LIT: Beautiful photography exposes crude reality

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photo by Lou Dematteis

Crude Reflections opens with pastoral scenes of a rainforest lagoon and the looming roots of a giant ceiba tree. Indigenous Ecuadorians are dancing in an open-air hall and traveling by canoe down tributaries of the Amazon River. A placid stretch of water seems threatened by nothing more than a puffy white thunderhead.

Turn the page. The viewer is blasted by roiling flames: the liquid surface of a waste oil pit on fire, the foreground charred to coal, the forest horizon blurred by a shaky haze of heat.

Turn another page and the river has given way to a viscous stream of oil seeping out of a “remediated” pit. A family is walking down a road, sprayed with waste oil to keep down the dust. They are barefoot. They are the Aguindas from Rumipamba, lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Chevron,

Photographers Lou Dematteis and Kayana Szymczak have put together an unparalleled pictorial account of life in the northern Amazon region of Ecuador, where certain elements of life are cruel and crude. For over 30 years, the land, water, and people have been tossed asunder in favor of a more marketable natural resource: oil.

From 1964 to 1992, Texaco drilled for oil in the Oriente region, but chose not to employ best practices for the industry, instead dumping the waste and byproducts into 627 open, unlined pits, polluting a region three times the size of Manhattan.

Color shots by Dematteis and black and white images from Szymczak are interspersed with profiles, written in English and Spanish, of families and children who have fallen ill from decades of drilling.

“After bathing, our skin was covered with crude,” says Maria Garofalo, whose husband and daughter both suffer from different forms of cancer. “I went to the oil companies, and they said this wouldn’t affect me; that the reason I had cancer was because I didn’t have good personal hygiene.”

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photo by Lou Dematteis

More than 30,000 people have been affected, some tribes decimated to the point of extinction. Chevron purchased Texaco in 2000, and three years later a group of citizens from Lago Agrio filed suit against the company. Pablo Fajardo, a native Lago Agrian, put himself through law school to take the lead on the case – his first ever litigated. In April, an Ecuadorian judge ruled damages could go as high as $16 billion should Chevron ultimately be found at fault.

Setting aside, for a mere moment, who exactly is to blame, the 128-page book strikes a successful balance of art, documentary, and activism – and shows, indisputably, that far too much harm has been done. Without focusing too overtly on one aspect, the book is a full portrait of the situation – from the protesting indigenous tribes to the courtroom lawyers, the affected landscape and injured, dying, and disappearing people.

Dematteis, a former Reuters staff photographer, first traveled to Ecuador in 1992. “During my trip, I spoke with a doctor at Ecuador’s Ministry of Health,” Dematteis writes in the introduction. “He said it would take 10 years or so for the cancers and other health problems to fully manifest themselves, but when they did, the result would be an epidemic of serious and fatal health conditions. When I returned to the northern Amazon again in 2003 to cover the opening of the trail against Chevron (formerly Texaco), I found that the time bomb had exploded. Everywhere I turned, I encountered people with cancer, birth defects, respiratory ailments, and other severe health problems.”

Though Chevron’s drilling occurred in the Northern Amazon region, the largest stretch of primary tropical rainforest still sits, untouched, atop the country’s greatest oil reserves. Photographs from the Yasuni National Forest are accompanied with testaments from tribes urging continued protection of that land, and an explanation of President Rafael Correa’s proposal to the international community to pay Ecuador to preserve the land, rather than drill it.

The book opens with a prologue by Rainforest Foundation founders Trudie Styler and Sting, and closes with an eloquent reminder, written by Amazon Watch’s Atossa Soltani, of the greatest virtues of the rainforest, the medicinally rich flora, the inimitable fauna, natural air filter of the forest. “Simply put, the Amazon rainforest is a vital part of the life-support system of our planet,” Soltani writes. “Unfortunately, the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at the alarming rate of seven football fields per minute.”

Every Chevron shareholder deserves a copy of this book, to be shown exactly what their $18.7 billion company is responsible for.

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photo by Lou Dematteis

Dematteis and Szymczak will be talking and signing books at the El Tecolote Literary Series on Sunday, June 29. 2-5 p.m., 2958 24th Street, San Francisco.

And they’ll be in the East Bay on July 1, hosted by the Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center. The event, “Amazon Oil: Crude Stories and Crude Images: The Biggest Oil Spill on Earth,” starts at 7 p.m., at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, 55 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek.

Crude Reflections: Oil, ruin and resistance in the Amazon Rainforest
Cruda Realidad: Petroleo, devastacion y resistencia en la Amazonia
By Lou Dematteis and Kayaana Szymczak
Foreward by Trudie Styler and Sting
City Lights Books, San Francisco
128 pages
$24.95 paper, $40 cloth