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  • Dan Johnson

Villanueve’s Dune 2 & Fajardo’s Crude: A Commentary on Interstellar Coloniality of Power & Terrestrial Corporate Greed


Hollywood takes the history of colonialism and conquest and dresses up the characters in robes and helmets and gives them prop weapons, and it transforms this history into a crowd-pleasing fantasy. As Junot Diaz once put it: without the history of racialist ideologies, X-Men makes no sense; without colonialism, Star Wars makes no sense; and without the history of chattel slavery in the New World, Dune makes no sense.

—Our Migrant Souls, Héctor Tobar



Last weekend, I went to see Denis Villeneuve’s second part of the Dune series, which is likely going to be the middle part of a sci-fi film trilogy by the time things are done. The movie was brilliantly done, bringing the complicated interstellar politics of Arrakis to life in the continuing saga of Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto Atreides, played in the first film by Oscar Isaac.


Here, Paul is adopted into Fremen culture only to become known as Muad'Dib, a member of the freedom-fighting Fedaykin and perhaps the messianic figure Lisan al Gaib foretold by the Bene Gesserit. It was an amazing movie; it’s layered and nuanced and very well acted.


But Tobar’s quote above was foremost in my mind as I watched.  There’s no way to see this work of fiction without seeing it in the context of Western Colonialism, especially when thinking of the way the Western superpowers have carved out the natural resources of the Arab world, Africa, and the Americas (think petroleum, as well as ores of precious metals like gold, silver, and coltan). The fictional Arrakis is a world of sandy desserts, inhospitable, but valuable because of its spice, which is the natural resource that allows for interstellar travel and allows the Empire to exist.


In the days after the fall of the House of Atreides and the return of House Harkonnen, the Fremen, long oppressed by the Harkonnen family in their brutal efforts to extract as much spice and profit as possible, are now engaged a low-level guerrilla war to disrupt spice production.


While not exactly a one-for-one representation of real-world Arabs, Frank Herbert very much was inspired by the culture of the people who inhabit our desserts, and much of the Fremen exoticism can be read as coded language for Western views of Arab Muslims.  Villenueve is obviously conscious of the source material’s racialized narrative, and in casting POC actors like Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Fremen in the two movies, the films also accept a racialized subtext of colonizer and colonized.


It could be argued that Oscar Isaac, an actor who is of Latinx decent, complicates the binary racialization of colonizer/white and colonized/non-white, but I would argue that the character of Leto Atreides could pass for white and is definitely played as though he could be the biological parent of Chalamet’s Paul, also white or white passing. Similarly, David Bautista, an actor who is of part Filipino decent, plays one of the Harkonnens, but his makeup and costuming change his appearance enough that he looks like the brutal hyper-white inhabitants of Geidi Prime, the homeworld of House Harkonnen.

It could be argued that Oscar Isaac, an actor who is of Latinx decent, complicates the binary racialization of colonizer/white and colonized/non-white, but I would argue that the character of Leto Atreides could pass for white and is definitely played as though he could be the biological parent of Chalamet’s Paul, also white or white passing.

Through the eyes of Zendaya’s Chani, we question Paul’s intent and purpose, recognizing that his motives in combating the Harkonnen overlords are suspect. In Villenueve’s adaptation, Chani is a Fremen non-believer who in many ways is a foil to Bardem’s Stilgar. Stilgar believes he sees the prophecy of the Lisan al Gaib coming to life in Paul, whereas Chani loves and respects Paul, but she doesn’t believe in the fanatical messianic religion of the Southern Fremen. Paul struggles with the visions he sees for the coming holy war, knowing that his rise to power may avenge his father’s death, but it will surely bring chaos and death to countless worlds, not just in Arrakis.


Villanueve’s version is in many ways a subversion of the white savior trope and more heavily leans into Herbert’s critique of messianic figures; despite being the main protagonist of this epic and a sympathetic figure, Paul is not so much the savior of Arrakis as he is the culminating result of generations of political machinations and a harbinger of bloody conflict, and while he ushers in a new era in the Empire, it is one birthed in bloodshed and watered with pain. Fictional empire though it may be, at heart the Dune films take place in a universe where natural resource extraction and political power go hand in hand.

Villanueve’s version is in many ways a subversion of the white savior trope and more heavily leans into Herbert’s critique of messianic figures

Thus, it’s fitting that the most recent graphic novel I immediately read after watching Dune is Pablo Fajardo and Sophie Tardy-Joubert’s compelling memoir about Fajardo’s legal battles with Texaco/Chevron on behalf of the people in the Amazon, whose way of life has been decimated by decades of crude oil extraction. Fabrice Nicolino writes in the forward to Crude: A Memoir:

“Crude” is merely a metaphor—the allegory of a process that has completely escaped human control. The oil industry has to go on, because it must go on. Just like the industries for pesticides, plastics, fishing, and logging. Is this sentiment defeatist? Pessimistic? I don't believe so. When we see the damage that can be inflicted on a country by a single corporation—and there are thousands like it—the remains only one future for those of us who are still standing: rebellion. Real rebellion, which requires risking everyone and everything. The choice has never seemed so clear: submit or revolt.

In Fajardo’s story, we see a boy who leaves his childhood home of Manabí, on the Pacific Coast of Ecuador, with his older brothers, first finding back breaking jobs in a palm plantation, then finding work in Texaco’s oil fields in Lago Agrio. There, he saw firsthand how the pollution concomitant with oil extraction was affecting the lives of the local inhabitants around Shushufindi. 


As Fajardo and Tardy-Joubert write, “The Amazon wasn’t polluted by war or by accident. It was the result of Texaco’s contempt, along with negligence on the part of the Ecuadorian State.” The Amazon’s native people, the Secoya, Kichwa, A’I Cofán, Waorani, Siona,Shuar, Tétete and Sansahuari, all suffered first from the contamination, where the drinking water and fishing rivers turned to poison. Women gave birth to children with birth defects and death rates for infants were frighteningly high. Later, stomach and uterine cancer was rampant in the native population, all thanks to the fact that the water they used to drink, bathe, and do the wash was heavily contaminated by waste from the Lago Agrio oil fields.

Women gave birth to children with birth defects and death rates for infants were frighteningly high.

When Fajardo was in his late teens, he spent a large part of his time with the Franciscan fathers at the presbytery, where he was exposed to their brand of liberation theology, a mixture of Catholicism and Marxism. Here, Fajardo learned about the writings of St. Francis, Gandhi, Che Guevera, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was through the Franciscans’ efforts to help the indigenous poor that Fajardo began his outreach to more rural settlements, where he became aware of all the ways Texaco was poisoning the countryside.


In1993, the concessions granted by the Ecuadorian government expired, and Texaco was forced to leave Ecuador, but their legacy of toxic residue and waste remained behind, leaving “16 million gallons of oil and 18.5 million gallons of toxic residue,” the equivalent of 30 Exxon Valdez spills. Various locals banded together as the Unión de Afectados por Texaco (UDAPT), or simply the Afectados. In an effort to seek some type of redress from the corporation that had caused such environmental harm, the Afectados sued Texaco/Chevron.


In 1997, members of the Afectados appeared in court in New York in the opening hearing of a case that would ultimately lead to a huge 9 billion dollar verdict against Texaco/Chevron in 2011. As the case worked its way through the various court systems, first in the US, then ultimately in Ecuador, Fajardo would complete his law degree and become one of the lead counsels on the case. As Fajardo explains, one of his brothers, Wilson, was beaten to death, and both he and his family grappled with feelings of guilt, suspecting that his brutal death was an intentional attempt to intimidate and silence Fajardo.


Victory was short-lived and elusive, because though Texaco/Chevron lost the case in Ecuador, it simply refused to pay the fines assessed and even countersued that UDAPT colluded with the Ecuadorian government in a case of fraud, and all the NGOs, journalists, and judges that had participated in the original case now saw themselves on the opposite end of a courtroom. More importantly, the verdict in the fraud case damaged UDAPT’s image and support on the global front, where UDAPT was still trying to find a court jurisdiction that would help uphold the ruling of the case between Ecuador and Texaco/Chevron.


In traveling around hoping to find a sympathetic jurisdiction (Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the Hague) Fajardo argued that the actions taken in the Ecuadorian Amazon were not an isolated case; similar damage was done in countries like Nigeria, India, Argentina, and elsewhere, and were in fact part of a pattern of abuse by transnational corporations. While the book ends on a somewhat hopeful note, the Afectados are still waiting for justice. The battle continues.


Fajardo and Tardy-Joubert's narrative unfolds in a fairly straightforward chronological retelling of events, beautifully illustrated by Damien Roudeau, and the visuals of the Texaco's ecological damage, the scenes from protests and marches, and the repeating motif of hands dipped in black oil residue, all help to reinforce the compelling point of the book: that transnational corporations have been allowed to damage the lives of those who live in lands full of resources, with little concern for the human cost of their rapacious activity and with little to no oversight from governments that turned a blind eye to human rights abuses caused by resource extraction.

That transnational corporations have been allowed to damage the lives of those who live in lands full of resources, with little concern for the human cost of their rapacious activity and with little to no oversight from governments that turned a blind eye to human rights abuses caused by resource extraction.

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