Crude, a documentary directed by Joe Berlinger, focuses on a law-suit in which the plaintiffs are Ecuadorians living in the Amazon rainforest. Crude highlights how communities living around Amazon suffer the consequences of oil extraction close to their households. The local communities have to endure a lot: from polluted water to cultural debasement and diseases such as cancer. The multinational company involved (Texaco/Chevron) has no respect for the people and their customs. The beautiful land is turned into a toxic wasteland where nothing can grow; the communities living around Amazon face extinction, along with flora and fauna. Analysis of the documentary “Crude” reveals the conflicts between ancient and modern ontologies, and the shift by modern powers to the use of “bio-power” and “coloniality” to advance their interests.
Crude can be analyzed explicitly using Michael Foucault’s ideas from the chapter “Right of Death or Power over Life” as outlined in the book “The History of Sexuality.” Mario Blaser’s ideas on the contrasts between modern and ancient ontologies as outlined in the article “The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program” would also be useful in analyzing the documentary. Lastly, Walter Mignolo’s ideas on coloniality as expressed in the book “The Idea of Latin America” also form the basis of the arguments in the paper.
As Michael Foucault states in the chapter “Right of Death or Power over Life”, the use of “bio-power” has been crucial in advancing capitalism, but with disregard to morality. “Bio-power” has given organizations the power to deprive life, control births and expose people to biological risks. The masters of “bio-power” use modern ontology to advance their perspective, while those enduring the power express ancient ontology. As Mario Blaser explains in the article “The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program” supporters of the modern ontology and supporters of ancient ontology thus differ when it comes to the exploitation and use of natural resources. The idea of exploiting other people’s resources at their expense smacks of what Mignolo calls coloniality (another essential tool in advancing capitalism). As the documentary (Crude) unfolds, all this concepts become evident, and in the long run, the Amazon Ecuadorians suffer the consequences.
For instance, viewers see a raw footage showing young children bathing in a river filled with oil slick. The film goes further to show babies affected by skin diseases and local fishermen having to eat fish imported from other areas. In the same scene, the viewers get to see ducks dying on river beds and rusting pipes leaking a mushy substance onto the earth. It is clear that Chevron extracted oil to benefit their consumers at the expense of the Amazonian flora, fauna and the people. The environment is in a deplorable condition, and the people pay the price. The justification for extracting oil while exposing others to biological dangers raises questions about why some people should benefit from a natural resource at the expense of others. It is evident that modern capitalism benefits some people, but heavily disregards morality. As Foucault argues, this is the new kind of power, the “bio-power”, and focuses on the management of life.
“Bio-power” has given organizations the right to determine life and death. The masters of this power have enacted a series of interventions and regulatory frameworks to consolidate it. As Foucault argues, the “bio-power” is necessary to advance capitalism because it guarantees hegemony and relations for domination. This is quite true in the documentary because the people feel helpless for the contamination of resources meant to help them. It is evident that the Chevron stockholders, Ecuadorian politicians and some American consumers benefited from the Amazonian oil, but only the Amazonian people have paid the price. Nonetheless, the use of power to dominate and oppress other people is not a new phenomenon.
Historically, societies used power as a means of deduction. It was “a subtraction mechanism and a right to appropriate a portion of wealth, a tax of products, goods and services, labor and blood, levied on the subjects” (Foucault 135). From time immemorial, nations waged wars to defend their sovereignty and mobilized “entire populations for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity and massacres became vital” (Foucault 135). However, in the recent past, deduction is no longer the number one choice while exerting power and influence. Modern powers have now shifted to the use of what Walter Mignolo calls “coloniality”. Before “coloniality” came into being, powerful regimes used colonialism to advance their interests.
Proponents of neoliberalism argued that, with free market economies, young nations would encourage the flow of investments into their countries. Foreign direct investments form the private sector would enable the countries to exploit their resources, increase productivity and improve the livelihood of their people. This is quite evident in the documentary, Crude, as Chevron, a multinational corporation, extracts oil from Amazon. However, this new concept has its own dark side as Mignolo reveals. Mignolo revels that advances in modernity rely on a colonial matrix of power which includes advocating social and economic reforms with minimal government interference. Although its evils are not explicit, it points an intention to “control, dominate and exploit, disguised in the language of salvation, progress, modernization and being good for everyone"(Mignolo 6). Therefore, those advancing modernity, cannot be separated from “coloniality” because it involves the idea of dominating the world while at the same time crushing any formidable opponents. The powers propelling “coloniality” use modern ontology to advance their perspective. On the other hand, the local people have their customs and traditions to maintain which creates a conflict of interest. This creates what Mario Blaser calls “a divide between ancient and modern ontologies”.
Blaser shows that the division between the modern ontology and the ancient ontology arises due to equivocation (a state miscommunication whereby the interlocutors do not talk about the same thing, and they do not realize this). Blaser came to this conclusion after years of studying the Yshiro people living in Paraguay. Before the 19th century, government involvement in the areas occupied by the Yshiro people was minimal. The Yshiro people relied on the logging industry to derive their livelihood, but after its collapse in the 1950s, they were left with no alternative means to fend for themselves. The government had sold the land around them, and this encouraged them to turn to commercial hunting. However, the government banned commercial hunting because some animal species were getting depleted.
This was an interesting turn of events because naturally the Yshiro people understood the importance of conservation. The Yshiro people understood that conservation is crucial because the sustained existence of the animals depended on how they treated them. However, the regulators did not fully understand this aspect of the Yshiro culture. Later, the Yshiro people applied to be allowed to carry out commercial hunting with the supervision of regulators. However, as Blaser outlines in his article, the “sustainable hunting program” failed due to clashing interests. The words sustainable program and animals meant different entities for the Yshiro, the bureaucrats and the experts involved in the hunting program. For example, while the Yshiro federation wanted to be involved in brokering between the hunters and the commercial meat exporters, the government saw this as a vested interest. As Crude develops, a similar scenario unfolds with Chevron defendants alleging that the lawsuit is a scam put forth by people aiming to defraud poor rural people.
Chevron bitterly contests claims that the company is responsible for the pollution shown in the documentary. Chevron alleges that if pollution occurred, then it was due to the Company initially drilling there (Texaco); if not so, then it could be another Ecuadorian Company since they had already pulled out. Chevron’s lawyers, as well as some scientists, deny the organization’s responsibility and suggest that the organization supporting the lawsuit wants to take advantage of the poor people. To them, the claims of pollution are baseless, and they see vested interests behind those pushing lawsuit. However, all this happens as viewers get to see oil glitters in water and animals dropping dead.
The Amazon local communities, their knowledge and traditions face extinction due to the contamination of their surroundings. In a shocking turn of events, one of the tribes enjoined in the case as a plaintiff is already extinct. Environmentalists, human rights groups, scientists and some politicians sympathize with the plaintiffs cause, but can do nothing about it. The story has an impact not only on the local community, but the wider world. Crude highlights the need to remediate the issue urgently; there is a need to save the rainforest and the organisms living around it. Petroleum extraction by the Texaco/Chevron since the 1959 led to contamination of the rainforest, and the consequences that manifest are devastating.
In conclusion, Crude trails the $ 27 billion lawsuit brought by the local Ecuadorians together with international humanitarian and environmental groups. The documentary creates the much needed public awareness on the under-reported environmental disaster caused by Chevron’s oil extraction. Crude reveals how the concept of “bio-power” is perpetuated; on one hand, Chevron shareholders and consumers benefit from the oil extraction while, on the other hand, the Amazon Ecuadorians suffer the consequences of the oil extraction. Proponents and opponents of the lawsuit express what Mario Blaser calls “different ontological perspectives” because each side sees a vested interest in the other. Lawyers and scientists backing Chevron do not admit the company’s responsibility; they see a sinister motive driven by the lawyers supporting the lawsuit. In the end, it is quite clear that the idea of “coloniality” is real in the present day society. Chevron, a multinational organization, exploits oil with the promise of making people’s livelihood better, but the people suffer the consequences.
Blaser, Mario. "The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology." American Anthropologist (2009): 111 (1), 10-20 Doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01073. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990. Print.
Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Print.