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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.

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.

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