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Peru's Indigenous Communities Are Fighting Back Against Environmental Contamination by Seizing Oil Wells

The government has failed to sufficiently regulate the oil sector, say the protestors, and runoff from drilling has poisoned rivers and streams.
Image via Reuters

A conflict is raging in Peru's Amazon forests between indigenous groups and an Argentinian oil company. The Amazon dwellers have halted drilling and blockaded a jungle road for two weeks in protest of what they claim is a decades-long environmental catastrophe.

On January 26th, almost 400 Indians seized at least 14 wells in the Loreto region owned by Argentina's Pluspetrol, according to the Federation of Indigenous Communities in the Corrientes River, or Feconaco.


Members of five Achuar communities obstructed supplies reaching the remote Jirabito facilities near the Ecuador border, while downstream, Quechua tribesmen blocked the Tigre river.

The groups are demanding $33 million in reparations for use of land in the area, which produces about a quarter of Peru's total 67,000 barrels a day (bpd).

'There's worry that they're generating and searching for conditions to leave the concession without assuming environmental responsibility.'

The government has declared several emergency zones following spills in recent years from leaky, outdated pipelines, with over 90 areas affected. Toxic waste and heavy metals have contaminated waterways and food sources, according to Peru's Environment Ministry.

"The community is demanding payment for damages done in this zone by Pluspetrol, which hasn't assumed responsibility," Henderson Rengifo, an Achuar indigenous leader, told VICE News.

The Argentine oiler, which has operated in the area since 2001, said it had already paid damages to nine communities and called the actions "unjustified" as some settlements lie outside its drilling zones.

The company has said it wanted to "publicly convene" dialog with leaders blocking the Tigre river, as well as those holding the wells, who are paralyzing 3,100 bpd. Government officials have met with both parties in the hopes of brokering an end to the stand-off.

This isn't the first time grievances over 43 years of local crude extraction have simmered over.


Indigenous groups have protested frequently, scoring victories in 2006, when the government agreed to treat all contaminated water from the extraction process, as well as launching economic development programs — though little has materialized from those agreements.

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Last April, demonstrators occupied wells, stopping 70 percent of production at the Jirabito facilities.

"People from government are having conversations there again, but what the communities want are solutions," said Roberto Espinoza, a rainforests advisor at the country's largest indigenous network, Aidesep.

"When production began, there was more petrol spilled than toxic waste to a ratio of nine to one, though after 43 years of investments, toxic waters are greater," he said. "Waters full of salt, lead, and barium have entered rivers, tributaries, and gullies, and the environmental damage has accumulated to impact animals."

Marco Simons, legal director at Washington-based Earthrights International, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Achuars against former concessionaire, US-based Occidental Petroleum, said groups were left with "little choice" but to resort to protest.

"Communities have always had a difficult relationship with oil companies, in part because they were never consulted or given full information about what exploration and production would mean for them," Simons said.


Under Peru's constitution, the state owns the country's mineral wealth, not those who happen to live on top of it. This has put it on a collision course with tribes campaigning for legal recognition of their ancestral lands.

The state has failed to sufficiently regulate the oil sector, in spite of warnings issued by its health and environment ministers over pollution levels, according to Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch.

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Miller described an "asymmetrical power struggle" with the "big money interests" of the Energy Ministry and state oil licenser, Perupetro, tending to win over the Environment Ministry and national ombudsman, who's charged with protecting the constitutional rights of Peruvians.

Indeed, the National Human Rights Coordinator said the government had shown "little political will to find solutions to the contamination," and communities were exercising their legal right to protest.

Perupetro will put the concession up for auction later this year, sowing concern that Pluspetrol might withdraw without cleaning up the pollution.

"There's worry that they're generating and searching for conditions to leave the concession without assuming environmental responsibility," Renato Pita, of the North Amazon Oil Observatory, or PUINAMUDT, told VICE News. "There's fear they'll end up unpunished."

The regional government of Loreto would suffer from a lower tax take from the key industry, vital for social spending in the state blanketed by biodiverse rainforest, said Cesar Gutierrez, an oil and gas expert and former president of the state-owned oil company, Petroperu.


The region raked in $118.2 million from all concessions last year.

With oil and gas blocks now covering over 733,000 square kilometers in the Western Amazon, an area larger than Texas, future drilling of deep, untapped deposits could open up a Pandora's Box of adverse environmental impacts and swathes of pristine forest for deforestation, warn environmental and indigenous groups.

Consultation between the government and indigenous groupsbefore the block is re-auctioned in August is central to the protestors' demands.

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Pluspetrol had become "lax" in tackling spills after the state announced the block's license renewal, said Gutierrez, adding the large compensation claim by the protestors made prospects for new investment in the area "remote."

"The hydrocarbon frontier keeps expanding in the Amazon," Matt Finer, of the Amazon Conservation Association, told VICE News. "And with that more indigenous communities are going to be impacted."

Follow Alex Pashley on Twitter: @A_Pashley