Opinion: Rumble in the jungle: Amazon pollution lawsuit leaves L.A. for Peru

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Tomas Maynas, an elder of the Achuar tribe in the Peruvian Amazon cut a powerful figure on his recent visit to Los Angeles. As the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit he and other members of his tribe filed against Occidental Petroleum, Maynas was in town to urge a federal court judge not to send the case to Peru. Peru’s court system is so biased against indigenous people and riddled with corruption, he said, that it would give short shrift to the tribe’s allegations that Oxy polluted the Achuar’s lands and sickened the people. Though he didn’t get the chance to address Judge Philip Gutierrez, Maynas made his case to the public, saying in a news conference that the indigenous peoples of Peru could only get a fair trial in L.A.

If that’s true, then Occidental has just won Round 1 (and maybe Rounds 2 through 15) in the case: Gutierrez has ruled it belongs in Peru.


Still, developments in a similar suit, this one against Chevron Corp., may make both sides in the Oxy case reassess the portent of Gutierrez’ decision. Indigenous people and peasants suing Chevron over pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon originally filed their case in New York, arguing they could not get a fair hearing in Ecuador. Just like Gutierrez, the judge in the Chevron case sent the case to South America. It is now being tried in Ecuador and and in a stunning reversal of almost everyone’s expectations, the oil giant seems to stand a good chance of losing the trial. A court-appointed expert recently determined that Chevron should pay $7 billion to $16 billion if it does lose, and now Chevron is bemoaning the incompetence, unfairness and bias of Ecuador’s court system while the plaintiffs are affirming its expertise, fairness and strict impartiality.

So whether the judge’s ruling is good for either side remains to be seen. It’s a blow, however, for U.S. enviros, for whom the case is an important cause. They would have staked out that trial like papparazzi stalking Paris. And acutally, the trial’s relocation to Peru is a loss for L.A. This was our chance for front row seats to see how the Westwood-based company has behaved far away in the Amazonian jungle. We’ll still be watching, just with binoculars.