Occidental Petroleum has agreed to compensate Peru’s Achuar tribe for polluting its territories deep in the Amazon rainforest, concluding seven years of litigation and handing the indigenous group a hard-fought victory against a U.S. oil giant.
Members of the Achuar tribe on Thursday announced they reached a settlement with the Los Angeles-based oil company, which agreed to pay an unspecified amount for community health and development projects over the next several years.
Neither party will reveal the amount of the payout, which remains confidential for legal reasons. But both sides said they're satisfied with the deal.
“I’d like to thank everyone who’s backed us in this process,” said Adolfina Garcia, an Achuar woman who claims one of her sons died from drinking water contaminated by oil near one of Oxy’s extraction wells.
“With the new projects, my [other] sons and five communities will benefit from education, health and development schemes,” Garcia said in her native Achuar tongue.
The settlement, which was reached in 2013 but just announced on Thursday, concludes an epic legal battle between the Achuar and Oxy.
In 2007, U.S. non-profit organization EarthRights International helped the Amazonian tribe file a lawsuit in Los Angeles accusing Oxy of poisoning rivers in the rainforest. The suit claimed that several children died from drinking contaminated water.
The lawsuit also argued that Occidental “knowingly utilized out-of-date methods for separating crude oil that contravened United States and Peruvian law, resulting in the discharge of millions of gallons of toxic oil byproducts into the area’s waterways.”
A polluted stream in Achuar terriitory, image by EarthRights International.
Occidental fought those allegations and convinced the Los Angeles Federal District Court to dismiss the suit on the grounds that the case should be tried in a Peruvian court. But the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals agreed to review the case the following year.
The settlement was reached before a judge could rule on the lawsuit. The indigenous group said it waited until this week to announce the deal to make sure measures were in place to guarantee payment.
An Achuar man reviews oil left by a spill, allegedly caused by Occidental image by EarthRights International
Marco Simons, a lawyer for EarthRights International, told Fusion that the Achuar’s battle against Oxy represents a big win for the human rights community.
Simons said nonprofit groups have previously failed to convince U.S. courts to review cases filed against U.S. corporations that are accused of environmental and human-rights violations in other countries.
“This case sets an important precedent, and it should make it more likely that U.S. courts will retain cases against U.S. companies in the future,” Simons said.
“It’s a success story,” said Andrew Miller an advocacy director for Amazon Watch. “It opens a door for communities pursuing cases of corporate accountability in the U.S.”
U.S. laws allow foreign plaintiffs to sue U.S. corporations for misdeeds committed elsewhere in the world. But first plaintiffs must prove to the court that it makes more sense for the lawsuit to be heard in the United States rather than the foreign jurisdiction where the alleged violations were committed.
Simons says judges decided to hear the Achuar’s case in California for several reasons, one of of them was that Occidental left Peru in 2001.
“If the case were litigated in Peru…the plaintiffs would then have had to go to the United States and file [another] proceeding in order to enforce that judgement,” Simons said.
The Achuar said they took their case to the U.S. because they have little faith in Peru’s justice system.
“We had proof of what happened, but we don’t trust in the system here,” said community leader Pablo Kukush.
“Peruvian courts have no proven track record with these cases,” Simons said. “There’s never been a case like this that has been won by indigenous groups in Peru.”
In a statement published on Thursday Occidental said it was “satisfied" with the resolution of the dispute.
“Oxy will provide assistance for community development projects for the benefit of these five Achuar communities,” the statement reads.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.