The US oil giant Chevron has attacked the British makers of a short art-house documentary film about oil pollution in the Ecuadorean Amazon featuring the actor Julie Christie reading a Pablo Neruda poem for ignoring the environmental record of the country’s own state oil producer.
The 13-minute film, follows the unresolved, 22-year-long series of legal fights in the US, European and Latin American courts over the dumping by US oil company Texaco of 18bn gallons of toxic wastewater and crude oil in the forest near the town of Lago Agrio between 1964 and 1992.
It has no commentary except for Neruda’s 42-line poem recited by Christie and the words of some “afectados” – people affected by the historic spills.
But Chevron said the film ignored more recent environmental problems. “If those involved in the production of this film truly wanted to help those affected by current social and environmental conditions in Ecuador, they would seek to hold Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa and his government accountable,” it said in a statement.
The film uses the Neruda poem to give a historical context to the relationship between foreign corporations and indigenous and other local peoples.
The poem by the Chilean Nobel literature prizewinner, called the United Fruit Company, was published in 1950. It suggests that US corporations treated the Latin American countries as empty “banana republics”. It starts:
“When the trumpet sounded everything was prepared on Earth, and Jehovah gave the world to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda, Ford Motors, and other corporations.
“The United Fruit Company reserved for itself the most juicy piece, the central coast of my world, the delicate waist of America ...”
The company was taken over many times and no longer exists, but the legacy of neo-colonialism still rankles deeply in Ecuador. “I find it both striking and distressing that in 2015, a poem written by Pablo Neruda in 1950 can still be a fitting statement on the relationship between a transnational company and poor, indigenous Latin Americans,” said Christie.
“Despite much legal chicanery across many years and in many territories, the real people at the heart of this story and the precious Amazon environment that was so badly impacted by what was an astounding level of pollution are both still neglected.”
Director Mark Donne said: “The film shows us the psychology of a multinational company and its attitude towards small sovereign states, innocent indigenous people and precious, diverse forest.”
Chevron, which inherited fellow US oil company Texaco’s liabilities when it acquired it in 2000, has argued that the original pollution was cleaned up and that Texaco only followed accepted practices at the time .
The company is contesting a $9.5bn (£6bn) pollution judgment made in Ecuador in 2011. It claims the Ecuadorean court judgment was flawed and has accused the lawyer working for the “afectados”, of corruption, fabricated evidence, coercion and bribery, accusations that are strongly denied.
There have followed a series of court cases and rulings in several countries. In 2014, a US federal court stated that the lawyer for the afectados had used “corrupt means” to obtain the 2011 court verdict. But the an international tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, partly upheld the Ecuadorean court case in an interim decision in March 2015.
In a statement, Chevron said that the Ecuadorean oil company was also a major polluter.
“Texaco conducted a 3-year, $40m remediation programme in the 1990s that was overseen and approved by the government. Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, has been operating exclusively in the region for the last 25 years. In that time, they have more than doubled the number of wells and have had an abysmal environmental record.
“Between 1995 and 2011 alone, Petroecuador has reported nearly 2,000 spills in the Amazon, yet none of this is mentioned in the film.
“The [British] film omits the fact that a United States federal court found that the Ecuadorean judgment against Chevron was the product of “egregious fraud”. It is unfortunate that the indigenous people of Ecuador continue to be used by their government, plaintiffs’ lawyers and activist groups in a coordinated effort to extort billions of dollars from Chevron.
The Neruda poem concludes:
“Meanwhile Indians are falling into the sugared chasms of the harbours, wrapped for burials in the midst of the dawn ... a body rolls, a thing that has no name, a fallen cypher, a cluster of the dead fruit thrown on the dump”.
• This article was amended on 29 June 2015. An earlier version said that in March 2015 the international court of justice in The Hague had upheld the Ecuadorean court judgment. In an interim decision, an arbitration tribunal rejected a key part of Chevron’s claim, that the case should not have been heard in Ecuador, but deferred a decision on whether in issuing a judgment Ecuador had breached its contractual agreements with Texaco.