Peru Government to Test for Oil Contamination in Indigenous Territories; Indigenous Leaders Call for Transparency

Oil Contamination on the Pastaza River

The Regional Government of Loreto in Peru’s Northern Amazon has just outlined plans for a first-ever independent environmental probe of areas contaminated by oil companies in the infamous oil Lot 1AB, after indigenous Quechua communities from the Pastaza River mobilized to force Peru’s government into talks.

This unprecedented testing of fish, water, soil, and sediment at more than 50 sites in the Pastaza, Tigre and Corrientes river watersheds — the first of which could begin on the Pastaza as early as mid-September — is a major victory for indigenous groups throughout Peru’s Amazon who have for decades decried the poisoning of their water, food sources and forest homeland by the companies’ dumping, leaks and spills.

It is also a major liability for the government and Peru’s booming oil industry.

Wifredo Panduro Cardenas, Loreto’s director for the Environment and Natural Resources, told indigenous leaders in Iquitos last week that dramatic results in the first studies on the Pastaza and Corrientes rivers could trigger a declaration of a state of emergency, which would open a wider investigation and force the central government to send medical, economic and other aid to the region.

A state of emergency could also scandalize the industry at a time when many international newcomers are ramping up hydrocarbon operations, hoping to double Peru’s oil production over the next five years.

Indigenous leaders say they hope it would force Argentinian oil driller PlusPetrol to pay compensation for damages and clean up the region, which has been devastated by a largely uncontrolled oil industry for more than 40 years.

PlusSpill_for_BlogOil Contamination by Argentine Oil Company, PlusPetrol

The contamination of Loreto began with U.S. driller Occidental Petroleum in 1971 and was carried on by Argentinian company PlusPetrol after they took over the lease of the lot in 2000. Massive protests by Achuar and other indigenous groups in the Corrientes basin in 2006 forced PlusPetrol to change the worst of its practices – the dumping of toxic production waters – but the contamination continues.

Indigenous leaders and their legal team are pushing government officials to include their own native monitors, who would be accompanied by international experts and company representatives to ensure the legitimacy of the tests. They say they fear that mistakes or manipulation of the process could backfire and risk clearing the companies of decades of wrongdoing.

“We’ve seen this before on the Corrientes,” said Jorge Tacuri, attorney for the Program in Defense of Indigenous Rights, who represents FEDIQUEP, the Indigenous Federation of the Quechua of the Pastaza, among other federations.

“They tested their own sites, not where the community members knew the oil was,” he told Cardenas, the environmental chief, on Aug. 16. “Then they said there was no contamination.” 

“We won’t let that happen this time,” Tacuri said.

Peru’s central government only agreed to finally examine the results of 40-years of contamination after nearly 500 Quechua villagers from up and down the Pastaza mobilized in the riverside community of Alianza Topal in June.

Jorge_with_PCMDr. Jorge Tacuri in Alianza Topal, speaking to Congress members who visited the area as a result of Quechua protests.

That historic week-long protest, called for by FEDIQUEP President Aurelio Chino Dahua when a delegation from Peru’s Congress suddenly cancelled a planned trip to investigate, led to the arrival of top-level ministers from the central government who signed a list of commitments to prevent a wider conflict. The negotiations resulted in an historic accord, the Acta de Alianza Topal, which promised a package of services and aid and included the environmental investigation.

In meetings last week, which surprised some of the most skeptical indigenous leaders with their apparent sincerity, GOREL agency heads gave reports of progress, including construction of new clinics, hiring of new teachers, a high school and the delivery of corrugated roofs to villages – among many other advances.

Though outside of Lot 1AB, areas of the Marañon River contaminated by PlusPetrol will also be incorporated into the wider probe.

Deborah Rivett, Tuesday, 21 August 2012

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