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The movie follows the process of a lawsuit undertaken on behalf of the people of the Amazon in Ecuador. The complaint from the perspective of the communities is that water pollution caused by oil leaks has caused environmental damage and diseases within the communities. The contaminations took place due to petroleum extraction initiated by Texaco in 1959. Texaco is now owned by Chevron. The debate in the movie is about 1) the cause of diseases amongst communities, extinguishing fish, cultural degradation and polluted water and 2) about who is responsible for this cause (the national petroleum company of Ecuador, Texaco or Chevron).


Oil, gas and mining companies are typically required to develop a ‘closure plan’. The closure plan includes a monitoring and maintenance plan that will monitor performance during and post closure of extraction activities.  In many areas, much of the risk for companies is associated with the uncertainty of the requirements for closure and rehabilitation from the succeeding custodian (be it a government agency, community organizations or corporate entity). Early identification of the succeeding custodian, and their involvement in the development of the closure plan enables the closure requirements to be established and agreed in the closure plan. In order for regulators, mining companies and society to evaluate the success and reliability of closure measures and the relative and cumulative impacts of a mine post closure, criteria are typically applied to 'test' the performance of those measures. The assessment criteria, as to what constitutes 'a reasonable level of post closure social, environmental and aesthetic impact, land use, active and/or passive care, costs and environmental risk' will differ for the various stakeholders with interests in the extractive operations and the surrounding impacted region. Definition of appropriate indicators and assessments of the appropriate criteria, for each of these indicators, must be made during closure planning in order to form a basis for decision-making.


Indicators are often related to:

• Surface and groundwater quality and impacts on the receiving environment

• Long term stability and erosion of structures that will remain on the site

• Land use and post closure aesthetics

• Social and economic impacts related to a potential reduction in economic potential of an area and the potential long term burden placed on future generations related to post extractive operations maintenance

• Economic consequences to both the company and financial stakeholders of closure costs

The conceptual closure plan should identify the types of monitoring programs that may have to be instituted to allow verification that the closure planning process is meeting pre-selected goals. Monitoring programs can be determined under two categories: environmental monitoring and socio-economic monitoring. Both need to establish:

• Baseline conditions;

• A quantification of changes that might occur as a result of environmental and societal evolution without the oil, gas or mining operation;

• A quantification of changes that might occur as a result of the operation;

• How progression towards goals can be measured; and

• How the achievement of goals can be demonstrated.


In the movie we see communities monitoring impacts, companies monitoring impacts, and ‘independent’ auditors monitoring impacts. These monitoring efforts all produce different results and are measured against different indicators. Environmental monitoring is a task that often requires the use of independent experts. That does not mean, however, that communities cannot witness the measurements being taken. It is also important to agree upon who conducts the monitoring, and who pays for the monitoring efforts. In the movie we see ‘independent’ monitors being paid by the companies and not trusted by the

Yes, like many films of the genre, CRUDE is about the environmental and health effects of an extractive company’s operations on indigenous people (if the American residents of the woods of Pennsylvania can be considered indigenous, that is). But an advocacy film it isn’t! CRUDE could play as well in an environmental CSO gathering as it would in any MBA classroom or Washington law firm or London PR agency, because CRUDE is most powerful as an exposition of legal/lobbying/communication strategy and tactics.

The film jumps into the middle of a protracted lawsuit by indigenous communities in Ecuador against Texaco (now Chevron) for environmental damage and negative health effects from the company’s operations. Led by Pablo Fajardo, the fearless and charismatic native son; advised by Steven Donziger, a lawyer operating our of a Manhattan apartment; championed by Trudy Styler, an actress and wife of the musician, Sting; and bankrolled by Joseph Kohn, a Philadelphia lawyer hoping to make some money of the settlement; the Cofan people bring their case directly to the Chevron shareholders’ meeting, ready with talking points and all. Against this relatively tiny team is Chevron’s army of super lawyers. The film takes us from the Amazon to Quito to Texas to New York as the drama unfolds and we are taken back to a media circus happening in the middle of the Amazon.

Compared to Gasland, which I saw last week, CRUDE is a much more mature film. Without taking on overt position or turning the characters into caricatures, the filmmaker carefully peels off the layers of the case and the personalities, giving the viewer the respect to draw his or her own conclusions. He uses clever juxtaposition of people’s words and visuals of the evidence—without being too clever. It would have been even better if the filmmaker had the same access to Chevron’s team as he did to the indigenous people. But there is little doubt what Chevron thinks of the leaders of the suit. The Chevron representative disparages them as greedy frauds in the media and in their faces: “This case is about two checks: one to the Amazon Defense Fund and one to the lawyers.”

The substantive issues raised are not new: environmental damage from operations, improper closure plans, lingering health effects. The film shows us some of the “effects” of Chevron-Texaco’s operations: shiny streams, dead chicken, people going to hospital for cancer. But I was left with a sense of so much missing information:

  • What is the evidence that those effects are a result of the petroleum production in the area?
  • As Chevron points out, the operation was handed over to the national oil company at some point. So what is their culpability and why are the plaintiffs not going after them too?
  • What was the agreement with the indigenous people before the production began? (For instance, the Chevron’s representative’s declaration that “people should not be living here!” may be insensitive, but the legal basis is important to know).

Of course one can’t cover too much scientific and legal detail in a two-hour film, but I wish the film had explored such questions more, just a little bit more, for me to feel it had done a fair job.

This past February, an Ecuadorian court slapped Chevron with $18 billion in damages. Of course Chevron is fighting the judgment. As the film states in the end, experts estimate that this case could go on for another decade. There’s just too much money to be paid out and too much money being made by lawyers.  

My favorite scene in the film is when Pablo Fajardo is invited to an environmental awareness concert by Sting in New York. As Pablo walks into the stadium, we see the logo for Hess in the background—as a sponsor. It was not clear whether it was sponsorship for the concert or the regular games played at the stadium, but to quote from one of my favorite TV shows of all time, The Wire, “the game is still

One of the paradoxes of modernity is that it masks the processes through which the trappings of modern life are delivered to us. The simple assumptions that are embedded in modern life usually mask the crude realities that real people and real nature are subjected to. The same is true of oil! We fly jet planes, drive automobiles, consume energy to heat our homes, and prepare our meals- we basically lead a modern life.  But within these banal routines are embedded crude assumptions about modern life. CRUDE is a documentary that unmasks all these myths. It is about real people, real nature, and the real cost that nature and humanity pays for some of us to enjoy modern life.

CRUDE is a powerful communication tool in shaking our consciences about oil. When Pablo Fajardo, an Equadorian -  himself initiated in the grotesque ecology of living and working in an extractive environment -  takes on the mighty US oil giant Chevron for a US Dollar 27 billion compensation suit, it is a classic David-Goliath contest. But unlike in classic epics, it is not the contrast of the main protagonists in the film that brings out its true message. It is the film’s candid and graphic portrayal of the real cost of oil – the dead chicken,  a dying duck, skin cancer-ed babies, lung cancer-ed teenagers , poisoned rivers,  the invisible dead fish, and it is how poor people are confronted with this reality everyday that shakes consciences. Does reckless capitalism have a conscience anyway? You do not see that in the words of Chevron’s aristocratic Equadorian lawyer, neither in the words of their head of environment and science, nor in the words of their US lawyer, who all vehemently deny what is obvious in the film. But seeing the natural beauty of the Amazon and its beautiful people, the contaminated soils, the tears, and hearing the nostalgia of the pre-Texaco days, the film requires no accusations or denials to see the truth – IT IS A SELF EVIDENT display of modern greed and exploitation, callous environmental degradation and the instrumentality of the extractive logic. The film’s strength lies in its genre – the documentary- with its power to directly tell the story from the “horse’s own mouth”. It’s not fiction, in which reality is represented.

There are a number of issues the film raises as well. Can poor people be mobilized to fight for their rights in the face of modern transnational capital? Pablo Fajardo’s activism indicates that it is possible. How can we effectively frame environmental activism and indigenous rights to nature? By demonstrating within our communicative tools the organic connection between humanity and nature as well as the graphic effects of extreme modernism.

But at some point one feels that the film is caught within the usual dilemma of how to communicate a global human interest story without succumbing to the dominant genres of storytelling that are obsessed  with individualism and stardom. Pablo Fajardo becomes the epitome of the struggling tribes in the Amazon, and turns into a star, temporarily masking the community frame with which the film starts us off. He rubs shoulders with rock stars, gives speeches on pedestals in world cities, and rides the presidential helicopter. It’s a typical Hollywood script that occasionally distracts from, and obscures the major theme of the film – how indigenous people’s lives that have organically subsisted and co-existed with nature for generations, are suddenly disrupted and periled by corporate greed and sometimes irrational propensity to extract without value to human existence. But all in all, the distractions are too minimal to obscure the overall power of the film.  It is simply CRUDE!