The Ministry of Energy and Mines (Minem) has finally released over US$55 million to address half a century’s legacy of contamination in Block 192. A welcome first step, it will not go far in addressing the problem as a whole.
The money will allow restorative operations to resume on 32 priority sites in Amazonas region. But the overall task is daunting. There are 1,273 untreated spills (and still counting). On 13 January, local communities closed down the air strip and operational base at Nuevo Andoas in protest against the latest reported oil spill.
Drilling platforms in Block 192, along with the antiquated North Peru pipeline and its branches, have affected 98 indigenous communities for over half a century living along four Amazon tributaries: the Tigre (Kichwa), the Corrientes (Achuar), the Pastaza (Quechua) and the Marañon (Cocama).
Pluspetrol of Argentina held the concession until 2015. Then Frontera from Canada took over, to be replaced by Petroperú in 2020.
Indigenous complaints about the presence of crude oil in their water supplies, on their crops and in their villages only began to have some effect after the UNDP conducted an independent study of the region in 2018 that confirmed that there had been no effective remediation over the entire period of the concession.
As a result of the study, Minem set up FONAM, a national environmental trust fund with broad representation from the ministries of the environment, health and sanitation, agriculture, and housing and construction. Crucially, it also included indigenous organisations.
In 2016, FONAM released the first tranche of US$15 million from the fund, and late in 2019 Minem authorised disbursement of the remaining US$40 million, following vigorous lobbying by indigenous groups.
However, this will only restore ten of the roughly 2,000 contaminated sites in the area. The cost of addressing all the priority 32 sites is estimated to rise to US$211 million. Even if the government matches the US$40 million of the second tranche (as promised), the indigenous peoples estimate that only 2% of all zones affected by contamination will be covered.
The current situation is the result of decades of neglect of both plant and pipelines in Block 192. The high social, environmental and financial costs associated with the oil industry and its remediation suggest the need for greater focus on prevention rather than cure.
The closure of the runway at Nuevo Andoas and the blockade of Frontera’s 350 staff in the base there suggests that neglect is no longer an option.