Community-health suits create precedents in Peru


Graciela Tejada has helped propel community-health litigation in Peru. (Photo by Barbara Fraser)

In the best of times, the stream flowing past Graciela Tejada’s house stinks of sewage. During heavy rains, when the water rises, feces and hospital waste bob past her door in the same waterway where children paddle small dugout canoes.

Tejada and her neighbors in Punchana, a low-income area of Iquitos, Peru’s largest Amazonian city, had become resigned to living amid sewage and effluent from a slaughterhouse and a nearby hospital. But on Jan. 9, she stood before an appeals court judge in an Iquitos courtroom and told him of the conditions she and her neighbors, including children and pregnant women, face daily.

Increasingly, polluted communities in Peru’s Amazon region are asking courts to back up their demands for a clean and healthy environment. And in several recent cases in the northeastern Loreto region, judges have supported their claims, setting important new legal precedent in the country.

Those decisions could have a domino effect on other communities, particularly some affected by oil spills from an aging pipeline, says Juan Carlos Ruiz, a lawyer at the Lima-based nonprofit Legal Defense Institute (IDL), who has argued two key cases.

The sewage case in which Tejada testified seemed unlikely at first. The first families to arrive in the neighborhoods known as Iván Vásquez Valera and 21 de Setiembre settled in the boggy area some two decades ago. Many are indigenous families who migrated from riverside communities.

Like residents of most new neighborhoods in Peruvian cities, they lobbied the municipal and regional governments for public services, but they made little headway. Government officials would simply ask why they had decided to settle there, neighborhood leaders say.

Five years ago, two Spanish priests newly assigned to the parish that includes the neighborhoods encouraged residents to take their case to court. With legal assistance from IDL and the Catholic Church in Iquitos, the neighborhood associations sued two municipalities and the regional government. In April 2019, a civil court in Iquitos ruled that living conditions in the neighborhoods “are not decent” and that the residents were “affected by serious insalubrity” that violated their “right to enjoy a healthy, adequate and balanced environment and the right to access to potable water.”

The judge ordered the city to provide the neighborhoods with potable water and sewer service. The governments appealed. It was before the appeals court that Tejada testified; but this time the government lawyers did not show up. The residents and Ruiz are optimistic that the judge will rule in their favor.

Ripple effect seen
The case, the first environmental-health lawsuit of its type involving urban neighborhoods in the Peruvian Amazon, could have far-reaching effects.

Although the two Punchana neighborhoods have a particularly serious problem, similar scenarios play out elsewhere in Iquitos and other cities in the Peruvian Amazon. In many low-income neighborhoods in the region, untreated sewage is piped directly into waterways, and seasonal flooding leaves people’s doorsteps awash with wastewater.

A favorable ruling for the neighborhood groups, one requiring sewer and water service, could encourage other community associations to follow suit.

The urban case followed a rural one involving four Kukama indigenous communities along the Marañón River, which were affected in mid-2014 by an oil spill from a pipeline that carries crude from Amazonian oil fields across the Andes Mountains to the Pacific coast. (See "Spill points up risks of rainforest oil projects" —EcoAméricas, August 2014.)

More than two years of litigation and testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—including a visit by a commissioner to the village of Cuninico in July 2017—led to an order by a Peruvian court in Sept. 2017. Under the order, the Peruvian Health Ministry and regional health office were required to design an emergency health strategy for the communities of Cuninico, San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Nueva Esperanza. (See "Indigenous groups press Peru on crude-oil spills" —EcoAméricas, September 2017.)

Peruvian health officials appealed that ruling, but an appeals court backed the communities in 2018; and in Sept. 2019, the Loreto Regional Government’s health office announced that it would implement a plan. Officials met with community members in January 2020 to discuss progress.

That case marked the first time a Peruvian court ordered the government to implement and finance an emergency plan to monitor and address health problems in communities affected by oil spills, Ruiz says. A similar case has been filed by the community of San Pedro, which is near Cuninico and where a pipeline spill occurred in October 2014.

Women play crucial role
In both the Marañón oil spill and the Punchana sewage cases, women were key witnesses. One woman from Cuninico also testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Their testimony underscored the different impacts that pollution has on women—who struggle to find uncontaminated water for drinking, cooking and bathing—and children, Ruiz says.

The precedent set by the decision in the Marañón oil spill case could benefit other communities affected by pipeline breaks, especially in connection with spills near the Chiriaco and Morona rivers in early 2016, Ruiz says. After those spills and a protest that included a blockade of the Marañón River later the same year, the government decreed health and environmental emergencies, but did not allocate funds to support them.

In both the Punchana and the Marañón cases, the courts not only ordered the government to protect residents’ health, but also required that funds be allocated for the work, marking a significant step forward in jurisprudence, Ruiz says.

“The Ministry of Health does not have a national policy for communities affected by heavy metals or hydrocarbons,” he says, adding future suits could push for such a plan, which would benefit communities in mining areas as well as those affected by oil spills.

- Barbara Fraser

Juan Carlos Ruiz
Legal Defense Institute (IDL)
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 617-5700
Documents & Resources
  1. Lower court ruling in favor of neighborhoods affected by sewage and other waste (in Spanish): link

  2. Appeals court ruling in favor of the Marañon Valley communities (in Spanish): link

  3. Dec. 2017 order by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Peru take steps to protect the health of residents of Cuninico and San Pedro (in Spanish): link