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Indigenous peoples in South America are taking on Big Oil over decades of environmental abuse.

March 29, 2008

Tomas Maynas Carijano, an elder of the Achuar tribe, left his home in the Peruvian Amazon earlier this week and traveled to Los Angeles. He came, he said, to tell the story of his people's suffering at the hands of a U.S. oil company. Before an audience at Loyola Law School, Maynas said that 30 years of reckless drilling practices by Occidental Petroleum Corp. had poisoned the land that had been home to his people for thousands of years. Wearing a Toucan-feather headdress, he spoke of an ancient way of life destroyed -- of poisoned rivers, contaminated fish and oil-soaked earth, of sick children and parents.

As the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Occidental, he said, he had come seeking justice. At issue, however, is not whether Maynas and the Peruvians have a case, but where it should be heard. Maynas says decisions about his homeland were made at Occidental's Westwood headquarters, so the case, filed in U.S. District Court here, belongs in the United States. Occidental, which vigorously denies the allegations, maintains that Peru would be the appropriate venue. Both sides are waiting for a decision by Judge Philip Gutierrez. Regardless of where the case is tried, the suit highlights a profound shift in the relationship between multinational corporations and indigenous peoples.

Call it a reverse incursion -- tribes following corporate giants into their native habitats. For decades, giant multinationals have exploited the wealth of tribal rain forests, often disregarding the welfare of the residents. Now Maynas and other indigenous leaders are bearding business lions in their own cultural dens: at shareholder meetings, in boardrooms and, increasingly, in court.

As Occidental faces its challenge in Los Angeles, Chevron is being sued in a federal court in Ecuador. The plaintiffs allege that Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2001, dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste in the jungle, polluting the Amazon and sickening those who lived there. Fifteen years of legal wrangling will reach a milestone in the next few days, when a court-appointed expert determines the price tag for cleaning up what locals call the rain forest Chernobyl. Chevron maintains that its $40-million remediation effort was successful and that it has the soil samples to prove it. In Ecuador, a damage assessment is not a determination of guilt, but this will still be a reckoning to make shareholders quake; remediation estimates start at $6 billion. If Chevron loses, the effect on the global oil industry will be monumental. The indigenous peoples of South America, where the world is increasingly looking for fuel, will realize they can defend their territories.

The way ahead, of course, is for corporations doing business around the globe to bring their best practices with them. Speaking to the law students at Loyola, Maynas said he trusted his brothers and sisters in the United States to understand that what is right for people here is right for people in the Amazon. He does not know how to read or write, he added, but his wisdom and his stewardship of the Achuar are based on principles that are universal.

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