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

Some members of the Peruvian Indian community of Antioquia, which practices slash-and-burn cultivation, are among those suing California-based Occidental Petroleum.
Some members of the Peruvian Indian community of Antioquia, which practices slash-and-burn cultivation, are among those suing California-based Occidental Petroleum. (By Duncan Mclean -- Lone Outpost Inc.)
SOURCE: | By Laris Karklis - The Washington Post - January 31, 2008

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.

"Foreign Exchange," a weekly public broadcasting program, will air a segment about the Achuar and Block 1AB beginning this week. For local listing times, go to

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