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Five Years In, Legal Team Behind Groundbreaking Huaraz Case Remains Optimistic

“We are here because we are crazy people,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, former Peruvian Minister of Environment, who was addressing an international audience from a terrace in Lima, Peru. “We are here to celebrate.” Pulgar-Vidal was speaking as a member of a panel on the status of the Huaraz Case on the five-year anniversary of its filing.

On November 24, 2015, mountain guide and farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya made headlines around the world when he filed suit against German energy giant RWE. The lawsuit is an attempt to hold the company accountable for the climate change that puts his hometown in the Huaraz region high in the Peruvian Andes at serious risk of being overwhelmed by flooding due to glacier loss.

The December 2 panel was hosted by Germanwatch, a climate justice organization that has provided funding for the case. The panel convened climate scientists, activists and environmental law experts, as well as plaintiff Saúl Luciano Lliuya and his lawyer, to give an update on the progress and significance of the Huaraz Case five years in.

The suit is of great significance to the world of environmental law and serves to give an idea of what future climate justice litigation could look like. “We are used to discussing climate change globally,” said Pulgar-Vidal. “The importance of this case is that it is connecting the global discourse with the local needs.”

A screen shot shows the faces of a group of experts gathered to discuss the Huaraz Case. All look directly out from the screen, and one appears to be mid sentence.
A panel of experts gathers to discuss the Huaraz case on November 24, 2020. Source: Screengrab by Kelcie Walther.

“In the beginning this seemed impossible, but later it became possible,” said plaintiff, farmer and mountain guide Saúl Luciano Lliuya from his home in Huaraz, Peru. “As the case goes forward and there is lots of good proof, strong arguments about glacial retreat in the Andes. There’s a lot of hope going forward.”

“I don’t think we are crazy,” said Luciano Lliuya’s lawyer, Roda Verheyen. “This case uses existing law. It’s a nuisance provision, a very, very old provision which says that if you have a disturbance of your property you can ask the disturber to stop disturbing you. In this case, the disturbance is ongoing with greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere.”

In 2017, the Higher Regional Court of Hamm in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, took the groundbreaking step of ordering the German legal team to travel to Huaraz, Peru, to look for proof, marking the first time that a case of this nature has gotten this close to trial. “Three years ago the court in Hamm declared that there is a responsibility for large emitters for the impacts of climate change,” said Verheyen. “As long as we can prove it.”

Verheyen visited Huaraz last year to collect evidence, but site visits have been stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once travel restrictions are lifted, the Huaraz case legal team will meet with scientists in Huaraz to begin gathering the data the court has requested.

Since 2000, Peru has lost 30% of its glacier mass, increasing runoff from glaciers and putting towns like Huaraz at risk of flooding. Glacial lakes, which are fed by melting glaciers, dot the Andes. One such body of water is Lake Palcacocha, which is upriver from the town of Huaraz. Continued glacier loss could result in a glacial lake outburst flood, which would put the natural rock dam that forms the lake at great risk of breaking. This could inundate cities and towns downriver from the lake, which would risk great property damage and casualties.

A milky blue lake sits at the base of snowy mountains and is surrounded by dark brown rocks.
Fed by melting glaciers, Lake Palcacocha in the Cordillera Blanca Mountains is 30 times the volume it was 50 years ago. Source: Cooperación Suiza – COSUDE

Luciano Lliuya is suing RWE, a German multinational energy company that was founded in Essen, Germany in 1898 and is the 297th largest publicly owned company in the world. In 2017, the Carbon Majors Database reported that from 1988-2015, RWE was responsible for 0.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The suit asks for about $20,000 to cover 0.47% of the cost of draining Lake Palcacocha and building a dam. The sum is a pittance for RWE, a company whose net worth is over $25 billion. However, the precedent set by such a win would be priceless for future climate justice suits.

The progress of the Huaraz case is significant not just for this Andean town, but for the future of climate justice lawsuits in general. “Putting a spotlight on a big polluter like RWE busts the myth that we are all equally responsible,” explained panelist Lili Fuhr, head of the international environmental policy division at Heinrich Böll Foundation, in an interview with GlacierHub. “It makes it clear that those companies that have caused the crisis in the first place are also the ones who have been benefiting from producing and selling fossil fuels for decades.”

Win or lose, this case and the strategy it employs will have significant impacts on future climate lawsuits. “I know that many lawyers in developing countries and places that are extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts are closely watching this case and will stand ready to file similar cases if this case is won,” said Fuhr. “Even if the outcome turns out to be a different one, this case will serve as a source of inspiration for legal strategies to hold corporate polluters accountable across borders.”

The outcome of the Huaraz case will be decided in the coming years. For now, the team of lawyers, activists and scientists are taking its progress as a triumph. “The panel is finished but the case is not,” said Germanwatch Honorary Chairman Klaus Milke as he raised a glass of wine to toast his fellow panelists. “We go on.”

A screen shot of a Zoom call shows 7 people looking into the camera smiling. Two of them are holding up drinks in a toast.
Plaintiff Saúl Lucian Lliuya toasts his fellow panelists with a glass of pisco. Source: Screengrab by Kelcie Walther
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