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Peru Amazon Natives win key victory against big oil

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Amazon Natives of the Achuar tribe together with Amazon Watch and EarthRights International have managed a significant victory in their long battle to get oil companies such as California’s Occidental Petroleum to both better care for the Amazon rainforest and compensate Natives for pollution.

The Achuar tribe numbers some 4,500 individuals that live on subsistence level in central-northern Peru and rely on fishing and hunting. Starting in the 1960s they began to see oil production and pollution in their area and its consequences. In May 2007, with the support of activists they sued Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles accusing them of deadly pollution.

The Ninth Circuit Court decided Dec. 6 that it would judge over the matter reversing a previous U.S. decision from April 2008 that it was up to Peruvian courts to rule on the matter.

“This is a major victory for the rights of indigenous peoples,” said Marco Simons, Legal Director of EarthRights International, who argued the appeal before the Ninth Circuit. “Oxy will now face justice in the U.S. federal courts, rather than in a Peruvian legal system that has never compensated indigenous groups for environmental contamination.”

Occidental says it did not pollute

Occidental, which operated in Peru for decades until it sold its rights over concession areas known as Block 8 and Block 1-AB in the central Amazon to Argentina’s Pluspetrol a decade ago, said that it never polluted the area and that by contract it is now Pluspetrol that has to answer for any pollution.

This picture shows a dead lake contaminated by years of spills.

“We have empathy for the continuing issues the Achuar people have raised with Pluspetrol and the Peruvian government, but to our knowledge there are no credible data indicating negative community health impacts resulting from Oxy’s operations,” the company said in statements provided by a spokesperson.

Pluspetrol assumed responsibility for past, current and future liabilities, Occidental added.

A Pluspetrol spokeswoman did not reply to a request for comment Dec. 8, which was a holiday in Peru.

“Occidental believes that the U.S. courts are not the appropriate forum to litigate these Peruvian claims, and will continue to advocate that position. When Oxy operated in Peru, it met applicable government requirements and industry standards,” the company stressed.

Accusations, Peru credibility

Occidental has been accused of dumping toxic wastewater in the rainforest as well as improper gas flaring and improper storage of waste from its oil operations all of which has caused lead and cadmium poisoning, among other health impacts, according to the charges.

The area and rivers where Achuar tribes lived is crossed by pipelines and traffic which often caused spills. Just one month ago, a major protest started in the Amazon to demand clean up after a June spill in the Maranon river of 400 crude barrels that was related to a barge accident.

Tribes including the Achuar have long complained that Peruvian authorities do little to protect the environment and often side with big multinational companies instead of protecting the rights of the natives.

At times when tribes get together to confront efforts by oil and lumber developers they often face police and weapons with deadly consequences. In June 2009, a total of 34 people died as a result of a confrontation between Natives protesting legal changes affecting their territories and Peruvian police.

“The Ninth Circuit’s opinion indicates that it was not convinced of the ability of the Peruvian courts to satisfactorily handle this case, citing corruption and disorder in the Peruvian judiciary,” the statement added.

Amazon Watch Executive Director Atossa Soltani anticipated a major change in the treatment of the Amazon as a result of the decision.

“This ruling means that the Achuar will finally get their day in U.S. court and signals the end of the era when companies could destroy indigenous communities and their environment with impunity.”