chevron company honestly are not so blind as to believe everything they say, but based on the strength of the accusations against them I can see why they make such strong statements in return. So as terrible the decision is (can I still vacillate and say may be?), I can see why the corporation is choosing to act in this manner.

Another headache-inducing element to the problem is that both sides are using science as their argument for contamination/lack thereof, with Chevron representatives looking straight into the camera talking about "NO evidence" and the Amazon Watch website citing "overwhelming proof." Not much I can do about that, I'm not an environmental scientist and I don't have access to the studies to examine them anyway.

So now that I've looked into it a little bit more I realize another part of why this is so overwhelming to me that I haven't taken the time to educate myself more about it before. In fact I don't keep up with world events or political occurrences very carefully these days either. It's not just that thinking and reading about these things is emotionally painful, although that's an unpleasant side effect as well. (Especially when watching video footage that effectively manipulates emotions..) It's because I have a hard time knowing what to do with this knowledge. I feel helpless. It's hard enough in this case to decide that I agree with one side or the other, but then what? Just knowing that indigenous amazonian peoples are suffering because of this pollution doesn't fix it, and honestly neither would Chevron paying them lots of money. Is it my responsibility to sign a petition to tell Chevron how I feel? Or to become a lawyer so that I can be more active in defending cases like this? Honestly I couldn't, but it's a valid crusade for some.

I still have no clear answer as to which side is right, because it's entirely likely that there is some exaggeration on both sides though I can see why each feels the need to make their arguments outside my frame of what constitutes fair play or "truth." I can see how this is entirely a reflection of my own personality and thought process as well, being completely concerned with objectivity, relating to each perspective, etc etc and it can be a really paralyzing way to go about thinking.

And now I should tie this back into my field work. This issue is pertinent because a threat to any indigenous people is also a threat to their culture, their way of life and all of the knowledge that exists in their worldview and which can't be found anywhere else. Again, knowledge which can't be found anywhere else. I stress this because the idea of losing knowledge and culture and human diversity is about more than individual people passing away or (more commonly) changing lifestyles, knowledge is a resource for all of humanity just like the medicinal plants of the rainforest that these people know so much about. So the issue of oil exploitation, contamination, mining (a more neutral word) in Ecuador is relevant to my field study because it helps me build the case of endangerment, which is a common argument for the importance of studying indigenous/minority languages and one I wholeheartedly agree with.

And as for what to do with this knowledge in terms of my field work, this is probably easier to figure out than what to do with it in general. Now I am aware of indigenous attitudes about the situation I am already in on a conversation that I might hear a lot while in the field. I am aware of an issue that may be causing people to move out of the forest, that may be affecting the health and survival of their families and that may affect their ideas about Americans and Corporations in very direct ways. A little bit of empathy for their situation, and maybe even some shared anger, could go a long way in the right social situation. (And don't get me wrong, for all of my tepid-ness about declaring an opinion here I can still feel plenty of outrage on the subject so it wouldn't be insincere.)

*Trailer for Crude. By the way the indigenous lady singing in the trailer is not singing in Quechua but is probably Achuar or Jivaro and the singing style is similar to Runa ladies, which I think is interesting. Evidence of area-based rather than language-based cultural similarities.

PS one last interesting article that raises a whole host of others issue for me- like what about Ecuador's oil as a natural resource that the country (and its people) needs? When I was there the price of gas was artificially low due to government subsidies, and it seemed to be a real help to the economy (plus as students, we didn't mind how cheap it was to travel by bus or taxi). So how and why is the state supposed to go about resisting the urge to make use of its resources? And since the issue affects matters of biodiversity that are relevant to the planet as a whole, what responsibility do other people and countries have in this issue?

No comments:

Post a Comment