Editorial: Oil companies abuse indigenous people

"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."

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Editorial: Oil and power in Latin America (The Los Angeles Times 3/29)