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A Peruvian Corn Farmer Is Taking on One of the World’s Biggest Polluters

In an unprecedented legal move, Huaraz, Peru's Saúl Luciano Lliuya is asking German energy behemoth RWE to pay up for its role in global climate change that Lluiya and his lawyer say could lead to catastrophic flooding near his farm.

by Lauren Rothman
Mar 17 2015, 7:12pm

Saúl Luciano Lliuya farms corn and other crops on his land in Huaraz, a small town nestled into Peru's towering Cordillera Blanca mountain range. Unfortunately for Lluiya, he lives downstream from Lake Palcacocha, a glacial lake that's quickly outgrowing its natural boundaries, increasing four-fold over the past six years as the glaciers that surround it melt away. At any moment, Lluiya and the organizations representing him say, both his farm and his home could be washed away in a flood. And in response to this threat, Lluiya is demanding that a German utility company that has been proven to be of the world's largest carbon emitters pay for its role in the global climate change that has led to the lake's unnatural quadrupling in size.

Yesterday, The Guardian reported on Lluiya's unprecedented move to take on energy behemoth RWE, which generates the majority of Germany's electricity through a mix of coal, gas, and nuclear power plants. According to Germanwatch, an NGO that's aiding Lluiya in his cause, RWE is Europe's single largest emitter of greenhouse gases; in 2012 alone, the utility was responsible for 157 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Because of RWE's role in climate change, and by extension its implication in the flooding of Lake Palcacocha, the Peruvian farmer has petitioned the German utility for 20,000 euros to help pay for security measures that would stabilize the lake and prevent catastrophic flooding that threatens not just Lluiya but also the rest of Huaraz's 55,000 inhabitants. That figure accounts for about .5 percent of the projected total costs of draining the lake, building dams, and enforcing existing ones, and is roughly commensurate with RWE's share in total global emissions from 1751 to 2010, according to a 2013 report. Dr. Roda Verheyen, a noted environmental lawyer based in Hamburg, is representing Lluiya, who plans to sue RWE in a German court if the company doesn't pay up.

"[Lluiya's] aim was to identify one large corporate entity that could be held accountable for climate change," Verheyen told MUNCHIES by phone. "Between speaking with NGOs and being directed towards me, my client decided that RWE was that entity."

Though climate change litigation is on the rise, it's usually companies or governments that sue polluters, not individuals.

"This move is unparalleled in Europe," Christoph Bals, Germanwatch's policy director, wrote in a press release. "The fast-growing risks of glacial melting in this region clearly bear the signature of climate change. Saúl Luciano Lliuya is refusing to be merely a victim and is taking control of his own destiny."

Lluiya told The Guardian that while the Peruvian government lacks the funds needed to pay for the safety measures that are needed in Huaraz, RWE is a large and wealthy corporation that can afford to pony up.

"For a long time ... I have thought that those who cause climate change should help solve the problems it causes," he said. "Peru is a poor and vulnerable country. The big polluters who have contributed to climate change should now contribute to the solutions of our problems."

Times are tough for RWE, whose spokesperson, Sabine Jeschke, told MUNCHIES today that the company's legal department has yet to receive Lluiya's claim. Last month, RWE's stock plunged after an adviser to the EU's top court backed a proposed German tax on nuclear fuel, and the energy firm is also preparing for Germany's 2022 shutdown of all nuclear reactors in the country. An Andean farmer drawing international attention to the utility's environmental abuses can't be good for RWE's already-suffering public image.