At the end of August, I had the privilege of giving a seminar to a group of 25 indigenous leaders from different parts of the Peruvian Amazon as part of a four-week-long intensive training program run by the Escuela Amazónica de Derechos Humanos (Amazon School for Human Rights). The program, started by four alumni from the Amazon School for Human Rights and the Environment and now in its sixth year of operation, aims to strengthen the knowledge and capacity of indigenous leaders to confront extractive industries that affect their communities. I was tasked with presenting a half-day seminar on litigation in U.S. courts as an advocacy strategy in defense of indigenous peoples.
I started the seminar by asking for a show of hands: how many people lived in communities affected by exploration or extraction activities of oil or gas companies? Mining companies? Loggers? Before long, every student had their hand raised—not a single student participating in the training program lived in a community unaffected by encroaching extractives. With the entire Peruvian Amazon divided into different concession areas, the result was not surprising. I then asked for another show of hands: how many of the companies involved were foreign? Again, a large number of hands shot up.
To focus the discussion, I asked the students to imagine that their community was affected by a U.S. oil company operating in their territory and causing damage to the community’s environmental health. The story I told was loosely based on my experience working with the nearby communities of Canaan and Nuevo Sucre, which I wrote about last week, and with the communities in the Corrientes River Basin that are the subject of our case against Occidental Petroleum. As I told the story, I noticed nearly every student nodding their heads in understanding—regardless of the specifics of their personal experience, the elements of the story resonated with the students, and touched upon a deep understanding of what it means to be affected by extractive industry.
Together, we then mapped possible strategies for responding to contamination. The mapping project led the students to identify the different actors that play a role in creating or responding to this situation, and connected the different strategies to specific actors. Then, using a presentation that I had prepared with fellow ERI lawyer Marissa Vahlsing, I explained precisely what litigation in U.S. courts means, and how it fits in to the map that we had created. I walked the students through the pros and cons of a litigation strategy, and together using simulation and open discussion, we reflected on whether or not litigation could be a useful tool in responding to the scenario that I presented.
I closed the seminar by reminding the students that if litigation is pursued, it always must be connected to a larger set of strategies of defense and the community’s vision for the future—strategies that were the subject of the rest of the training program. Now that the school has wrapped up this year’s program, these leaders will return to their communities exposed to new ideas and tools that will serve them in guiding their communities through collective responses to the extractive industries.
Keep an eye on our website for forthcoming posts and information regarding the Amazon School and the specific trainings that have been keeping our Amazon office busy.