PERU: For Peru's Indians, Lawsuit Against Big Oil Reflects a New Era

Outsiders and High-Tech Tools Help Document Firms' Impact
Publisher Name: 
The Washington Post

NUEVO
JERUSALEM, Peru -- Tomás Maynas Carijano strolled through his tiny
jungle farm, pinching leaves, shaking his head. The rain forest spread
lushly in all directions -- covering what oil maps call Block 1AB.

"Like
the trunk of that papaya, the cassava and bananas are also dying," said
the spiritual leader of this remote Achuar Indian settlement in Peru's northern Amazon region. "Before Oxy came, the fruits and the plants grew well."

Oxy is Occidental Petroleum, the California-based
company that pulled a fortune from this rain forest from 1972 to 2000.
It is also the company that Maynas and other Achuar leaders now blame
for wreaking environmental havoc -- and leaving many of the people here
ill. Last spring, U.S. lawyers representing Maynas and 24 other
indigenous Peruvians sued Occidental in a Los Angeles
court, alleging that, among other offenses, the firm violated industry
standards and Peruvian law by dumping toxic wastewater directly into
rivers and streams.

The company denies liability in the case.

For indigenous groups, the Occidental lawsuit
is emblematic of a new era. The Amazon region was once even more
isolated than it is today, its people largely cut off from
environmental defenders in Washington and other world capitals who
might have protected their interests. Now, Indians have gained access
to tools that level the playing field -- from multinational lawsuits to
mapping technologies such as Google Earth.

Oil
companies that once traded money and development for Indians' blessings
are increasingly finding outsiders getting involved. "History has shown
that oil companies will cut corners if someone isn't watching," said
Gregor MacLennan of Shinai, an internationally funded civic group in
Peru. "We try to get to local communities first to help them make
informed decisions about oil companies and the changes they bring."

Lured by global energy prices, Peru is placing record bets on Amazon energy lodes: Last year the country's concessions agency, PeruPetro,
signed a record 24 hydrocarbon contracts with international oil
companies. EarthRights International, a nonprofit group that is helping
represent the plaintiffs in the Achuar case, says half of Peru's
biologically diverse Amazon region has been added to oil maps in the
last three years.

Occidental pumped 26 percent of Peru's historic oil production from Block 1AB before selling the declining field to Argentina's
Pluspetrol in 2000. "We are aware of no credible data of negative
community health impacts resulting from Occidental's operations in
Peru," Richard Kline, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail statement.

Kline
said that Occidental has not had operations in Block 1AB in nearly a
decade and that Pluspetrol has assumed responsibility for it.
Occidental made "extensive efforts" to work with community groups and
has a "long-standing commitment and policy to protect the environment
and the health and safety of people," he said.

The
California-based group Amazon Watch has joined the suit as a plaintiff,
and the case is now inching through U.S. courts. In a federal hearing
scheduled for Feb. 11, company lawyers will ask a judge to send the
case to Peru, where Indians say corruption and a case backlog will hurt
their chance of winning.

Learning Their Rights

The primitive trumpet -- a hollowed cow's horn -- brayed over this gritty river community at sundown. Residents of Nuevo Jerusalem,
the Achuar settlement on the Macusari River, trudged up a path, toting
shotguns and fishing nets. Some stepped down from palm huts, walking to
the meeting in twos and threes. Soon, Lily La Torre was on stage.

"I've
come to give you news of the Oxy suit," said La Torre, a Peruvian
lawyer and activist working with Maynas's legal team. Barefoot women in
dirty skirts circled the room, serving bowls of homemade cassava beer.

La
Torre distilled legal strategies into simple terms. She told villagers
that the case had been moved to the federal level in the United States.
"Now they are trying to move the lawsuit to Peru," she said in Spanish,
pausing for an Achuar interpreter. "But we must pray that the suit
stays in the U.S. We know it cannot survive in Peru."

Later, as
people approached her with questions, a man who was looking on said in
broken Spanish: "When Oxy came, we did not know our rights. Now we do."

In
addition to alleging that Occidental illegally dumped toxic wastewater,
the Achuar suit accuses the company of generating acid rain with gas
flares, failing to warn Indians of health dangers and improperly
storing chemical wastes in unlined pits.

The "irresponsible,
reckless, immoral and illegal practices" left Maynas and his people
with poisoned blood, polluted streams and empty hunting grounds, the
suit says. Plaintiffs want damages, declaratory and injunctive relief,
restitution and disgorgement of profits. One woman is suing on behalf
of her child, whose death she alleges is related to environmental
contamination.

Last spring, before the Achuar case was filed, a
team of health experts, lawyers and scientists funded by EarthRights
International said in a report
that the wells, pipelines and other infrastructure built here by
Occidental had directly caused water and soil contamination, which in
turn has caused health problems for many local people in Block 1AB.

Kline
said the report contained "inflammatory misstatements, unfounded
allegations and unsupported conclusions" and failed to provide basic
information that would help determine whether oil operations
contributed to the alleged environmental and health problems.
"Nonetheless . . . we will evaluate the claims and the lawsuit and
respond accordingly," he said.

A Technological Assist

Environmental groups are going beyond word of mouth and lawsuits to assist indigenous groups.

One
day last fall, Guevara Sandi Chimboras was bouncing a pickup truck
along a remote oil road near the Achuar community of Jose Olaya.
Carrying a digital camera, notepad and a Global Positioning System
transceiver donated by the civic group Shinai, Sandi walked through a
grassy field to a pool of stagnant water. With a stick, he dug up a
clump of glistening, pungent mud, and sniffed.

"The companies say
these sites are clean," he said. "They won't believe us without
documented photos. With words, they don't believe us."

There are
no mass media in the rain forest. But Shinai has translated a U.S.-made
documentary about the Achuar's problems into Machiguenga, the language
spoken by Indians in southeastern Peru, where a U.S.-backed natural gas
project is underway. The group uses DVD players powered by solar panels
and generators to show the film to Indians considering agreements with
oil companies.

Meanwhile, Google Earth is proving to be an omniscient eye. Peter Kostishack, a Colorado-based
rights activist, uses the application to record coordinates and
satellite images of rain forest erosion and post them on his blog. With
help from the U.S.-based Amazon Conservation Team, Indians in Brazil's Amazon Basin have used Google Earth imagery to spot river discoloration caused by illegal mining operations.

"Many
times a company claims natives don't have the technical knowledge to
understand that it is doing the best it can, when in fact it may be
doing as little as possible," said Bill Powers, chief engineer of
E-Tech International, a nonprofit engineering firm based in California
that provides Indians with technical expertise.

"We make it a battle of equals, at least in the knowledge area," he said.

AMP Section Name:Environment
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 182 Health
  • 190 Natural Resources
  • 195 Chemicals