For years indigenous communities in Peru’s northern Amazon region of Loreto have complained that the rivers and wetlands they depend on for daily life were poisoned by the oil industry operating in or near their territories.
And for years government officials and oil executives have dismissed their claims as unfounded or overblown.
But official revelations over recent weeks have vindicated native residents and put the industry on notice.
Long-awaited government probes uncovered massive oil contamination on “protected” lands and environmental studies revealed hydrocarbon levels in water and soil that in some cases registered more than 90 times higher than standards.
The public vindication came after a sustained campaign of legal pressure and popular mobilizations by an alliance of indigenous groups and their NGO allies forced the Peruvian government to investigate the activities of multinational oil driller PlusPetrol, which has close ties with government officials and traditionally operates as an unofficial sacred cow.
Mounting pressure from below has driven a wedge into that arrangement.
Last month the government of Peru announced that it would fine PlusPetrol some $29 million Soles ($11.3 million USD) for oil-related environmental crimes within the renowned Pacaya- Samiria National Reserve, where the company has drilled for years under government cover with almost no oversight and little public knowledge beyond the native residents who suffer the spills.(1)
And, last week, a panel of government ministers informed indigenous leaders that soil and water tests taken in October along the Pastaza River showed dangerous levels of hydrocarbons and other industry-related chemicals in the lakes, streams and wetlands that thousands of native people exclusively depend on for survival.(2,3) The government previously played down complaints of contamination by indigenous locals during 40 years of drilling. (4)
“How many of our brothers are we going to contaminate?” Quechua leader Aurelio Chino Dahua asked a room full of silent government ministers after hearing the preliminary findings of contamination last week. (5)
With strong new evidence to fuel their cause, Chino Dahua and other indigenous leaders say they will turn up the heat.
The recent revelations have heaped credibility on indigenous activists and swelled public demands for cleanups and compensation for damages. The boost comes just as Peru’s energy agencies prepare for a new round of auctions on new oil and gas leases in the Amazon and debut a new policy of prior consultation of indigenous communities before launching new extractive projects. (6,7)
“As leaders we need to know the condition of these pipelines and why they break so easily, and who is responsible for fixing the damages that they’ve left in their wake,” Kukama leader Alfonso Lopez Tejada told government officials last week, according to the national daily La Republica. (8)
“PlusPetrol does not respect any authority,” said Quechua leader David Chino. “They are killing us by contaminating our environment.”
Both men lead indigenous federations in the oil block damaged by PlusPetrol, where the government hopes to try out prior consultation of locals next month before releasing the land to another oil company. (9) Joined by a vocal cadre of young lawmakers in Peru’s congress, the indigenous leaders say that to re-lease the land before it is cleaned up would be a violation of international law.
Resistance by indigenous communities to mining projects in the Andes and oil and gas operations in the Amazon has dampened many of President Ollanta Humala’s neoliberal economic plans and soaked his chances with some industry suitors. Both Canada’s Talisman Energy and U.S. oil giant ConocoPhillips pulled out of large-scale projects in Peru’s Amazon last fall, and US-owned Newmont Mining sits in a six-month stalemate with native Andean residents and government agencies over its Conga gold mine and planned expansion of its Yanococha dig near Cajamarca. (10,11,12)
The recent confirmation of oil industry wrongdoing on the Pastaza and Maranon Rivers will likely only brighten the spotlight on extractive industries and amplify anti-industry feelings in Peru.
“Indigenous people of the Amazon have suffered in silence for too long,” said Matthew Watherston, executive director of the Alianza Arkana, a key financial and legal supporter of the indigenous groups involved. (13)
“It is now time for the Peruvian government to finally do the right thing and protect its citizens by cleaning up the contaminated lands and ensuring this never happens again,” Watherston said. “I hope this signals a wave of change in Peru where the rights of the land and people are finally put before profits.”
Watherston says Alianza Arkana and its legal partner PDDI – the Program to Defend Indigenous Rights – will step up ongoing international awareness efforts and fundraising campaigns to help the indigenous federations capitalize on the evidence once a more detailed official report of the contamination of the Pastaza is released next week. (14)
Saturday, 16 February 2013