When I returned to Washington D.C. this week, after a 10-day trip to Peru, the immigration officer asked me what my business had been there.  “I’m an attorney,” I said. “I was meeting with clients.” But this simple response hardly captures the full story.

For lawyers in the international human rights field, meeting with clients usually doesn’t mean inviting them to our office. It often means visiting a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border, or heading for a village in the Niger Delta.

In this case, it meant flying to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, followed by a two-day trip upriver on the Rio Marañon, the Rio Tigre, and then finally the Rio Corrientes, to reach the Achuar community of Pampa Hermosa.  It’s another day up the Corrientes to reach the farthest community, Jose Olaya, scarcely 15 miles from the Peru-Ecuador border.

ERI represents these communities in a lawsuit in the US against Occidental Petroleum, alleging contamination from decades of oil operations in Achuar territory.  The remoteness of these communities, and the difficulty of meeting with our clients, certainly makes the case challenging, but it was actually one of the factors that motivated us to bring the case.

One of our Achuar plaintiffs, with her daughters

When corporations operate in most developed countries, and even in many cities in the developing world, they frequently assume that people affected by their operations will have access to information, media, and, if necessary, legal counsel.  That hasn’t always been the assumption for remote corners of the Amazon, or other similarly inaccessible regions; companies sometimes expect that the local population won’t have access to any remedies.  We’re working to change that expectation.

If we can successfully represent the Achuar communities of the Amazon, companies have to start thinking that communities anywhere–no matter how far-flung–could nonetheless find lawyers.  The people of the Oriente region of the Ecuadorian Amazon found lawyers for their lawsuit against Chevron; the people of remote villages of Bougainville found lawyers for their case against the Rio Tinto mining company; and ERI represented Burmese villagers living in refugee camps in Doe v. Unocal.

Finding a lawyer is only the first step, of course, in a long journey toward legal accountability.  I’m under no illusions that simply providing representation will solve all the problems of communities affected by multinational extractives corporations.  But’s it’s a necessary step that, until recently, was an insurmountable obstacle for many victims.

We haven’t yet reached the point where executives of a corporation operating deep in the Amazon will think that they will face the same level scrutiny and liability as they would when operating in California.  But they might start to wonder: if the Achuar can find lawyers and seek redress, maybe the communities affected by their operations could, too.  And maybe they’ll start to be just a little more careful.

So that’s why I smile inwardly when I explain what I was doing in Peru.  Sometimes merely the act of meeting with clients, so commonplace for most lawyers, can be a significant step forward.