The Tip of the Iceberg

Students from GW Law traveled to Peru to meet a climate justice activist whose case could set an important precedent.

January 31, 2024

Law students Fiorella Valladares, left, and Maria LeLourec met Quechua climate activist Saúl Luciano Lliuvas

Law students Fiorella Valladares, left, and Maria LeLourec met Quechua climate activist Saúl Luciano Lliuya in the Peruvian Andes. (Contributed photo)

Two students at GW Law, both Peruvian, flew to Lima over the holiday break and then traveled by bus for nine hours to Huaraz, a city high in the Andes, to speak with a climate justice activist who has filed a landmark lawsuit against German company RWE, an energy giant that environmental groups and climate activists have said is a major polluter in the region and elsewhere.

Indigenous farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya has been globally recognized as a hero of climate justice litigation since filing the suit. He lives in Huaraz, a Peruvian city of approximately 120,000 people, where he sometimes works as a guide for tourists in search of a high-altitude experience in the Andes. Students Fiorella Valladares and Maria LeLourec interviewed him for an article drafted by LeLourec and published in the GW Law Environmental and Energy Law Blog, planned as the first in a series of writings to highlight the case.

The article serves as an introduction to the case and its central figure, Luciano Lliuya. In a subsequent piece focusing on the legal technicalities involved, one of the attorneys on his legal team will be featured.

As glaciers crumble and melt into Lake Palcacocha due to global warming, the water level rises, which could spell disaster for Huaraz. Luciano Lliuya is seeking to compel RWE to contribute to the cost of a dam and drainage system that would keep the lake from overflowing in a potentially devastating flood.

“You would do it, too, if your mountains were disappearing before your eyes,” Luciano Lliuya told the students. “It’s something anyone would do.”

But LeLourec and Valladares consider him a singular figure distinguished by humility, courage and conviction.

“For me, he's a hero and a role model,” said LeLourec, a third-year law student. “I admire him. He said, ‘Anyone could do this,’ and I said, ‘But no one did.’ He is the most humble person I ever met, and it was so refreshing to be with him.”

Valladares, too, found him to be extraordinary. She worked as an environmental lawyer in Peru for 10 years prior to coming to GW in pursuit of an L.L.M.

“He’s a real hero,” Valladares said. “I have known a lot of environmental leaders who are very impressive, but no one like Saúl. His humbleness, his spirit and commitment to this cause are not commonly seen. He’s part of a big, big fight, but you’re never too little to fight back. We want to help him in any way possible.”

Valladares and LeLourec were introduced to Luciano Lliuya's case by Randall S. Abate, assistant dean for Environmental Law Studies, who suggested they interview him while on their holiday break in Peru. Both students readily agreed, and for both of them, it was an eye-opening experience.

“It was a little bit shocking to see how people live in the Peruvian Andes,” LeLourec said, “in a state of abandonment by the authorities and in extreme poverty.”

Valladares agreed, saying she felt a strong connection to the case.

“I'm from Lima, but my family is from the south of Peru, where the majority of the population is Indigenous,” she said. “So being involved with the protection of Indigenous rights touched me personally. And protection of environmental and natural resources always attracts me.”

On one hand, Luciano Lliuya’s goal seems rather modest: He is hoping RWE will be legally required to contribute a small portion of the total cost of building a new dam and drainage system at Lake Palcacocha. The projected total cost is about $4 million in U.S. dollars, but Luciano Lliuya’s lawsuit asks RWE to cover only $20,000 in U.S. dollars.

On the other hand, if Luciano Lliuya and the lawyers he is working with at Germanwatch, a nonprofit group formed to influence environmental and other policies, prevail against RWE, corporate polluters everywhere have reason to worry. It would establish a precedent that could affect future lawsuits in which citizens seek compensation for environmental harm.

“This case is the tip of the iceberg,” Valladares said. “It will set a landmark precedent if Saúl wins. The environment needs to be protected. Climate change needs to be addressed, and there are companies that need to be accountable.”

Both LeLourec and Valladares feel that, as Valladares said, “Saúl makes us proud as Peruvians.”