Members of the indigenous Achuar tribe from the Peruvian Amazon have won an undisclosed sum from Occidental Petroleum in an out-of-court settlement after a long-running legal battle in the US courts.
They sued the company in 2007, alleging it knowingly caused pollution which caused premature deaths, birth defects and damaged their habitat.
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, Marco Simons, the legal director ofEarthRights International, which represented the Achuar people in the lawsuit, said. It set a “precedent” which he said will be “significant for future cases and has already been cited by other courts in the United States”.
The case was initially dismissed in 2008 when the federal district court agreed with Occidental Petroleum that the case should be heard in Peru rather than Los Angeles, the plaintiffs successfully appealed to overturn this decision, and the US supreme court refused to hear the company’s arguments in 2013.
The funds provided by the company through a trust will be used for health, education and nutrition projects run by a collective of five Achuar communities (Antioquía, José Olaya, Nueva Jerusalén, Pampa Hermosa and Saukí) that filed the lawsuit. All come from the region surrounding the Corrientes river in Peru’s northern Amazon.
One of the plaintiffs, Adolfina Sandi alleges her 11-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter died after drinking water from the contaminated river.
“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,” she said. Speaking her native Achuar language, Sandi said she was grateful for the settlement even though her children would not benefit from the projects.LA-based Occidental Petroleum drilled for oil in Peru’s block 1-AB – one of the country’s biggest oil concessions – between 1971 and 2000, during which time it spewed out around 9 billion gallons of untreated “produced waters” containing heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic into the rivers and streams without regard for international standards, according to a report by the NGO Amazon Watch.
In 2006, a study by Peru’s health ministry in seven affected communities revealed that all but two of the 199 people tested had levels of cadmium in their blood above safe levels. In the same year, the Achuar seized oil wells, forcing the government and the Argentinian company Pluspetrol which took over the block in 2000 to remediate the environmental damage by reinjecting the production waters.
But conditions have not improved with Pluspetrol. The Peruvian governmentdeclared an environmental emergency in the Corrientes basin in 2013. The company, which operates oil and gas fields across Peru’s Amazon, is challenging nearly $13m in environmental fines through Peru’s courts, according to the country’s environmental supervision agency.
Arli Sandi, an Achuar leader from Saukí, said the communities would not be afraid to file a similar lawsuit against Pluspetrol.
In January, Achuar, Kichwa and Urarina communities seized Pluspetrol oil wells in Peru’s northern Amazon demanding the company pay compensation for contamination and the use of their territories.