Indigenous communities impacted by petroleum exploitation demand that the state assume responsibility.
The protests on Feb. 10 against the presence of the Argentinian oil company, Pluspetrol, in the town of Pichanaki in the central jungle, that left one person dead and dozens wounded from gunshots, took its toll upon the government of President Ollanta Humala, which was forced to ask for the resignation of four government ministers, three of whom where directly involved in the conflict.
The dismissed ministers are: the Minister of Interior, Daniel Urresti, who was responsible for the violent police repression against the protesters; the Minister of Energy and Mines, Eleodoro Mayorga, who in the talks with the residents of Pichanaki announced the withdrawal of the oil company from the conflict area, generating harsh criticism from the business sector that exercises great influence in the government; and the Minister of Justice, Daniel Figallo, who accompanied Mayorga in the negotiations. The fourth Minister relieved of duty was the Minister of Women, Carmen Omonte.
Although Pluspetrol has been carrying out petroleum exploration in Pichanaki, it has a long history of abusive practices in the places it has operated, particularly in the Amazon region of Loreto. After fifteen years of petroleum exploitation in Block 1 AB (now Block 192), located between the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre Rivers, near the border with Ecuador, Pluspetrol is scheduled to leave the zone by August 31, and so far has not done any restoration of the 92 sites impacted by its operations and has no intention of paying the more than $13 million for 12 fines for environmental infractions and harm to the health of the population which was imposed by the Environmental Control and Assessment Agency (OEFA).
40 years of contamination
The petroleum company, founded in 1976 in Argentina, came to Peru in 1986. Currently controls the most strategic petroleum blocks in the country, producing 40 percent of the national petroleum and 95 percent of its natural gas. Besides Block 1AB it has a concession in Block 8 between the Corrientes and Marañón Rivers, until its contract expires in 2025. It also operates in five more sites: 115 (Loreto), 88 and 56 (natural gas in Camisea, Cusco), 155 (Puno) and 108 (Cerro de Pasco and Junín) where Pichanaki is located.
In the basins of the Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre and Marañón Rivers reside indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest, the quechua, achuar, urarina, kichwa and kukama kukamira, represented by four federations that form part of the Inter-ethnic Association of Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), the most important organization of the Amazon native peoples that is made up of 57 federations and 1,250 indigenous communities.
In 1971, Block 1AB that includes indigenous territories, was given to the US Company, Occidental Petroleum (OXY) that exploited it until 2000 when it was given over to Pluspetrol. Block 8 remained under the control of the state petroleum company, Petroperu, until 1996 when it was assigned to Pluspetrol.
“Oil exploitation in this part of the Peruvian Amazon began in 1971. A pipeline of over 16 km (10 miles) crosses through the forest and indigenous territories, transporting every day thousands of barrels of oil. As this structure is over 40 years old, it already shows signs of age: the pipes are badly damaged and the connections are in precarious conditions. Before, the oil spills occurred around the drill holes, but now they are becoming more frequent throughout the pipeline. In the last five years alone, more than 100 spills have been documented, according to the Arkana Alliance, an international organization that advocates on behalf of peoples of the Amazon region,” commented Paolo Moiola, in an article published by Latin America Press in October 2014.
In 2006, the Corrientes River Native Communities Federation (FECONACO) decided to take two oil wells denouncing Pluspetrol for discharging around 1.3 million barrels (159 liters each) of production water that comes up from the well along with the oil, instead of re-injecting it into the well as international extraction standards require. This production water rises to temperatures greater than 90º C (194° F), is highly salinized and contains hydrocarbons, chlorides and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, barium, mercury and arsenic among others.
Nine years later, nothing has changed for the indigenous peoples in this part of the Peruvian Amazon and other communities fear that where Pluspetrol is present the same will happen to them and this has led them to protest as happened in Pichanaki.
Pluspetrol’s strategy to avoid paying for damages has been to appeal the fines and stop them by filing counter-suits with the judicial authorities. The report 411-2 prepared by the OEFA in October of last year substantiates the contamination of the basins of the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre Rivers. Immediately the company submitted a “precautionary measure” before the Superior Court of Loreto soliciting that the “legal effect” of the report be suspended. The judge, Alexander Rioja Bermúdez, granted the request.
In preparing its report, the OEFA reviewed 92 sites in the basins with the participation of environmental monitors from the indigenous federations. The OEFA warned that Pluspetrol’s contract will expire in August 2015 and in that moment the company had not requested “the approval from the proper authorities of an to carry out, with the prior approval of the certifier, an orderly withdrawal from the block as well as the environmental restoration work required according to the environmental obligations the company assumed with the concession.”
Unresolved environmental liabilities
According to Renato Pita, in charge of media for FECONACO, “no effort has been made to remedy the damage; only liabilities have been identified by the Ministry of the Environment (MINAM), whose work is only to identify not resolve. Pluspetrol leaves in August and it is not known who will repair the damage.”
The Achuar leader, Carlos Sandi, president of FECONACO, denounced to the foreign press that “during more than 40 years of oil exploitation, the rights of the indigenous peoples to health, education and territory have been infringed. We are demanding that Pluspetrol assume its responsibility. The company’s practice is that the indigenous peoples do not have the same rights that they have. We communities demand that if the company does not assume its responsibilities, the State must comply with them having granted the permits for exploitation.”
“The people continue consuming water and food contaminated by oil exploitation,” added Sandi. “This affects human lives. This crime cannot be condoned. The State does not bother to invest in the development of indigenous peoples. The population presume to die soon because there is no solution, no medicines to cure us of the contamination caused by heavy metals.”
Kukama leader, Alfonso López, from the Marañón River basin, pointed out that the indigenous communities “are not opposed to activities that generate income for the State. But we are opposed to an activity that kills us. There is interest in exploiting oil because only serves for the development of large cities.”
“The oil companies must assume their responsibilities. They must respect indigenous institutionalization. They must compensate for the use of the ground,” claimed López. “Pluspetrol does not recognize that it is in our territories. The company and the State owe us millions in compensation, but this isn’t going to save our lives.”
One of the most dramatic cases was the disappearance of Shanshococha lagoon, an area of almost 3,000 square meters located in Block 1AB, in the Pastaza River basin. After the indigenous communities of the zone denounced this, the OEFA sanctioned Pluspetrol in November 2013 with a fine of $6.6 million “for irreparable loss” of the lake, which permanently affected the ecosystem of the area. The company failed not only to inform the authorities about the impact on the lake, but also drained and removed soil without previously obtaining the official environmental management tool.
The OEFA’s ruling declared that Pluspetrol was obligated to implement measures of environmental compensation that consisted in “creating a new lake or, if the case, strengthen or protect a body of water in the affected zone.” The oil company appealed the decision and in spite of the evidence, never admitted destroying the lake, nor did it comply with environmental restoration. In a statement, it blamed previous operations in the area and said that prior restoration work was supervised by the native communities and environmental monitors in the zone. Also, the company threatened to take “corresponding legal actions.”
Just six months prior to leaving Block 1AB, Pluspetrol has no intention of correcting the environmental disaster that its presence in the Loreto region has left. Moreover, it considers that the soils will recuperate “naturally.” Latinamerica Press.