Indigenous get day in court

June 7, 2009

Clashes in the Amazon jungle. Indians armed with wooden spears. Bodies found with their throats slit. It sounds like a chapter from the blood-soaked chronicles of Pedro Pizarro, the sixteenth-century conquistador.

But this is modern day Peru. Protests in the country’s indigenous-majority north-eastern region were put down by armed police late last week. At least 22 police and nine protesters have died, the BBC reports. Indigenous leaders say closer to 30 protestors were killed and around 150 injured, many with bullets.

It’s not the first time this remote area has witnessed bloodshed. Fuel and transport blockades have disrupted Peru’s Amazon region for almost two months. The indigenous groups want lawmakers to repeal laws that encourage mining in jungle regions. Critics say that over two-thirds of the Peruvian Amazon territory is now leased for oil and gas exploration.

The case is not an isolated one. For a decade or more, local inhabitants have run an international campaign against US-based mining firm Newmont for alleged environmental destruction at its mine in nearby Cajamarca. Neighbouring Ecuador has faced similar protests by indigenous groups who oppose natural resource extraction in their native lands.

The Achuar people of the north-western Amazon demonstrate a new tack in indigenous campaigning. A warrior tribe by tradition, they have chosen to fight their battle in an environment that their corporate adversaries understand: the law courts. In 2007, the Achuar filed a class action lawsuit against oil giant Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles. Their lawsuit alleges that the US company dumped around nine billion barrels of toxic waste water into streams and rivers over a three-decade period. The judge is still deliberating to to whether the case can proceed.

An increasing number of affected communities are seeking legal redress in the US. Last month, for example, members of Nigeria’s Ogoni people brought Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell before a US federal court in New York. They accuse the oil major of colluding with the Nigeria military junta in the 1990s and, by extension, for aiding and abetting human rights violations.

Two mains reasons explain this shift towards international cases of this kind. Firstly, the plaintiffs lack confidence that their national courts will provide them with a fair hearing. In corrupt corners of Latin America and Africa, their fears are well-founded. Secondly, thanks to some clever lawyering, such communities now have access to the US justice system for the first time. Litigators have unearthed a statute that has lain dormant for almost two centuries. Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, anybody can theoretically bring a case against a US-domiciled individual, government agency or company for gross human rights violations.

The Shell case promises to be a landmark. If the company is found guilty, a flood of similar cases against large companies can be expected to follow. Then the indigenous of the Peruvian jungle will have an alternative recourse to fighting it out with heavily armed police.