Inspiration in the most likely of places

Yesterday I interviewed Pablo Fajardo, and – while I knew it before I went in – the guy is a genuine hero.

It’s easy to find information online about Pablo—I recommend this Vanity Fair article (really) or the movie Crude—so I will keep this introduction brief.  Fajardo is the son of poor campesinos, born the same year—1972—that Texaco began extracting oil from the Amazon.  Texaco’s operations were essentially unregulated, and it showed: in its two decades of operation, it spilled more oil into the Amazon than Exxon-Valdez (you don’t know about it, at least in part, thanks to an internal memo which asked employees not to report spills).  In the early 1990s, residents of affected areas brought a class-action lawsuit demanding environmental remediation and financial support for people suffering health problems from contaminated soil and water.  I guess it’s clichéd to frame Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco as a “David vs. Goliath” battle, but given that the case breaks down to a battle between a lawyer who started the case one year after finishing night school correspondence courses and a $50-million-a-year legal team from the 11th largest corporation in the world, the label seems, in this instance, accurate.

This being probably the third time in a week that I’ve shared an experience from my research, the astute reader might by now be wondering if I care about anonymity and confidentiality at all. The answer is yes; research ethics are huge for me, which is part of why I am profoundly skeptical of much of what social scientists produce.  But for some people, anonymity isn’t all that important; getting the word out is.  I guess after millions have been spent to discredit you and your brother has been murdered in a campaign to silence you, one kid from Oxford just doesn’t seem that threatening.  Either way, it wasn’t so much what Pablo said that I found amazing, but the more intangible elements of the experience.

My appointment was at 5:00 p.m.—and I didn’t get out of my language classes until 4:56.  Being late to a meeting that I was lucky to get in the first place is something of a worst nightmare for me, so I sprinted off the bus and charged towards his office.  I have yet to figure out addresses in Quito (which consist of the names of two streets and two numbers—go figure), though, and by 5:15, I was not only horribly late for a meeting with an incredibly busy man, but also utterly lost.  I swallowed my pride and called Pablo, who said “No te procupes, stay where you are, I’ll come meet you.” He walked a few blocks and then led me to his office.  I asked him, in a panic, if he still had time, and he said “Of course.  Don’t worry.”

He led me into his office, which was spare except for various hand-drawn and printed posters announcing past rallies and demonstrations and protests against all manner of social evils.  I launched into my introduction, but half-way through he cut me off.  What he really wanted to know, he explained, was how I was going to get my research back to the communities I’m studying.  It was an important question, and one that is already dogging me.  Although at this point I’m perhaps more concerned with merely surviving the summer and having something to show for it, it was nice to be reminded that there is no such thing as a “purely academic”topic.

I have, several times in my life, met social justice activists that I had long idealized—only to discover they had no grip on reality.  As fucked up as the world already is, there’s no need for exaggeration, and yet I’ve often discovered that my leftist “heroes”are more obsessed with government mind-control conspiracy theories than the injustices right in front of them.  Not so with Pablo.  He spoke with firmness and resolve—and, refreshingly, a bit of subtledy.  When referring to the oil industry, he didn’t devolve into a tirade, but simply asked why it is that Ecuador’s highest producing regions are also its poorest.  We drifted towards talking about his vision of the future, a post-petroleum post-capitalist model born not just of idealism, but also necessity.  I got the impression he had, in all seriousness, weighed all the alternatives to his radical views, and found them genuinely wanting.  When I asked him about climate justice, he spoke at length about the need to come to consensus decisions – but then closed by warning that if we in the west do not act, the next class action law suit may involve billions of people.

Around 6:00, our interview ended.  As far as I could tell, all of his law office’s employees—however many of them there are—had gone home.  But he needed to get back to work.  I left feeling inspired and energized.  I guess not all my heroes are assholes.

One thought on “Inspiration in the most likely of places

  1. That article is great, but only because of the brilliance of the man, I’d have been very upset at the loss of the thesis, I don’t know how he had the strength to carry on after his friend and his brother were murdered. ‘Inspiration in the most likely of places’ says it all.

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