The Amazon Oil Spills Overlooked by Environmental Leaders in Lima

As global environmental delegates gather in Peru for the UN climate talks, five oil spills in the country’s Amazon jungle are causing a hidden environmental disaster

It is a disaster hidden from the environmental leaders gathered inside the walls of a military compound in Lima on a mission to fight climate change.

Over the last few months – as Peru helped guide the United Nations climate negotiations – five separate oil spills along a main oil pipeline through the Amazon have spewed thick black clots of crude across jungle and swamp and carpeted local fishing lagoons with dead fish.

Inside the climate summit fortress – as in much of the world – the oil spills in the jungle went largely unnoticed.

But for the indigenous peoples living downstream in clusters of tin-roofed and thatched houses on the banks of the Marañón river, it's been a season of sickness and fear.

The first big breach of the pipeline occurred on 30 June, near a village known as Cuninico. "I never knew what crude oil was, and then suddenly we saw it floating down the river," said Melita Bela Celis, who lives in the village of San Pedro, a Kukama Indian community.

What came next was a series of illness that struck three of her five children: headaches, nose bleeds, nausea and stomach aches. Bela blames the ailments on exposure to oil in the water and in the fish that are the main staple.

"Everybody in the village got these symptoms," she said.

On 16 November, the villagers heard of another pipeline breach over the radio, one even closer to their village. A week or so later, Bela's second-oldest son, Ever, 17, and another villager, Piero Castillo Chanchari, 22, took a canoe into the village's customary fishing lagoon.

On a good day, the villagers say they can find up to 30 species of fish in the lagoon. But what Bela and Castillo saw on that day left them shaken: a dead capybara (the world's largest rodent), coated in crude and floating belly-up in the fishing ground that had been the villagers' main source of food. "You could smell oil, and the leaves on the bank were black," said Castillo.

A little further upstream, the dead and dying fish were packed so closely together you could almost walk on them.

"I could never imagine anything like that," Ever said. "It was scary. I felt sad."

As host, Peru is eager for success at the climate talks now underway in Lima. Last week, the government pledged to get off oil and generate 60% of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, by 2025.

But the Peruvian government is also aggressively promoting a rapid expansion of oil and gas operations in the Amazon – with devastating consequences for local indigenous peoples and the environment, as well as those very same global efforts to reduce carbon pollution. Illegal logging and forest clearance by oil companies now accounts for about two-thirds of Peru's carbon pollution, according to researchers from the Carnegie Institute for Science.

Since 30 June, there have been five separate breaks associated with Petroperú's main northern pipeline.

The pipeline, the North Peruvian, runs for more than 850km from San José de Saramuro in Loreto department, cutting across Amazon jungle and the Andean mountains, before emptying into a refinery at Sechura Bay on the Pacific coast.

Two of the spill sites, at Cuninico and the 20-km point on the pipeline, are only a few miles apart and are clearly visible from the air: large splotches of black amid the expanse of green trees and the brown coils of the Marañón. Nearby, the state-owned oil company has put up blue-tented camps for clean-up workers.

Peruvian officials estimated the first spill at 2,000 barrels. The most recent spill was several times larger, the villagers say.

The company, in a briefing paper prepared for the energy commission on 26 November, called the most recent breach an "assault", or an act of sabotage.

But indigenous peoples and campaigners reject the charge. They say the Peruvian regulators and the state-owned oil and gas company have not done enough to maintain the pipeline, which dates from the early 1970s.

"The pipeline has been neglected for 40 years. It doesn't have the capacity but they use it anyway," said Alfonso López Tejada, leader of the Kukama development association which represents more than 60 communities.

He said this stretch of the pipeline runs beneath the fast flowing waters of the Marañón, making it even more unlikely villagers could successfully attack the structure. "The company doesn't even want to recognise that this is affecting us," López said.

Foreign oil companies have been operating – and fouling – this part of the Peruvian Amazon for more than 40 years. At times those activities have directly threatened the lives of indigenous peoples living in the Peruvian Amazon.

Oil companies have cleared forests to build roads and helicopter pads. They have cut down a vast swathe of the Amazon for pipelines and other installations, and they have pumped the hot, muddy, toxic waste directly into the rivers.

The Norwegian government pension fund – the world's largest – dropped its holding in the Spanish firm, Repsol, on the grounds that the company's operations in the Amazon posed an unacceptably high risk to isolated indigenous tribes. However, Repsol later sold its holdings in that area of the Amazon.

Since 2008, oil developments have increased at a dramatic pace after Lima offered up 75% of the Peruvian rainforest to oil companies.

The state-owned Petroperú as well as Argentinian, British, Canadian and French firms have all ramped up the hunt for Amazonian oil.

"This is an area which was already devastated by the oil companies and what the Peruvian Government has done is just increase the devastation – increased the exploration, increased the production, increased the devastation in this area of the Amazon," said Anders Krogh, chief Amazon campaigner for the Norwegian Rainforest Foundation.

The campaign group works closely with the Kukama and other indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon.

In June, the government lowered maximum fines for environmental crimes by 50% to welcome oil and gas investors, and barred the environment ministry from sole authority over nominating nature protection areas.

"These kind of changes in environmental legislation are first and foremost to protect the oil industry and ensure the oil industry can go on as they want – in the run-up to the COP [Conference of the Parties, the Lima climate summit] they do that," Krogh said.

In recent years, the Peruvian government has declared environmental emergencies in all four headwaters of the Amazon.

For the people of San Pedro and other villages, however, such declarations offer little in the way of consolation. Despite the oil company's assurances, the villagers don't trust the fish that were once their livelihood, and they do not see how they can carry on.

"We can't go on living here," said Melita Bela Celis. "They say the oil will last for 30 or 40 years. We can't eat the fish any more, so what will we live on for all those years?"

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