Dodging Disaster in Lot 129

With constant news of oil spills in the Amazon region, as well as toxic dumping, manipulation by existing oil companies and a see-no-evil position from all levels of the Peruvian government, the people of Peru´s Amazon have become rightfully weary of oil and gas companies, no matter how sincere the company and its apologists seem when they say, ‘Trust us.’

Now, a new grassroots movement is being launched by the people to block the newest threat to water and life in the Amazon.  The U.S. oil giant, ConocoPhillips, and its collaborators have plans to develop yet another toxic oil project, known as Lot 129,  in one of the most remote and pristine places of the Amazon Rainforest and, therefore, in the world. 

Conoco Phillips and its Canadian consortium partners Gran Tierra (20%) and Talisman Energy (35%)  are poised to start digging at least 18 exploratory wells, dozens of helipads, trails, roads and workers’ camps within and along the boundaries of the Alto-Nanay-Pintuyacu-Chambira National Conservation Area and the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve, and in areas overlapping titled ancestral territories of numerous indigenous peoples. This includes a delicate eco-zone known as “Bosques humedos del Napo,” which was recognized as a Ramsar site of internationally significant wetlands.

Observers say the foreign drillers are itching to plunder what amounts to a mother lode of heavy crude and natural gas.

altHearts and minds

While company officials have not seen fit to sufficiently explain the project to the local indigenous people of the region nor to the half-million people of Iquitos whose main fresh water source, the Nanay River, is threatened by the project, a loose coalition of indigenous activists, environmental lawyers, religious clerics, academics and students are trying to head off the project by reaching the stakeholders first to explain the risks.

Their task should be simple, really. They just need to show examples and testimony from every other river where oil is drilled in Peru – Marañon; Tigre; Pastaza; Corrientes; Ucayáli – to demonstrate that disaster awaits those who don’t learn from the past.

Who could sit back and watch as the Nanay, Mazan, Arebela, Pintuyacu, and Chambira  rivers, which have until now remained remarkably untouched by industrial development, suffer the fate of, say, the Corrientes river shed, where the most authoritative analysis of the oil industry’s history on the Corrientes is called A Legacy of Harm.

The “Conga” of Loreto

 Under the name Comite en Defensa del Agua y de la Vida – Committee to Defend Water and Life – the core of this growing opposition gathers at weekly meetings in Iquitos and plans a campaign of public discussions, marches, civil disobedience and community education in Iquitos neighborhoods.  At the same time, stakeholders among national and international NGOs, church partners and others carry on their own research and reach out to media to sound the alarms in Iquitos, in Loreto, Lima and abroad, while indigenous leaders from the oil-ravaged Pastaza, Marañon, Corrientes and Tigre rivers contact their indigenous brethren throughout the region to spread the word.

For all of those who oppose the ConocoPhillips project, the most potent ally is a solid linkage to the sudden national awareness and concern in Peru over the control and use of water, which has been best demonstrated by the huge wave of opposition to the so-called Conga gold mine in highland Cajamarca.  There, a U.S. mining company –– plans to destroy a series of alpine lakes that form the headwaters of streams and rivers throughout the region, consoling the locals and original peoples of the region with alternatives such as man-made reservoirs and easy access to bottled water – at a price.

The opposition to the $5-billlion Conga project has brought tens of thousands of Peruvians to the streets of Cajamarca and Lima, alike, under the banner of “Water is Life!”

It was no accident, then, that the opening salvo against ConocoPhillips in the Amazon was a Feb. 1 march through the streets of Iquitos in solidarity with the people of Cajamarca. And it’s why the Committee in Defense of Water and Life in Iquitos calls ConocoPhillips’ project in Lot 129, “The Conga of Loreto.”


Now or never

While there is much to save, there is no time to waste.  For nearly a year and a half, now, Conoco’s teams have been tromping through the rainforest doing seismic and other testing under the cover of the Peruvian government.

In other words, the oilmen are given protected access to “protected” areas off limits to observers as they conduct studies in an area roughly 778 square kilometers, in preparation to lay at least 22 seismic lines, detonate 15,560 dynamite blasts, cut some 180 hectares of rainforest, build 206 work camps, clear trees for 206 helicopter landing pads and construct 968 dumps, according to the current plans (data from the indigenous Northern Amazon Oil Observatory, PUINAMUDT).

Wasting no time, the opposition to the “development” of Lot 129 grows as disparate groups with niche concerns are linked through personal contacts and public events and brought into the “consciousness campaign” in Iquitos and Lima, and while the best teachers in the land – the indigenous peoples of the oil-damaged rivers of Peru’s northern Amazon – try to warn the population of Iquitos before it’s too late.

The task seems simple, but they must first break down heavy barriers of public apathy and official collusion, make their neighbors uncomfortable enough at the prospects of drinking poison for them to make a stand even in a city that is well-lubricated with easy money from the oil industry.

This time, though, they say they have a chance to win before the damage is done.

Deborah Rivett, Monday, 02 April 2012

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