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Big Oil Wreaks Havoc in the Amazon, But Communities Are Fighting Back

This time it's not Chevron in Ecuador but Occidental Petroleum in Peru. And the local community has had enough of giveaways to corporate polluters.
 
 
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On Wednesday the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard oral arguments in Tomas Maynas Carijano v. Occidental Petroleum, a case in which the defendant resides just miles from the courthouse in a plush office building and the plaintiff in a wooden hut in the Peruvian Amazon.

At issue before the court is whether a U.S. district court was right to send the pollution and public health lawsuit against the California-based oil company to Peru rather than keep it in the U.S. where it was filed. But, considering the unprecedented oil boom in the Peruvian Amazon, there is more at stake right now than just this lawsuit.

I've never crashed at Oxy's headquarters but I have slept in the hut of the plaintiff, known as Apu Tomas, and many like them in the Peruvian Amazon. I drank ayahuasca with him. He fed me a tiny fire-roasted bird I watched him kill with a blowgun. By boatplane, pick-up, cargo boat and canoe I traveled through what Peru's oil maps know as Block 1A, where Occidental in the 1970s built a network of pipes and pumping stations. In 2000, Oxy sold the dwindling oil field to the Argentine company Pluspetrol. But its massive infrastructure remains, especially giant wastewater pipes that engineers for years used to dump billions of gallons of toxic wastewater directly into rivers and streams without warning natives who play, drink and swim in the water.

Today many of those people have poisonous levels of lead in their blood (the Oxy suit is actually being brought on behalf of Carijano and over 20 other natives), and some have died. I often wonder how the accountants and marketers and engineers would talk if they had to live drinking directly out of rivers and fishing and hunting for protein sources. This isn't to say that I totally buy the myth of the ecologically pure native, but I don't have to in order to know that the systems and tenets of our global system (the U.S.-backed version) simply don't cut it, simply can't deal with the problems we face.

Oxy wants the trial in Peru. Plaintiffs say that while they'll fight anywhere, their chances of getting relief seem slimmer in one venue than another.

"I want the case to stay in the United States," Apu Tomas (Apu means leader or chief) told me when I visited his village. "Natives can never get justice in Peru."

People who watch this sort of thing see parallels to a similar case in the Ecuadorian Amazon where 30,000 ethnic natives are suing Chevron for polluting their rainforest homes. The plaintiffs in that case years ago filed suit in the United States, but Chevron convinced a judge that it belongs in Ecuador. After years of bitter litigation, the Ecuadorian courts appear poised to slap a $26 billion judgment on the company later this year. But Chevron is now indicating that it won't comply with the judgment of the Ecuadorian court because it was denied due process. Send us down there. No, things didn't work out. Take us back.

Oxy apparently thinks it has a better chance outside the U.S. It might be right. Many Peruvians are happy with the impressive economic growth of recent years, growth that's been dependent in no small degree on an unprecedented rainforest oil boom steered by Peru's pro-business president, Alan Garica. And the Apu is right in indicating that the Peruvian government (as well as Peru's elite class) isn't known for falling over itself to help natives. If the appellant judges in California don't reverse or remand the lower court's decision, the plaintiffs hope at least they will somehow ensure that Oxy is made to pay up should it lose in Peru.

But going to Peru might not serve the behemoth company well because of the strong showing populism has made in South America in recent years. This is tied to an increasing willingness of natives to stand up and be counted. In Peru last summer, Garcia's white elite government got its bell rung by a nationwide indigenous strike in which natives (especially in the Amazon regions) took to the streets to protest land reforms linked to the U.S. Free Trade Agreement. People died in clashes with the police. There was talk of revolution if demands weren't met. I met with the man the government blamed it all on, an educated and politically powerful Indian named Alberto Pizango. He told me that Indians are tired of 500 years of getting kicked around. "It's our moment," he said.

The oil boom in the Peruvian Amazon also makes this lawsuit particularly important. Thanks in part to outsiders, natives are learning to use GPS units, Google Earth, blogs and lawsuits to fight back. But most would agree that the lawsuits are really what change Big Oil's behavior.

Carter Beasley is an engineer who has worked on South American oil projects for 25 years. He once told me that these kinds of suits are making oil companies pay far more attention to how things get done. In the past, they hid their sins in the Amazon's remoteness.

The Occidental case was brought after a Peruvian rights group, Racimos de Ungurahui, joined with EarthRights International and Amazon Watch to issue a 2007 report that documented health problems resulting from Oxy's toxic legacy. I interviewed Oxy's spokesperson Richard Kline in 2008.

"We are aware of no credible data of negative community health impacts resulting from Occidental's operations in Peru," Kline told me. He said the report was full of "inflammatory misstatements, unfounded allegations and unsupported conclusions" and that it failed to provide basic information that would help determine whether oil operations contributed to the alleged environmental and health problems.

I've spoken to plenty of public health experts who tell me that it's hard proving illnesses are causally linked to oil production because natives live in grinding poverty with poor sanitation habits, nutrition and health education. Oil companies eagerly latch on. "Natives are already sick because they are poor," the reasoning goes. "So our pollution can't be identified as the cause." But what about presumption? In Maine, where I am a volunteer firefighter, the state legislature has passed a law decreeing certain kinds of cancers are presumed to be part of our job if someone has spent a certain number of years in the service. Until now, we had to prove cancer resulted from the job (good luck with that). If the idea of presumption works here in Maine, why not in cases where oil companies have spewed out toxins by the billions of gallons?

Some people have the wrong idea that natives are constantly ducking in the bush getting ready to spear an oil worker. Many natives want oil development and they only ask a few simple things in return. Do it right. Clean up any spills. Live by your promises. Give us a fair stake instead of trying to buy us off with the modern equivalent of beads and mirrors. Natives are poor. They want and deserve a better, healthier life, something more than a constant struggle to survive. Life is hard in the jungle, despite the image many Americans have seen on ecotourism calendars of happy natives picking low-hanging fruit.

I'd be willing to bet that Oxy's chief executive has more money than all of Peru's natives put together. It is hard for me to understand how one of the world's richest and most powerful companies can dump billions of gallons of toxins into the environment and raise their hands and say "We hate this, we really do, but we sold all this stuff to another company and we aren't responsible."

Several years ago, at the height of Ecuador's oil boom, oil companies were taking over the traditional lands of Amazonian Cofan Indians until Randy Borman, the son of white U.S. missionaries (who had lived his life as a Cofan) organized them into gun-toting groups that kidnapped oil workers. The Cofan got their land back. A few years ago, I spoke on the phone with Borman and he told me that "companies only understand force. That's just how it is."

I hope the oil outsiders and developers learn to do what they do in an environmentally sound way, in ways that respect the people who have lived on the land for countless generations. I hope the people of Peru can benefit from the jobs and oil royalties generated by environmentally sound extraction methods (like horizontal drilling) and that companies will consider natives as real stakeholders. And I hope that Oxy has to pay big. I hope its gazzillionaire executives have smaller bonus checks and are forced to one day explain to their children why their massive company wasn't able to correct such a giant injustice.

Kelly Hearn is a correspondent for National Geographic News and the Christian Science Monitor. His work has been funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the North American Congress on Latin America. A former UPI reporter, he has published in The Nation, Grist, High Country News, The Washington Times and World Politics Watch. He is a frequent contributor to Alternet.
 
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