A decade-long legal battle over pollution from oil drilling has ended with the announcement of a settlement between Occidental Petroleum and five Achuar communities on the Corrientes River in the northern Peruvian Amazon.
Although the deal prohibits publicizing details of the settlement, the communities will receive an undisclosed amount of money for community development, according to lawyers and community leaders involved in the case.
“The Achuar communities are very satisfied with this court case that they have won,” said Pablo Kukush Sandi of the community of Pampa Hermosa, who is in charge of managing the fund.
They will use the money for food- and income-producing activities such as fish farms, he said, as well as for education and health care.
The settlement stems from a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles in 2007, accusing Occidental Petroleum of harming the environment, health and livelihoods of people in the five Achuar communities located in the lease known at the time as Block 1AB.
Although a federal district court judge in Los Angeles ruled in 2008 that the case should be heard in Peru, the Ninth Circuit Court reversed that decision in 2010. In April 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.
Occidental and the Achuar reached a settlement and the case was officially closed and court records sealed in 2013, but the announcement was not made until March 5, at a press conference in Lima organized by EarthRights International.
Sources familiar with the case said the announcement apparently was delayed until the development fund was established.
Marco Simons, regional program director for EarthRights International and principal attorney for the Occidental lawsuit, said the case could set a precedent, because the courts accepted that a company could be sued in the United States for damage caused by its operations in another country.
He said the Occidental case differed from a case in which ChevronTexaco is accused of pollution in Ecuador, partly because the ChevronTexaco case was returned to Ecuadorian courts and partly because Occidental was more willing to agree to a settlement.
Occidental Petroleum began producing oil in the northern Peruvian Amazon in 1975, dumping wastewater from oil wells directly into streams and rivers. The company withdrew from the lease in 2000. The Argentinean company Pluspetrol currently operates Block 1AB, which has been renamed Block 192.
Pollution from oil operations in that lease and another, Block 8, also operated by Pluspetrol, has been a long-standing source of conflict in the area.
Adolfina García Sandi, who lives in the community of José Olaya, remembers a time when the streams near her village ran clear. When they began to turn black, she says, people did not know that was a sign of danger.
Two of her children died, she says. Their stomachs were swollen and they vomited blood.
Worried about pollution of water, fish and game animals, five communities—José Olaya, Pampa Hermosa, Nueva Jerusalén, Saukí and Antioquía—sought assistance from Racimos de Ungurahui, a non-profit Peruvian indigenous-rights organization.
That eventually led to the lawsuit, which was also supported by the U.S. non-profit organization Amazon Watch.
Studies by those groups and Peruvian health authorities found that levels of lead and cadmium in the blood of some residents of the watersheds exceeded limits set by the World Health Organization.
Protests by Achuar communities along the Corrientes River in 2006 shut down Pluspetrol’s operations and led to an accord by which the company agreed to reinject production water back into the ground and the government agreed to a health-care plan, which was never fully implemented.
Since then, health and environmental emergencies have been declared several times in the Corrientes, Pastaza and Tigre and Marañón watersheds, which are overlapped by the two oil leases. The Peruvian Ministry of Housing, Construction and Sanitation is currently installing temporary water treatment plants in more than 60 communities.
With the lease on Block 192 due to expire in August, communities have staged new protests against the pollution in recent months. Leaders of indigenous federations in the four watersheds are negotiating with government and company officials on issues that include health studies, remediation of polluted sites, land titling and community development.
Meanwhile, some communities are negotiating compensation agreements separately with Pluspetrol for pollution or for the use of their territory.
Speaking in her Native language at the press conference, García said she was satisfied with the outcome of the lawsuit, although her children had not lived to benefit from it. She added, however, that the pollution persists.