July 2010 12:24
Written by David Hill
On June 19 hundreds of barrels of oil were spilled in a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon, leading to calls for a ‘state of emergency’ to be declared and an appeal to the United Nations to intervene.
The oil was spilled by Argentine company Pluspetrol on the River Maranon in Loreto, northern Peru. This is far from the first time. According to a June 25 article in the Peruvian weekly Hildebrandt en sus trece, the same company has spilled oil 78 times in the last four years in this region: four spills in 2006, 23 in 2007, 18 in 2008, 23 in 2009, and 10 this year already.
‘We went down to the river to do our washing and realised there were traces of oil in the water. That was a shock. We went a little further along the bank and soon realised that there were patches of oil everywhere in the river,’ said one local resident in an interview with radio station La Voz de la Selva, which has followed events closely.
Local reaction has centred on two main concerns. First, the fact that so many people rely on the river for their survival. According to leading indigenous organization Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP), at least 28 indigenous communities – in other words, thousands of people – use the river for their drinking water, cooking and fishing.
Second, the fact that Pluspetrol’s and the Peruvian authorities’ response to the spill was so patently inadequate. A statement from a coalition of local organizations accused Pluspetrol of failing to act quickly enough, and Peru’s Energy Ministry of playing down the gravity of the spill. ‘It’s not like the Gulf of Mexico,’ the Energy Minister was quoted as saying.
Tragically, this is nothing new in northern Peru where oil has devastated indigenous land and lives for decades. On the River Corrientes, Amazon Watch, Earthrights International and Peruvian NGO Racimos de Ungurahui estimate that nine billion barrels of toxic waste have been dumped into streams and wetlands since the 1970s.
“On the international news the Gulf spill is priority news. Presidents of governments and multinationals speak about the BP disaster, but nobody is talking about the damage suffered by our river and communities,” said the Loreto Environmental Network (RAL), a local environmental watchdog based in Iquitos, the biggest town in the region.
Worse, speaking out against this damage makes you enemies. Peru’s Minister of the Interior decided to expel Paul McAuley, president of the RAL. McAuley has been a fierce critic of environmenta and human rights abuses in northern Peru for years. In response Amnesty International has called on the Peruvian government to reverse its decision.
“The government’s attitude towards Indigenous people and those who work to protect their rights is deeply disturbing,” said Guadalupe Marengo, Deputy Americas Director at Amnesty International. “This attempt to expel a human rights advocate who has worked tirelessly to protect Amazon communities and their environment is the latest example of the attack on Indigenous People’s rights that is taking place in Peru.”
McAuley, who has lived in Peru for 20 years and who faces deportation today, said “What we do at the Loreto Environmental Network is awareness-raising so that biodiversity is treated legally and responsibly. To some people that seems to be a threat, or contrary to public order. Our work is to educate people.”
These are grim times in Peru. Since the tragic violence at Bagua last year, when armed Peruvian police attacked indigenous protesters, the government has been actively persecuting indigenous leaders and trying to undermine their organizations. Now it appears to be doing the same to their allies.
At the same time, the government continues on its course to open up as much of the Amazon as possible to oil and gas companies. In recent months, representatives from Perupetro, the state oil and gas agency, have been touring cities like London and Paris announcing a further 10.6 million hectares of the Amazon are open for business this year.
AIDESEP have condemned Perupetro’s plans and said that indigenous people have not been consulted. Last month, in a move that provoked storms of criticism, president Alan Garcia blocked a law that would have recognized indigenous people’s right to consultation about projects affecting their communities and land.
David Hill is a researcher with Survival.