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PlusPetrol Under Fire in Loreto: New Inquiries, Exposés and Penalties Fuel Indigenous Movement

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August_spill_-_1Oil Contamination on the Pastaza River

IQUITOS, Peru -- The cruel world that oil driller PlusPetrol has built in Peru's Amazon over the last 16 years seems to be crumbling under the weight of the company's own crimes.

The Argentinian firm -- notorious for spilling oil, dumping chemicals and pumping toxic production waters into streams used for daily life by indigenous communities – is finally getting the attention it deserves.

On the pleading of indigenous leaders whose people have suffered two generations under the oil regime in the region of Loreto, a congressional investigation finally led to the dramatic arrival of four members of Congress, who late last month had to see for themselves the contamination that officials at all levels of government have ignored for years.

Congress "shocked" by damage

In one visit, a prominent congresswoman slipped into an oil-filled pond that the company denied even existed. In another, Congress members arrived on the scene just as PlusPetrol workers were busy bulldozing dirt and trees and other vegetation on top an oil-filled lake to hide the contamination. There they are, on video, caught in the act of the crime.

"This is how it is. This is what we live with out there," Adolfo Rengifo Hualinga, vice president of the Achuar indigenous federation FECONACO, told Alianza Arkana Wednesday.

In recent testimony before Peru's Congress, PlusPetrol officials blamed indigenous "vandalism" for a majority of the spills, insinuating that the natives were responsible for poisoning themselves.

Forcing government's hand

Signs_for_PCMThe Quechua people meeting Congress members with hand-made signs

After Quechua communities on the Pastaza River rose up to protest last month and threatened to add to Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's many woes, a cabinet-level commission was mobilized and dispatched to the community of Alianza Topal to diffuse tensions, resulting in unprecedented promises from the central government's ministers to make life better there – promises now made official in a binding "Supreme Resolution" that covers four important Amazon watersheds.

The first 25 medical personnel, accompanied by Peru's First Lady, arrived in the Pastaza oil town of Andoas Thursday to start treating and surveying the health of indigenous Quechua and Urarinas residents and show that the government finally means business.

The convergence of the government probes has led to some of the most complete and damning national media coverage of Loreto's oil industry in recent years, perhaps best exemplified in a shocking photo in the Lima daily La República showing a man hip-deep in an oil-filled lake being pulled out with branches.

"Of the 75 (remediation) obligations listed in the PAC (Supplementary Environmental Plan), the company maintains that it has completed all but seven," the La República caption reads. "The reality reveals the lie," it concludes.

Spills continue

Plus_Saramuro_TransferPlusPetrol remains conspicuously silent through all the ongoing activity, perhaps still occupied with damage control after inconveniently spilling more oil in the wetland region of Trompeteros on June 26 – right in the middle of the congressional investigation and visits by the government ministers. Indigenous leaders say that spill occurred because the company was allowed to continue using tubing on its northern pipeline that dates back to the early 1970s in an effort to cut costs.

"They could finally see it and feel it, see with their own eyes that the contamination exists," Sandy said Wednesday of the visit from Congress. "Just like we've always said it existed," he said.

But whatever the company would like to say in its defense, it can only stammer at the new sanctions levied against it this week by the Peruvian environmental control agency OEFA for not cleaning up contamination it claimed to have cleaned from streams, lakes, lagoons and wetlands throughout Loreto.

Violations stack up

"These resolutions confirm the accusations made by indigenous organizations affected by oil operations and contamination in the watersheds of the Tigre, Pastaza, Corrientes and Marañon (rivers), confirming that the company PlusPetrol is an agent of long term contamination in their territories," reported the oil monitors of the indigenous group PUINAMUDT Thursday.

This most recent evidence of PlusPetrol's "infractions of environmental laws" and abuses of indigenous communities will undoubtedly present fodder for the ongoing congressional investigation, which is nearing the completion of its first report based on data going back six years. Insiders say the report, which may be out as early as next week, could damage the reputation of PlusPetrol enough to make it impossible, or at least more uncomfortable, for cozy relationships with government officials to continue.

Nowhere to hide

It could also make it more difficult for the central government's commission of ministers to white wash the company's record and not hold the long-complicit regional government accountable. Insiders talk of blowing the lid off years of corruption at the regional and local levels.

With some luck and a lot of sustained pressure, the evidence could produce significant blows to the structure of collusion and lies that has allowed PlusPetrol to operate here with impunity for so many years, and finally expose it to the wrath of indigenous communities bent on getting some long-awaited justice.

And with the oil industry planning to double production in Peru over the next five years, an empowered and unified indigenous movement finally on the national stage could force the change needed to make sure business can't be done as usual here any more.

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