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. . . .