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

Outsiders and High-Tech Tools Help Document Firms' Impact

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
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By Kelly Hearn
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 31, 2008; Page A14

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.

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"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.


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