Petroperu and indigenous communities lock horns over oil spills

21 July 2019

Oil spills on 9 July from the northern Peruvian oil pipeline impacting the Tayuntsa; spills on 19 June affecting the Nueva Jerusalén and Nueva Nazareth communities, as well as the Sinchi Roca community; and the occupation of Petroperú’s petroleum pumping station No. 5 and the blockading of the Iquitos to Nauta road by indigenous protesters on 9 July: these are but the latest incidents in a long history of oil impacts on indigenous communities and community actions taken in response.

In the last five years alone, there have been 45 pipeline spills in the Peruvian Amazon. Petroperú claims that over 60% have been due to criminal actions that have cost the company US$82 million (almost 70% of their 2018 profits). The company also claims that the rehabilitation of the pipeline would cost about US$1.7 billion.

An acrimonious debate between Petroperú (the state company responsible for the pipeline), the indigenous communities and the Ministry for Energy and Mines has erupted.

The company has claimed that the oil spills are mainly, if not entirely, due to criminal sabotage by individuals or communal enterprises seeking well-paying employment to clean up the spills subsequently. It has responded by not contracting local populations for environmental remediation and refusing to supply emergency water and food, thereby increasing the vulnerability of the indigenous leaders to criminal charges and undermining the local populations’ livelihoods.

What has not occurred so far is any coherent and articulated programme to achieve environmental remediation, protect the health of those living close to the pipeline, and identify and sanction the companies and/or individuals responsible for the supposed sabotage.

Representatives of indigenous organisations and the NGOs supporting them argue that the fact that no-one has been identified and arrested for sabotage suggests that the oil spills are due to the deteriorated state of the ageing pipeline and the lack of adequate maintenance.

In 2016 the government’s environmental monitoring and evaluation agency (OEFA) issued a resolution (012-2016) stating that, due to budget restrictions, Petroperú had failed to undertake preventative maintenance to its equipment and that part of its installations were obsolete. This, it said, represented a significant cause of contamination. It ordered the company to undertake prompt, effective and comprehensive maintenance.

In response, Petroperú lodged a legal appeal against this ruling, which is still awaiting final resolution. Until this happens, the company will resist compliance and any proper maintenance of the pipeline is unlikely to happen.

Following recent spills, on 9 June, the Ministry of Energy and Mines and indigenous representatives agreed jointly to select an independent consultant to evaluate the state of the pipeline.

Meanwhile, at the urging of the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) and under orders from the prime minister, the Health Ministry on 10 July delivered a long-awaited report on the health effects of contamination by heavy metals and hydrocarbons on communities in former oil block 192.

The report indicates that 46% of the children under twelve years of age studied had blood levels of arsenic above the recommended levels and 22% had high levels of lead and 26% high levels of mercury. In the case of those over twelve, 28% had high levels of mercury and 22% high levels of lead.

The leaders of the affected indigenous federations have proposed that a special integrated plan to attend to the population exposed to heavy metals and hydrocarbons be developed and implemented.

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