Amazon oil spills: case taken to the IACHR

13 March 2016

The oil spills in the Amazon in January and February this year are causing increasing and ever deeper concern as stories of human rights abuse emerge, particularly the rights of the child. A US television network targeting Spanish speakers recorded one child describing the clean up in the following manner: "they paid us two soles for every bucket. We were gathering the oil with our hands and the oil fell on us." 

Pressure is now mounting on Petroperú. A significant grouping of human rights and grass roots organisations, at the instigation of the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, sent a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on 7 March, asking for 'precautionary measures' to be declared as a result of what it saw as clear human rights violations. Such measures have been frequently used by the Court: they require the state to move immediately to protect rights seen as being under threat.

The 20-page letter details the numerous oil spills in the last three years, all associated with the Northern Peru pipeline, and asks for action under four articles of the IACHR’s charter: the need to protect the right to life; to ‘personal integrity’ (physical, moral, and psychological); the rights of the child; and the right to equality under the law. The last of these refers to the affected population's coverage by norms that oblige Petroperú to maintain the pipeline and to respond appropriately in cases of emergency.

The letter provides much evidence of inadequate responses in the form of personal testimonies. Thirteen of these are directly quoted, several from children suffering health problems from working on clean-up operations. The actions pressed for from the state (via the IACHR) cover eight points. These include the proper monitoring of health conditions, the immediate suspension of flows through the pipeline until maintenance is complete, serious monitoring by the Ministries of Energy and Mines (MEM) and the Environment (Minam) of the clean-up operations, and a declaration of a state of emergency in the zone with immediate effect.

The same day, some communities in Morona took action to protest at Petroperú’s failure to include them in the emergency provisions. They took possession of a military helicopter that had flown in to work on monitoring the spill, taking as hostage a number of Petroperú and OEFA officials. This led to a high-level delegation being flown in for Lima the following day (8 March), including the president of Petroperú. A settlement followed rapidly in less than two hours. Petroperú has now agreed to include all 20 affected communities in Morona

Then, on 9 March, came a public letter from the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) to the head of Petroperú that accused the company of a lack of due diligence in its response to such emergencies and required a full accounting of the compensation paid in all of the 21 oil spills that took place since 2011. The Ombudsman demanded that the preventive measures dictated by OEFA to be carried out immediately and that OEFA and OSINERGIN (the oversight bodies) provide full information on Petroperú compliance.

On 11 March, Petroperú announced the dismissal of various employees and a review of the condition of the pipeline. However, the authorities and the IACHR will need to persist if these vulnerable populations are to have their voices heard and their rights protected.

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