A farmer & a melting glacier: Why German judges are on a trip to Peru

Judges, experts from Germany arrive in Huarez, Peru to assess risk

By Susan Chacko
Published: Thursday 02 June 2022

A melting glacier in the Peruvian Andes is in the eye of a storm brewing between locals seeking climate justice and a polluting energy company many miles away in Germany. 

A nine-member delegation of German judges and experts recently arrived at the Palcacocha glacier to assess the risk this poses for the 120,000 people living below it in the city of Huarez, Peru, according to an update by a German environmental non-profit Germanwatch

The visit is the latest development in the case filed by a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide claiming that emissions from the company have contributed to the melting of glaciers in the Andes, the organisation‘s article on the case mentioned. 

The swelling glacial lake of Palcacocha is putting his hometown Huarez at risk, he claimed in the lawsuit filed November 24, 2015 with a regional court in Essen, Germany, where the company is headquarted.

The biggest fear of Saúl Luciano Lliuya, the plaintiff, is that the huge lake at an altitude of 4,650 meters will break its banks and drown Huarez and its residents. 

The inspection was ordered by the Higher Regional Court in the German city of Hamm, where Lliuya submitted his claim against RWE after the case in Essen was dismissed.

Lliuya, supported by Germanwatch, wants RWE to be held responsible for environmental damages. 

RWE has knowingly contributed to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases in large volumes and must bear responsibility for the melting of mountain glaciers near Huaraz, Lliuya said in his appeal.

He and his family have invested in flood defence but it's unfair that they have to cover the cost themselves, he said, adding: 

These companies are deluding the world. It's not fair that we should be one to bear the brunt of that.

The case will set a global precedent, they said, adding “in general they (RWE) have polluted all over the world and with this claim we are trying to do something".

David vs Goliath case

Lliuya and members of Germanwatch met during the 20th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Lima in 2014. Activists from Germanwatch travelled to Huaraz after the conference to discuss a potential claim in Germany, according to an article on the non-profit's website. 

RWE is the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Europe, spewing more than 100 million tonnes of it into the atmosphere each year. The fact that the company doesn't operate in Peru is irrelevant, Germanwatch said.

Hamburg-based lawyer Roda Verheyen prepared the case against RWE, invoking section 1004 of the German Civil Code. The paragraph in question seeks to protect property owners from harmful damage by third parties.

There are similar laws in several other countries. So if a precedent is set in this case, it could easily be applied elsewhere, the activists argued.

The legal battle had a rough beginning: On December 16, 2016, the Essen ruled that the lawsuit seeking damages for melting glaciers by the Peruvian farmer is unfounded.

Verheyen appealed again in November 2017, and this time, the Higher Regional Court in Hamm ruled that the case was well founded and could proceed to gathering evidence.

For the first time, a link between the company's contribution to global warming and threats to Huaraz was declared legally relevant.

RWE spokesman Guido Steffen said in response to the case: An individual body cannot be made liable for such a complex phenomenon, one to which hundreds, thousands, millions of factors have been contributing for many years. It would be impossible to demonstrate that carbon emissions generated by a company such as RWE are contributing to the situation on the other side of the world that Lliuya is referring to.

A majority of the tropical glaciers worldwide are located in the Peruvian Andes and nearly 30 per cent of Peru's glaciers have melted away since 2000, according to a study published in Cryosphere September 30, 2019. 

The country lost nearly 8 gigatonnes of ice from 2000-2016, with 170 glaciers covering an area equivalent to 80,000 soccer fields disappearing entirely.

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