Oxfam and the National Human Rights Coordinator have published an important report written by Aymara León and Mario Zúñiga. It provides in-depth analysis of the number and causes of the numerous oil spills in the northern Peruvian Amazon and their impacts on the local people and the environment. It presents a number of challenging recommendations for the industry, government and the country as a whole.

Indigenous protests against oil spills in Peru’s Amazon region have regularly appeared in the media over the last two decades, including being highlighted here. There have been conflicting versions about who is responsible and the scale of the impacts. Numerous negotiations have taken place and unfilled promises have been made. Meanwhile there has been a slow but certain deterioration of the environment. This report represents the most detailed examination of the issues to date.

It includes a serious and in-depth analysis of the data collected on spills, the impacted sites, the distribution of benefits and the degree of local participation in the development and implementation of environmental regulations by the state. By analysing and consolidating official data from the Environmental Evaluation and Monitoring Agency (OEFA) and the Ministry of Energy and Mine’s agency for supervising energy investments (OSINERGMIN), the report reveals that the activities of extracting and transporting oil through the northern Peruvian oil pipeline led to 474 spills between 2000 and 2019 of which two-third (65%) were due to pipeline corrosion and operating failures.

Furthermore, the report notes that since the 1970s there have been more than 2,000 sites with unremediated environmental damage from oil production activities. After lengthy negotiations with the federations representing the indigenous communities in Block 192, the state agreed to remedy 32 priority contaminated sites at an estimated cost over 600 million soles. Up to now only 183.4 million soles have been authorised, enough to remedy ten sites. If the Pluspetrol oil company is not held responsible for the damage in Block 192, the Peruvian taxpayer will have to pick up the tab.

Important though the statistical revelations may be, the report contains much more. It analyses in thoughtful detail the benefits from oil production versus the social and environmental costs of the oil spills. It highlights the contrast between the advanced technology employed by the companies and their shoddy environmental management. And it analyses in careful detail the conflicting evidence and competing narratives concerning responsibilities for the spills.

The report concludes that those mainly responsible have been the companies themselves, due to poor environmental management and lack of maintenance of their facilities, but that the clear evidence of deliberate damage to the pipeline infrastructure suggests collusion between oil company employees, government officials and the companies brought in to remedy the damage. Government officials and company representatives have repeatedly blamed the indigenous communities affected by the spills.

The report reaches five general conclusions.

  • An exclusively economic focus is insufficient to measure the costs and benefits of oil extraction in the Amazon.
  • Despite claims about the employment of advanced technology and an emphasis on environmental sustainability, the infrastructure and practices of the industry in the region are precarious.
  • There has been an increase in blame shifting and attempts to criminalise those critical of the industry.
  • A revision of the methods used to investigate oil leaks and determine responsibilities need to be carried out. More attention needs to be devoted to the so called ‘remediation club’ while the contributions of community environmental monitoring also need to be taken into consideration.
  • Oil impacts, the social conflicts that arise, and the unequal transformations of life horizons continue to affect the lives of those living in proximity to oil installations.

Amongst its fourteen recommendations to government, industry and civil society, the report highlights the need to consider production moratoria in zones where the environmental and social costs do not compensate the benefits derived from oil production. It argues that this is the first in a series of urgent steps to change the country’s energy production and consumption matrix.