Q&A with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Paul Barrett

by Heyi Jiang | 2/10/16 6:20pm

Seamore Zhu/The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Paul Barrett came to Dartmouth this week to talk about his new book on the legal battle over oil in the rainforest. The Dartmouth sat down with him to talk about “Law of the Jungle” (2014) and his experience reporting.

What made you interested in investigative journalism?

PB: I’ve been in journalism full time now for more than 30 years. Most of that time I spent working at the Wall Street Journal, and then more recently for Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine. And I suppose what drew me to more investigative and narrative journalism is a certain pleasure or joy I get out of challenging people’s preconceptions. I find it very energizing to have the opportunity to take a controversial subject whether it’s race relations or religious relations or industry like the gun industry or the oil industry, all the topics I’ve written books about. And try to challenge the assumptions that the reader will bring to that subject by laying out a more complicated reality. So what kind of unifies those seemingly very disparate subjects is that they are all topics that people have very strong assumptions about, but often those assumptions are not informed by the facts, and I like going out and asking people questions and so forth.


What made you want to write about the Chevron pollution case in Ecuador?

PB: I have followed the case for many years as a spectator before I plunged into actually reporting on it myself. And there is something about the confrontation between poor people in Ecuador and the powerful oil company taking place in the rainforest, literally almost a Garden-of-Eden-like environment that has a very strong pull I think on many people and I will be included among them.

What happened? Did the oil company ruin the Garden of Eden such that the innocent residents thereof were harmed?

PB: That’s the obvious, easy narrative and there is some truth to that. There certainly was wrongdoing by the oil company, but as you dig into this story, you learn the story is much more complicated than that, and that type of complication is what appeals to me. So the initial lure was the sheer size of the verdict against Chevron, the fact that that verdict was won by an American lawyer working largely by himself. And then the secondary reason that I was drawn it to was all the complications. How had the Ecuadorians who live near the oil operations ended up there? What was the role of the Ecuadorian government? Had there ever been any efforts to clean up the oil pollution? What methods did Steven Donziger use to try to forward the interests of his clients? All of those questions led to greater complexity and opened doors that I thought if I went through and looked around I could shed some light on what had really happened.

Could you describe in more detail the work you have done to overcome these difficulties?

PB: The first thing I did in connection with my ignorance about Ecuador was pick up and go down there. I made two reporting trips so that I could see first-hand what the oil fields look like, meet people in person who live near and work in the oil industry, meet people in the capital city of Quito and get a feel for what has transpired in Ecuador first-hand. Second I enlisted the assistance of translators and people who could help me find my way around. And third, I did just a lot of reporting, a lot of interviewing with people who have been involved in the story for 10, 15, 20 years, and read mountains of legal materials that describe what had transpired in Ecuador going all the way back to the 1960s. So when you are starting out without a lot of information, you do your homework, you read the primary materials, in this case a lot of the people who have been involved in this case had testified in one way or the other. There was a lot of scientific evidence to reveal, a lot of cultural material to read over, and over a period of years I digested that stuff and tried to synthesize it in the form of the book.

Would you like to summarize briefly the biggest revelation you got from writing this book?

PB: One of the main insights that I got from working on the book was that the legal system, whether it’s the U.S. legal system or the Ecuadorian legal system or the international legal system that links the judiciaries of various countries, the legal system, while it has certain strengths, it also has institutional weaknesses, and it is not necessarily a foolproof institution for sorting out something as complicated as the dispute over who is responsible for the side-effects of the industrialization of the rainforest. So the potential weakness of the legal system. A second insight is that while it may be difficult to hold a corporation accountable years after its misconduct in an environment like the rainforest, the corporation itself is in the best position in the first instance to avoid the whole dispute simply by behaving in a responsible way. One of the big lessons here is that through relatively commonsense steps, the oil company could have prevented most, if not all, of the contamination in the first instance. A third revelation was the role played by the Ecuadorian government in Ecuadorian society. This was not a situation that was taking place in the dark of night or in secret. The Ecuadorian government invited Texaco to come to the country to exploit the oil resources; the vast majority of the proceeds from the oil industry remained in Ecuador. And after Texaco was forced to leave the country in 1993, the Ecuadorian oil industry took over. The national oil company sadly became every bit as bad a polluter as the foreign oil company had been, and this is an illustration of the fact that if there’s been a contamination problem it’s not enough to simply blame the foreign actors and shake your fist at them. You have to take responsibility for the situation, and if the national oil company has become every bit as bad a polluter as the foreign oil company was, that’s gonna make it difficult to assign liability for what’s been left behind.

Would you like to share your take of the current landscape and possibly, the future of pollution cases that involve American firms or organizations?

PB: One of the sad legacies of this story, because of the fact that Chevron was able to prove that the case brought against it was itself polluted in figurative terms by corruption, is that I think large corporations are going to follow Chevron’s model, and when confronted with accusations such as those Chevron faced in Ecuador, are going to follow the same strategy of attacking the plaintiff’s lawyers and seeking to prove that the plaintiff’s lawyers have bent the truth in their effort to vindicate the rights of the local populace. And that strategy, if there have been corners cut, if there have been liberties taken that shouldn’t be taken by the plaintiff’s lawyers, will distract everybody from the underlying pollution problem, and I believe that this strategy will now become more common, and sadly, by any means, the necessary strategy that the plaintiffs took in this case I think will undermine the credibility of similar cases should they be brought elsewhere in the world.

This article has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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