Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Avatar Director James Cameron on a Mission: Will He Support Real-life Ecuador Struggle Against Chevron?

A friend of mine, and a well-connected dude, sent me a cryptic email the other morning: "U need to talk to James Cameron."

Right, sure, I'll just give James 'King of the World' Cameron, director of runaway hit Avatar, a ring on his cell phone. I wrote a quick note back to my friend, assuming he had just seen Avatar and thought I should pitch Cameron on donating to Amazon Watch and our work supporting real-life indigenous struggles against corporate evil-doers. Okay, yeah, nice idea, but c'mon.

My friend called a few minutes later and told me that he somehow ended up at a little cocktail reception at the Four Seasons in New York, where Cameron was shmoozing Academy members ahead of the Oscars. Apparently, Cameron gave a powerful speech about how he's "on a mission" to support environmental causes. He specifically noted how moved and inspired he was by a screening of Avatar in Quito for a group of Shuar and Achuar indigenous leaders and community members from the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador – people that Amazon Watch and our allies have worked to support.

Then, last night at an event in support of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Cameron called himself "proudly anti-corporate" (which I must say is a bit tough to square with the Avatar-McDonald's tie-in campaign) and went on to say that “ ‘Avatar’ asks us all to be warriors for the earth.”

Avatar is a powerful allegory on the evils of war, corporate greed and exploitation, colonialism, and disconnection from the natural world. The Na'vi – an amalgamation of Western fantasies about indigenous cultures from the Amazon Basin to to Bali to the Great Plains of North America – fight back valiantly against the evil RDA corporation and its ruthless military force. And despite the cliché and patronizing narrative, Avatar has brought to the masses a popular film about awakening to the ills of rapacious capitalism, recognizing the inherent interdependence of the natural world, and defending the rights of its indigenous inhabitants.

Of course, Avatar has had plenty of critics, besides cranky right-wingers who are offended by its message, even though they haven't seen it. In an article entitled 'When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like 'Avatar'?,' technology and culture critic Annalee Newitz calls it a "rehash of an old white guilt fantasy." She writes,

"This is a classic scenario you've seen in non-scifi epics from Dances With Wolves to The Last Samurai, where a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member."

But others have a different take. In a widely-circulated article on Huffington Post, Josh Schrei writes about some of the parallels between Avatar and real-life indigenous struggles. And guest-blogging at Mother Nature Network, environmental activist and producer Harold Linde asks, "Is Avatar radical environmental propaganda?" (the answer is yes, which is a good thing.) And a number of organizations who work to advance indigenous rights and defend against corporate pillage of indigenous resources are trying to get the director's attention.

The latest push is from our friends at Rainforest Action Network (RAN), who are reaching out through online social media like twitter and facebook to encourage people to ask Cameron to speak up for the indigenous people and peasant farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon whose rainforest home was ravaged and poisoned by oil giant Chevron.

RAN's new Acting Executive Director Becky Tarbotton has an article on San Francisco Chronicle's City Brights blog. The title is the same as the tweets I've been seeing going around, 'I want Avatar Oscar speech to mention real-life Ecuador struggle against Chevron'

Some film geeks are debating about whether James Cameron should win Best Picture or whether his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow deserves it for The Hurt Locker, a very different film than Avatar. But Avatar has a bunch of nominations and Cameron will likely take to the stage at least a handful of times on Oscar night.

As Becky writes, "What if in his acceptance speech James Cameron mentioned the real-life Indigenous Ecuadorean heroes who are battling the real-life Chevron bad guys?" It would be a big boost to the campaign to hold the company accountable and demand justice for the people of Ecuador.

You can help make it happen. Read Becky's article to learn how:

By Becky Tarbotton

Once upon a time there was a movie.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world saw this movie. They were transported to the beautiful jungles of Pandora and introduced to the blue Na'vis and the evil RDA corporation.

Avatar (or unil-tìran-tokx in Na'vi) has been nominated for 9 Oscars. James Cameron, its infamous creator, has explicitly said he wants the highest grossing film in history to inspire mass environmental activism.

Fast forward to March 7. You're watching the Oscars and Avatar wins.

What if in his acceptance speech James Cameron mentioned the real-life Indigenous Ecuadorean heroes who are battling the real-life Chevron bad guys?

Retweet and help make it happen! I want Avatar director James Cameron to mention real-life Ecuador struggle against #Chevron at #Oscars:http://bit.ly/aOwuNI #realavatar

If James Cameron called out Chevron in his Oscars speech a world transfixed by this film phenomenon could take off the 3D glasses and step into a reality where they can make a difference.

The story of Chevron in Ecuador is no less dramatic, tragic, or inspiring than the fantasy world of Pandora.

The location: Avatar takes place in the beautiful jungles of Pandora where communities have been living in harmony with the Earth for centuries. Much like the communities depicted on Pandora, the Indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest relied on the Earth for clean water, healthy food and cultural heritage. They understood the secrets and medicines the forests held, and how invaluable it is to protect those ecosystems.

Enter the RDA corporation on Pandora and the Chevron oil corporation in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador. RDA built an extraction base, just as Chevron (then Texaco) built the oil boom-town Lago Agrio in the 1960s. Both corporations proceeded to drill like there was no tomorrow with no regard for the health of the environment or the communities.

During decades of drilling, Chevron (then Texaco) left 17 million gallons of crude oil spills, 917 unlined crude pits, and 18 billion (with a "B") gallons on toxic waste-water. That is about 9 gallons of toxics for every dollar Avatar (the highest grossing film in history) has made so far.

The Characters: In the fantasy, the Na'vi sit on the most sought after resources on Pandora. In real life, the Ecuadorean communities once sat atop a vast deposit of highly sought after crude oil. The Indigenous communities in the region where Chevron (then Texaco) operated have lost 95% of their ancestral land due to the impact of oil operations. People are suffering from birth defects, illness, cancer, and now death.

The Corporation: The RDA Corporation in Avatar is a money hungry, by-all-means, at-all-costs company that will stop at nothing to get their hands on the minerals of Pandora. Chevron (then Texaco) operated on the same mandate. Both RDA Corporation and Chevron refuse to acknowledge basic human rights and use cut-and-run operations that leave communities devastated. Chevron (then Texaco) deliberately used methods that were illegal in the US, that they knew would harm people, but allowed them to save a few dollars.

The Villain: Every action movie needs a villain, but not every corporation needs one. Chevron's new CEO John Watson is not a military man in the way the Colonel Miles Quaritch is, and has the chance right now to change course, to be a different character, in this story, and right the wrongs of his predecessors. John Watson can listen to the Ecuadorean people and the global community and clean up Ecuador.

The Ending: Courageous Ecuadoreans have been struggling for decades to force Chevron to clean up its toxic legacy. They are fighting for their right to drink clean water, for their families, for their communities to be restored and healed and for their cultural survival. They protest at home, travel to the US to confront Chevron CEOs and board members, and 30,000 are engaged in the largest environmental lawsuit of all time- a $27 billion liability for Chevron.

If Director James Cameron accepts an Academy Award next month, he should also let his legions of fans know that while Pandora is fictional, what is happening to communities in Ecuador because of Chevron's actions is as real as it gets.

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Profile of Chevron Contamination Cancer Victim in Ecuador: Rosana Sisalima

The Chevron Pit blog has posted the second installment of "a series of personal stories about how the oil contamination left behind by Texaco [now Chevron] has impacted the people living near the oil company’s former oil sites" from the book 'Crude Reflections' by photographers Lou Dematteis and Kayana Szymczak.

Below is an interview with Rosana Sisalima who lived in San Carlos, in the Oriente region of Ecuador, near Texaco oil wells, and waste pits abandoned by Texaco (now owned by Chevron). She succumbed to uterine cancer in May 2006; her husband died of stomach cancer.

An excerpt from the interview:

We pleaded with the oil company to clean the pits, and they finally showed up, only to cover the pits with dirt. But in heavy rainstorms, the pits overflow and waste runs into the streams, contaminating them.
Uterine cancer victim Rosana Sisalima with her granddaughter at their home in San Carlos on November 24, 2004. Rosana succumbed to cancer in 2006. Photo by Lou Dematteis.

Transcription of an interview with Rosana Sisalima:

Our house is located between a [Texaco] toxic waste pit and an oil spill. There are three [Texaco] oil wells nearby. A big oil spill had just occurred when we moved here. The oil company burned the oil and there was smoke everywhere. The former owner of this farm died of stomach cancer three years after he sold it to us.

I’ve lived here for 22 years. I came with my husband and 10 children from Loja. We bought this farm which is surrounded by two [Texaco] open waste pits. So many animals fell in; chickens, dogs, watusas, rabbits. We pulled them out and cleaned them, but they were covered with sludge, and died anyway.

We pleaded with the oil company to clean the pits, and they finally showed up, only to cover the pits with dirt. But in heavy rainstorms, the pits overflow and waste runs into the streams, contaminating them.

We bathed in the river and got our drinking water there too.

We pushed the crude aside and dipped in our buckets, and we ate fish from that river. We never realized the river was contaminated.

I was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 1988. I went to Solca [the cancer hospital] and stayed there two months while they burned off the cancer until the doctor told me I was better.

My husband died of stomach cancer. He grew coffee, and worked almost until the day he died. One day he stopped eating. We went to the doctors and they operated but he had a malignant tumor and the cancer had already spread throughout his body. He was 64, so young.

I had a hysterectomy, then in 2004 gallbladder surgery. I had stomach aches, vomiting and diarrhea for over a year. I’ve been seriously ill. (Crying)

My children have helped me with medical costs. We sold our cattle, and we had to sell half of our farm, but I still don’t know how we’ll pay the rest.
Portrait of Rosana Sisalima at her home in San Carlos, May 2005. Photo by Kayana Szymczak.

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

CRUDE Wins Cinema for Peace's Prestigious International Green Film Award

Documentary film CRUDE took home the top prize at the prestigious Cinema for Peace awards gala in Berlin on Monday. Joe Berlinger's powerful film won the International Green Film Award, last night at the prestigious, which was presented by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Leonardo DiCaprio.

According to the Cinema for Peace Mission Statement, its aim is "to promote peace and international understanding through the medium of film." A story on online film news site Indiewire notes that Crude "may have been passed up in the latest rounds of Awards Season, but director Joe Berlinger received a high level round of recognition Monday night in the German capital." As Indiewire explains, "CRUDE profiles the case by tens of thousands of Ecuadorans against Chevron over contamination of the Ecuadorean Amazon." Congratulations to Joe and everyone else who worked on CRUDE!

Did you miss this award-winning film in theaters?

That's okay – Amazon Watch is teaming up with our allies at Rainforest Action Network to promote the upcoming DVD release, with house party-style screening events across the U.S.! We're encouraging our supporters to help organize hundreds of CRUDE screening parties across the U.S. in late March so please sign up to host a screening! We'll provide a free DVD of CRUDE and resources to help your event be easy, fun, and successful.

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The 'Chevron Pit' Pulls No Punches, Picks Apart Pate's Playbook

The 'Chevron Pit' blog posted a powerful new article today analyzing Chevron's use of increasingly desperate legal and public relations tactics in its legal fight to evade responsibility for poisoning the rainforest home of tens of thousands of people in Ecuador.

The post picks apart why exactly the oil giant would put its General Counsel Hewitt Pate "squarely in the middle of what should have been a low-level food fight between the long-warring parties" and wonders aloud "about the judgment of Chevron's legal department, where it seems to be a job requirement to prove your machismo through frontline interviews."

It makes for juicy reading, delving into the (not so-?) surprising background of Chevron's top lawyers, including Deputy General Counsel Jim Haynes, who the post characterizes as "one of the Bush Administration "torture lawyers" under potential indictment in Spain and now unable to travel abroad for fear of arrest." Ouch.

It is rather amazing that the San Francisco Bay Area-based business manages to project such a green granola image to its employees, customers, and the general public, when its General Counsel's office and executive leadership is filled with right-wing political ideologues. Of course, regardless of Chevron's public pronouncements, the communities in which it operates have unfortunately seen the company's true face all too often.

The post concludes in strident and indignant tones, which ring quite true to me:

Chevron must realize that the old days of using political influence to quash legal cases in far-flung countries is winding down. In Ecuador, those days are clearly over. In the United States, the method doesn't work. The fact Chevron uses its new general counsel's limited credibility to distort basic facts shows how "quaint" Chevron is compared to its industry peers, most of whom (perhaps not coincidentally) reported far better financial results last quarter. "Quaint" is how former Bush Administration lawyers such as Chevron's Haynes and Alberto Gonzales – folks who never served in the armed forces themselves -- used to describe the Geneva Conventions when justifying those "harsh interrogation tactics" that the world considered torture. Most Americans would consider such talk profoundly unpatriotic, but in Chevron's legal department that's probably what passes for typical chatter around the water cooler. That, and the excitement generated by the Sarah Palin sighting at the latest Tea Party convention.

Since lost lives don't seem to have much impact on the thinking at Chevron, how many billions of dollars will have to be garnished before Chevron's Board wakes up to this internal hazard?
Go read the whole thing, and keep a watchful eye out for retaliation from Chevron's ruthless legal and PR machine.

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

More Chevron Smoke & Mirrors in Ecuador's Courts - Will They Backfire?

Facing a judgment in a monumental lawsuit for massive contamination of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador, Chevron unveiled its latest smoke & mirrors sideshow yesterday. In another desperate attempt to delay and disrupt the judicial process in Ecuador, the oil giant filed a motion in Lago Agrio to strike the "Expert Examination" of the contamination and assessment of Chevron's liability, which was performed by the independent court-appointed Special Master, a geological engineer named Dr. Richard Cabrera. The motion also asks for the Expert Examination to be re-performed, which would extend the trial – now in its 17th year – several more years, at least.

Chevron variously misrepresents, omits, or twists critical facts about Dr. Cabrera, accusing him of concealing a conflict of interest from the court and from Chevron. The company says they have "newly discovered" evidence that Dr. Cabrera owns an oilfield remediation company and claims that he stands to benefit from a ruling against the company.

But Pablo Fajardo, the lead Ecuadorian attorney representing the 30,000 indigenous and campesino plaintiffs suing Chevron, says, "Cabrera disclosed to the court that he owned a clean-up company before his appointment as Special Master. This fact was properly cited by the court as one of the reasons he was qualified to do the damages assessment."

In a rebuke of Chevron's press release from the Amazon Defense Coalition, Fajardo responds with a few additional bullet points:

* Chevron thought so highly of Cabrera’s qualifications that it accepted him as a court-appointed expert in an earlier part of the case and paid his fees as required by court rules.

* The fact Cabrera’s company is qualified to bid on clean-up contracts offered by Ecuador’s state-owned oil company is irrelevant. That company, Petroecuador, is not a party to the case against Chevron and would have no role in any eventual cleanup.

* Cabrera by virtue of his role in the case would be barred from having a role in a future clean-up.

Included in Chevron's press release trumpeting their baseless claims about Cabrera are a number of points that the company has highlighted before. The Amazon Defense Coalition refutes the points one-by-one in a document posted here. I encourage you to read both, and attempt to decide for yourself.

Of course, having visited the region myself, spoken to local people, and having followed the tactics from both sides for years, I know where I come down. As far as I'm concerned, this is just the latest predictable tactic in Chevron's 'kitchen sink' strategy. In fact, yesterday's filing was the 29th official motion to disqualify Dr. Cabrera, each of which have been denied by the court. One has to wonder exactly what is the objective behind the lies and hollow legal motions.

With a growing horde of high-powered public relations firms and DC lobbyists enlisted in the fight to evade responsibility for its toxic legacy in the Amazon, it appears that this latest push has nothing to do with a legal strategy in Ecuadorian courts, and is aimed instead at smearing the Ecuadorian judiciary in the court of public opinion.

But on the same day as Chevron filed its motion in the rainforest oil town of Lago Agrio, the Republic of Ecuador filed a motion in U.S. federal court, seeking to stop Chevron from participating in international arbitration under the U.S.-Ecuador bilateral investment treaty. Chevron is trying to use this latest forum to shift liability for damages from its contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon to the government of Ecuador.

This motion by lawyers for the government of Ecuador refers to how Chevron (then Texaco) “agreed to satisfy any judgments in plaintiffs’ favor," in Ecuadorian courts, when arguing to move the legal proceedings from U.S. courts, where they were originally filed way back in 1993.

An Amazon Defense Coalition press release about the legal filing quotes the motion:
“The stark reality is the respondents (Chevron and its local subsidiary), having moved the case to Ecuador … are reneging on a key condition of the dismissal – their promise to satisfy any judgment. Not only are they refusing to satisfy a key condition… they are asking an not-yet-constituted arbitral tribunal to prevent the Ecuadorian court from deciding a case which it has been hearing for more than six years, by ordering the Republic to force its court to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims – all without the participation of the plaintiffs themselves.”
Writing about Chevron's attempt to take this case to arbitration on his International Business Law Advisor blog, attorney Santiago Cueto says that "Chevron’s global quest for a favorable forum is a text book example of abusive litigation."

Steven Donziger, attorney for the plaintiffs suing Chevron for clean-up and compensation says, “We believe all of these Chevron attacks will backfire against the company in a later enforcement action to collect on any judgment,” said Donziger. “Judges are not as naïve as Chevron seems to think they are.”

One attorney I spoke to with experience in similar kinds of litigation said that Chevron is trying to build a legal record to try and show that it didn't receive a fair trial in Ecuador, something the company will try to argue when it comes to enforcement of a judgment if they lose.

Another attorney I spoke to who has followed this case for years agreed. But he also thought Donziger's perspective could prove true, and used a similar term as Mr. Cueto, telling me that Chevron is building a "long record of cynical and abusive litigation." He told me that upon reviewing Chevron's "years of legal shenanigans," a judge in an enforcement action could be very cold to any attempts to argue that the company didn't receive due process, demanding the company shut up, clean up, and pay up.

But, as Rainforest Action Network's Brianna Cayo-Cotter concludes powerfully in her blog, it's about more than money:
This is about the children who are getting sick and dying because they are forced to drink poisoned water. This is about justice for the 1,400 people who have died of cancer. And for the families who were unfortunate enough to build their homes on dangerous oil pits that Chevron (then Texco) lied about properly cleaning up. This is about their right to drink clean water. A right that Chevron denies with every lie and legal trick.
We can expect to see more of these lies and legal tricks from Chevron's lawyers in the near future. But the oil giant's legal smoke and mirrors will do nothing to stop us from building an ever more powerful movement to convince the Chevron's leadership that it's time to try a new approach.

With the courage of the rainforest communities of Ecuador who keep fighting for justice, the new energy of Rainforest Action Network's new Change Chevron Campaign, and the powerful support of Avaaz's global network, the chorus demanding Chevron clean up its mess in Ecuador is growing louder by the day, and will soon be deafening.

Join us!

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tens of Thousands of Avaaz Members to Chevron: Clean up Your Toxic Mess In Ecuador!

Today, we're proud to announce that we've joined forces with global internet advocacy powerhouse Avaaz to distribute the international petition to the new Chevron CEO, calling for a cleanup of its toxic legacy in Ecuador. Avaaz has set a goal of gathering at least 100,000 additional signatures from people around the world.

Along with our allies at Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Amazon Watch released the petition and with Avaaz's help, we have now gathered well over 100,000 signatures. We'll deliver the petition and signatures soon and RAN is asking its supporters for ideas on how best to deliver the petition to the company to make the greatest impact.

If you haven't signed the petition already, please do so at the Avaaz site or on the website of Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador Campaign.

There you can watch a video from local residents of Ecuador's contaminated rainforest region, appealing to Chevron's new CEO John Watson to take a new approach in dealing with the human and environmental tragedy in the Amazon, and finally take responsibility. The video has been spreading far and wide too, and was highlighted the other day on GritTV with Laura Flanders.

– Han

Born and raised in Baltimore, Han Shan is a human rights and environmental justice campaigner living in New York City. He is an organizer with the Clean Up Ecuador campaign for Amazon Watch.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cancer Leads To Woman's Death After Living Near Chevron Oil Site For 30 Years

Modesta Briones

Reposted from The Chevron Pit

The Chevron Pit is featuring the first of many personal stories about how the oil contamination left behind by Texaco has impacted the people living near the oil company's former oil sites. Chevron purchased Texaco in 2001.

Their first story is about Modesta Briones, who passed away not long after she and her husband, Segundo Salinas, gave an interview to author Lou Dematteis for his book Crude Reflections (which includes many profound interviews as well as amazing photos and is available here).

Interview with Modesta Briones and her husband Segundo Salinas
Texaco Parahuaco Oil Well #2/ Parahuaco

Modesta Briones: It started with a little sore on my toe, which grew a bit larger. The water near my house, where I washed clothes, was full of crude and the sore grew bigger, as if the flesh were rotting. It didn't hurt, but I couldn't stand its stink. I had a fever and chills.

Segundo Salinas: In Quito they said it was a cancerous tumor, and they had to amputate her leg, or the cancer would spread throughout her body and she could die.

Modesta Briones: When the doctor told me he was cutting off my leg, I was so sick that I thought I was going to die.

He amputated, and the doctor said I should return for a checkup, but I haven't gone back because I don't have the money.

I'm having a hard time getting used to living without my foot. I can't walk with crutches. My husband, daughter and son help me, but it's a hardship for them. Now, I no longer leave the house. Since the operation, I've only left my house once, to request an I.D. card. After losing my leg, I regret moving to the Amazon, but what can one do?

Segundo Salinas: We've lived here some 30 years. We moved here looking for a better future because there was unoccupied land for sale at a good price.

Texaco had already drilled five oil wells. In those days, the oil companies didn't respect any laws. Nor did they respect us. They would say, "This is government land and we've made a deal with the government. And it doesn't include you, so leave." They would arrive, decide they wanted to drill somewhere, and then drill. They brought in machines and crushed our crops.

There are three toxic waste pits near my house, so many animals died. When my horses and chickens fell in, I pulled them out, but they stopped eating and died.

Some of the oil wells here have flares that burn off gas. The smoke rises, and when the rains come, black rain with a rusty smell falls back to earth, contaminating the land and the water.