A River of Trouble for ConocoPhilips: Iquitos Residents Demand a Stop to Oil Project on Nanay River

With a quiet dignity that spoke volumes about their confidence in the cause, residents from a wide swath of civil groups and neighborhoods of the Amazon city of Iquitos marched to the halls of their regional government Tuesday to prevent one of the largest energy companies in the world from drilling for oil near the headwaters of the Nanay River, the city’s primary source of water.

“ConocoPhillips — out of our Rio Nanay!” read one of the many banners that about 80 Iquiteños of all ages carried from the main gates to the lobby of the Regional Government of Loreto, where organizers from the Committee in Defense of Water presented officials with a list of demands for answers and immediate public dialogue.

The U.S. oil company ConocoPhillips and its Canadian partners, Talisman Energy and Gran Tierra, are waiting for the Loreto government’s green light to clear forest and construct more than a dozen massive platforms and dig some 48 exploratory wells in a delicate rainforest region near the headwaters of the Nanay — which supplies more than 90 percent of the drinking water for Iquitos’s half-million residents.

The wetland region of ConocoPhillips’s concessions – Lot 123 and 129 — is renowned for its extraordinary biodiversity, much of it designated as “protected areas” by the regional government. It’s also the ancestral home to numerous indigenous groups, some of whom have tried but failed to block the company’s seismic operations in their territory. Advocates say the tribes were never consulted by the government and never consented to ConocoPhillips, which are requirements under international law.

“People are listening. People are waking up. We have to stop it before it starts,” said Ronnel Macuyana, community leader and president of the Frente de Defensa of the Nanay River.

IMG_8088-001Holding a large poster showing a photo of an oil-slicked stream, Macuyana was among many who gave impassioned interviews to numerous journalists from local television and radio stations, many of whom broadcast the demonstration live as Iquitos residents began their day. They urged listeners to stand up and demand that the project be stopped.

“This will have a strong echo,” said Jose Manuyama, one of the coordinators of the Committee in Defense of Water, which organized the march and presented the demands Tuesday in the name of the “residents of Iquitos.” The group, which was formed earlier this year after the enormity of ConocoPhillips’ project became known through the media, unites dozens of groups, from neighborhood associations and youth collectives, to environmentalists and labor unions.

Demanding transparency

Committee organizers are calling for Loreto Regional President Iván Vásquez to explain how and when his government’s official pledge to protect the upstream biodiversity and the drinking water of Iquitos has gotten twisted into support for ConocoPhillips.

IMG_8077-001Before it suddenly and secretively switched its position and gave ConocoPhillips the go-ahead for the seismic testing that the company recently wrapped up, the regional government of Loreto (GOREL) had declared the pristine region at the rainforest headwaters of the Nanay, Pintuyacu and Chambira rivers off-limits to industrial development, deeming such activities “incompatible” with its conservation mandate and its responsibility to the large and rapidly growing population downstream.
“GOREL – respect your own laws!” read a sign carried by a high school student Tuesday.

Cries for accountability

“There are people in there (regional government) who know how wrong this is,” Manuyama said after giving one of about a dozen media interviews at the roadway entrance to the government compound where morning rush-hour traffic noisily zipped by. During red lights, gawking passengers on swarms of three-wheeled jitneys faced a display of art and photos depicting oil spills and oil-covered animals. Many called out to encourage the demonstrators.

“Until now they (officials) have not had the political will to speak out,” Manuyama continued. “But now, as the citizens are waking up, they will have the support and the courage to stop this brutal threat. We are looking for leaders with the guts to defend the people and defend life.”

IMG_8052-001Though still only in its infancy, the growing movement to stop ConocoPhillips on the Nanay has all the signs of a movement ready to blast off — especially as more people inside and outside of the movement see the striking similarities to other community struggles against extractive industries in Peru and forge links with the national movement to defend water sources from destruction by industrial development.

The most obvious and oft-cited comparison has been with the so-called Conga project in highland Cajamarca, where another American company, Newmont Mining, has been trying to start work on what would be the largest mine in Peru’s history. The company says it has to destroy a series of alpine lakes and streams that local communities depend on. Residents say ‘no way.’

Relentless protests in Cajamarca and a solidarity movement in the capital, Lima, and elsewhere in Peru have shackled the Conga project since October, sparking a national debate and forcing Newmont officials to contemplate a retreat.
It has also emboldened residents in Loreto, who often refer to the ConocoPhillips oil project on the Nanay as the “Conga of Loreto.”

“A lot to fear”

Oil companies, mostly foreign, have pumped oil from Loreto’s forest floor for oil for more than 40 years, but none has done so without causing environmental devastation and social division. There are few if any reasons for residents to believe that ConocoPhillips – or any other company, for that matter — would be any different, especially since ConocoPhillips has operated so far under a cloak of secrecy and with contempt for native communities.

IMG_8041-001_1“This is important for us to be here so that they don’t contaminate the source of our life,” said Manuel Aricari, 43, one of about 15 residents of Santa Clara who joined the march. “There is a lot to fear,” he said before solemnly hauling his poster showing an oil pipeline spill on the Rio Corrientes to the front doors of government.

Organizers said their declaration and other documents presented to officials in Iquitos on Tuesday will also be sent to Peru’s Congress, to the public ombudsman known here as the Defensoria del Pueblo, and to the council of ministers responsible for overseeing industry.

Indigenous wisdom

They also said they are also forging bonds and taking inspiration from the region’s indigenous groups, including the Achuar from the Corrientes and Morona basins, who last week dealt a serious blow to one of ConocoPhillips’s Canadian partners in the Nanay project – Talisman Energy — when they publically rejected Talisman’s presence in their homeland. Talisman’s CEO was forced to admit that his company may have to consider pulling out of Achuar territory.

Andrés Sandi, a prominent Achuar leaders from the Corrientes basin, recently offered the Committee in Defense of Water his federation’s help in their campaign against oil development in the region of the Nanay. Specifically, he offered to share the Achuar people’s experience with oil to anyone willing to listen.

IMG_8045-001Luis Peña, an advocate for indigenous federations in Loreto, said he believes the residents of Iquitos may now be ready for what the indigenous peoples of Loreto, who have long suffered from oil contamination and company-sown strife in their communities, have been saying for years.

“Already, just being here this morning, I can see that attitudes are changing,” Peña said on Tuesday as police and government guards questioned protesters and took their photographs and names.

“When the indigenous people have told this sad story from their lands, few listened,” he said. “Now that oil threatens every sector of society in the city, perhaps they will finally be heard.”

Deborah Rivett, Wednesday, 09 May 2012

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