Indigenous Peruvian Tribe Takes On Big Oil and Wins Unprecedented Victory
It’s not every day that an indigenous tribe takes on Big Oil and wins, but while Peru’s indigenous Achuar people have reason to celebrate their legal victory, there are some losses for which they can never be compensated.
The Achuar Tribe’s Unprecedented Victory
Earlier this month, The Guardian reported how Peru’s Achuar tribe sued and won against the oil giant Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles. The case was settled outside of court for an undisclosed amount.
It was a long legal battle that started in 2007. Interestingly, the Achuar took on Big Oil not in the courts of its own country but in the United States Court system. The legal director of EarthRights International, Marco Simons, described the case as unprecedented because, “It is the first time a company from the United States has been sued in a US court for pollution it caused in another country.” Big Oil doesn’t even want to be held responsible for the damage it’s done in the United States, let alone elsewhere; five years later, environmental activists in the United States are still trying to hold BP accountable for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill’s harmful impact on dolphins and other marine life. Simons explains that the Achuar victory, then, is a landmark that has already been referenced in similar and pending legal battles.
It’s been a difficult road for the indigenous tribe to hold big oil accountable on U.S. soil, though. The oil company fought hard for the case to go through the Peruvian legal system versus the American legal system, and initially won when in 2008 a federal court sided with the oil company that this was a matter for the Peruvian courts to decide. The Achuar appealed and got that ruling overturned, but the battle over the venue for this case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. In 2013, the highest court in the land sided with the plaintiffs saying that the case could be heard in the United States.
“My Son and Daughter Died Vomiting Blood”
The money from the out-of-court settlement will now be funneled through a trust to be administered by five Achuar communities. The funds will go towards health, nutrition and education initiatives in the region.
While there’s reason to celebrate this legal victory, there are some things that money can’t buy or replace. From 1971 to 2000, Occidental Petroleum drilled in the already fragile Amazon and “spewed out around 9bn gallons of untreated ‘produced waters’ containing heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into the rivers and streams without regard for international standards.” Occidental Petroleum’s alleged recklessness had devastating consequences for the indigenous Achuar people. The tribe asserts that the oil company’s irresponsible practices resulted in serious air, water and land pollution that caused premature deaths, birth defects and destroyed Achuar ancestral habitat.
According to Amazon Watch,the negative impacts of unsustainable oil drilling don’t end there for the Achuar. They can no longer use traditional fishing and hunting practices because of contamination, and they can’t even grow crops in the traditional way because their soil is ruined.
The health of the Achuar’s communities has also been compromised in unprecedented ways. Adults and local children have tested positive for dangerously high blood-lead levels, and local residents cite countless tales of unexplained diseases, tumors, skin ailments and miscarriages from oil exposure.
The Guardian tells Adolfina Sandi’s sad story: Sandi served as a plaintiff in the case. According to Sandi, she lost both of her of her children–ages 11 and 8–from contaminated drinking water. Pollution might not be the biggest offense in Sandi’s eyes though–it was the lack of transparency. The grieving mother says, “We didn’t know the impact of the pollution and the company never told us. My son and daughter died vomiting blood. They never confirmed to us why they had died.”
I wish I could say that the fight between the Achuar and Big Oil was over, but it isn’t. The indigenous communities could now have to fight the Argentine oil company Pluspetrol for similar reasons.