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Q&A with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Paul Barrett

The Dart Mouth - Heyi Jiang 11/02/2016

Photo: The Dart Mouth

Photo: The Dart Mouth

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.

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