Health Impacts of Oil Spill to be Addressed

22 September 2019

In recent years in the Peruvian Amazon there have been frequent cycles of oil spills involving mutual accusations between oil companies and indigenous over who is responsible, poorly executed clean-ups, protests and negotiations, promises by the state and the oil companies to investigate and remedy the health and environmental impacts, and inconclusive outcomes with renewed mutual accusations and protests.

In an emblematic case involving a spill in the Cuninico creek in June 2014, a tributary of the Amazon upriver from Iquitos, which affected the Cuninico, Nueva Santa Rosa, Nueva Esperanza and San Francisco communities, after a law suit lasting five years, the Loreto Regional Government and the national Health Ministry have announced that they will respect the judge’s ruling and implement a funded health plan in the affected communities. This is the first time that such a legal case has been successful and could serve as a precedent for future cases.

In February 2015 the Lima human rights and legal defence organization, the Legal Defence Institute (IDL), supported by the Director of the Catholic Church’s Iquitos Vicariate, the Dominican priests in the Santa Rita de Castillo parish and the Ucamara radio station, began a law suit against the national and regional governments, obtaining in 2017 a court order directing the Health Ministry to design and implement within 30 days an emergency public health strategy involving medical attention, environmental and health epidemiological monitoring and constant verification of quality standards of potable water.

However, it was not until 23 August this year that the national Health Ministry and the Loreto Regional Government announced that they would respect the judge’s ruling and would implement an integrated plan for which the Ministry of Finance had approved a total budget of 2,530,570 soles (US$764,523), with 619.638 soles (US$187,202) for 2019.

While the fact that the national and regional health authorities have developed a concrete plan and have obtained funding from the Finance Ministry for its implementation represents a historic victory and suggests that such legal actions may represent an effective strategy for achieving state action, there are still some remaining doubts.

Implementation will be the responsibility of the Regional Government and it is unclear what the Health Ministry’s role will be, apart from overall supervision. The funding is to come from funds set aside from the 10% of petroleum taxes collected in and shared with the region that is intended for indigenous peoples. Up to now these funds have been retained (and, apparently, misspent) by the Regional Government and by law should be used to fund small development projects in indigenous communities and not compensate communities for the environmental and health impacts of oil production. Finally, for the moment this is a one-off measure since there is no national policy regarding compensation to indigenous and local communities for the health and environmental impacts of minerals and oil extraction in the country.

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