Eye on the Amazon

Oil in the Peruvian Amazon: A 2015 Panorama

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Once again, the most prolific oil complex in Peru's Amazon region has exploded with local indigenous protests, grinding oil production to a halt. Both Achuar & Kichwa indigenous communities have risen up, stopping roughly 3,100 barrels/day of oil production. Two weeks in, the grassroots actions have catalyzed increasing national and international media exposure in outlets like The Guardian, VICE News, and Al Jazeera English.

This current protest is simply the latest of many that have rocked the northern Peruvian Amazon in recent years. Block 1AB is the most prolific oil operation in Peru's history, currently producing 20% of the country's oil output. Yet neither the government nor Pluspetrol have demonstrated the most minimal willingness to clean up life-threatening pollution. Since 2006 the Ministry of Health has documented unacceptable levels of heavy metals in the blood of local indigenous community members. In 2012, four river basins downstream from the oil drilling were declared 'environmental emergency zones' by the Ministry of the Environment.

The indigenous strategy could be called "no pain, no gain": Unless Pluspetrol and the government feel economic pain (lost revenues from the blockade), there will be no gain in what the communities have been persistently demanding going back years now. The Achuar and Quechua indigenous peoples have organized themselves, documented ongoing pollution, and denounced systematic rights violations but have only achieved concrete gains when they exact economic pain on the company through nonviolent blockades and occupations.

The communities are demanding S/.100 million, or roughly US$33 million, as part of a fund for reparations and due compensation for use of their lands, which has never been paid. They are also demanding legal land titles and a real consultation process around any new contracts for Block 1AB (to be called Block 192 under the new contract).

Based on past experiences, we can expect the company and the government to deploy every duplicitous trick in the book to end the protests while avoiding accession to any of the demand. The ability of the Achuar and Quechua indigenous peoples to achieve those demands will depend on how long they can maintain the protests and how much solidarity they can garner at both a national and international level. Keeping the protests in the headlines is key to that struggle.

The Global Context

The evidence is mounting: Mankind must keep most oil, gas, and coal underground and unburned. A recent study in Nature states that the overwhelming majority of fossil fuel reserves would have to remain untapped in order for humankind to have a 50% chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.

Meanwhile, governments the world over are strategizing how to maximize their countries' production of fossil fuels. Peru – fresh off hosting the latest UN climate summit – seems to be no different. Laying the groundwork for the auction of 26 new oil licenses throughout the Amazon region, the government issued regulations in 2014 that weakened oversight and control of oil companies. While the nation hosted the COP20 climate talks in its capital in December, five separate oil spills stemming from one state-run pipeline caused an environmental disaster in the Amazon that remains hidden to the world.

Over the last 40 years, oil production in the Peruvian Amazon has been – and continues to be – fraught with social conflict. On one hand, oil companies operate with the government's encouragement but rarely the prior consent of local communities. On the other hand, indigenous peoples bear the primary social and health costs and receive virtually none of the benefits.

Across the Peruvian Amazon, indigenous peoples have organized themselves and advocated for their rights. This is especially true in the northern province of Loreto, where indigenous federations are denouncing existing oil pollution and demanding proper clean-up, compensation, and consultation. Neighboring indigenous communities, seeing the devastation caused by oil extraction, have resisted the entry of new companies.

Peru's 2009 violent confrontation in Bagua has become the emblematic case of indigenous protest around extractive industries in their territories and a repressive governmental response. 2014 also saw a series of grassroots mobilizations carried out by Achuar, Quechua, and Kukama peoples, denouncing unresolved oil pollution in their territories. For the most part, the protests have ended with governmental commitments for ongoing dialogue that have resulted in little concrete action.

Expect heightened social conflicts in 2015

Given the current trajectory, we can anticipate that oil-related conflicts will continue and potentially worsen in the Peruvian Amazon. The predominant 'political will' of the national government is clearly to enable oil investment without taking concrete steps to address community concerns. This can be seen both with existing oil blocks and the latest oil auction, which promises two dozen new blocks overlapping the most contested regions.

There seems to be a formula growing in the region: Unattended legacy pollution + Regular oil spills + New oil blocks = Heightened social conflicts in 2015

Let's break it down:

(a) Unattended legacy pollution: The site of the current indigenous protests, Peru's most historically productive oil field is Block 1AB. Given a 'legacy of harm', ongoing pollution from the block led the Ministry of Environment to designate four river basins affected by the operation as "environmental emergency zones." The United Nations noted, "Recent official studies show high levels of barium, chromium, mercury, lead, total petroleum hydrocarbons (also known as TPH/THP) and other contaminants in water and soil, as well as aluminum, manganese, arsenic, and water acidity. According to the Peruvian Ministry of Health, 98% of children in the affected communities surpass the admissible levels of toxic metals in blood."

Achuar, Quechua, and Kukama indigenous peoples have been denouncing the situation for years and have joined forces in a coalition called PUINAMUDT to demand a change. Specifically, they are calling for a proper clean up of their territories, land titles, compensation, and consultation for any future oil activities. An excellent overview of the indigenous struggle is detailed in the film "Pastaza" by the Quechua federation FEDIQUEP with support from Alianza Arkana.

The current contract for the block, held by Pluspetrol, is set to expire in August of 2015. In a press release issued this past December 15th, two United Nations experts on indigenous peoples and toxic waste stated that, "The proposed re-licensing of heavily polluted land in the Department of Loreto region of Peru would perpetuate and exacerbate serious violations of human rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to health, food and water."

The UN statement and local community protests notwithstanding, press reports indicate the government is planning to auction off a new version of the block (lot 192) starting as soon as this month. If they are unable to secure a favorable contract with an international oil company, one option the government is exploring is bringing in the state-run company, Petroperu.

(b) Regular oil spills: Whereas the Peruvian government intends to expand oil extraction in the region, the various branches of the Northern Peruvian pipeline – the state-run Petroperú's main tube – are aging and have produced numerous spills in recent months. Kukama indigenous communities along the Morona River live near ground zero, absorbing the devastating health and environmental impacts. Peruvian media coverage has made the situation into a national scandal. International coverage is emerging but has been minimal at best.

The response of the pipeline operator Petroperú has been, to put it diplomatically, sub-optimal. As Amazon Watch staff recently saw with our own eyes, they have been 'remediating' the spill area by applying chemical dispersants, similar to tactics used after the Gulf of Mexico spill. These toxic chemicals simply bind with the oil and sink it below the water's surface as opposed to actually removing it from the scene.

At this most recent spill in San Pedro, Petroperú has publicly accused local communities of having caused the most recent spill through sabotage of the pipeline. The claim is absurd on its face and no independent evidence has been presented to verify the company's claims.

(c) New oil blocks: PeruPetro, the Peruvian government's oil licensing agency, has been indicating for several years that they plan to hold a new round of oil auctions including 26 Amazon blocks. The process has been much slower than anticipated, but appears to be heating up. On Monday, December 15th while we were at the spill site, PeruPetro issued an initial tranche of seven Amazonian blocks within the regions of Loreto, Ucayali and Madre de Dios. According to press accounts, another 19 blocks will be offered up over the course of 2015.

Reviewing the map, one sees that most of these blocks (18 of 26) are concentrated in Loreto. Eight central blocks overlap the Pastaza, Corrientes and Marañon river basins, three of the four unremediated 'environmental emergency zones.' Several blocks, immediately north of the Pacaya Samiria protected area appear to include, or be immediately upstream, from the Kukama indigenous communities of Cuninico and San Pedro, which are currently living the impacts of the 2014 oil spills.

To sum up: Dozens of indigenous communities are up in (nonviolent) arms about ongoing and unaddressed pollution of their lands, waters, and food sources. This alone has generated growing protests, mobilizations, and social conflicts in recent years. By attempting to renew existing controversial oil blocks while proposing many new ones in the same region, the government will likely just add fuel to the flames of justified discontent.

In 2015 Amazon Watch will continue to partner with indigenous federations along with Peruvian human rights organizations to monitor the situation, raise international awareness and provide strategic support for indigenous-led campaigns in defense of territorial and collective rights.

Map of new Amazonian oil blocks in the Peruvian Amazon. Purple lines demarcate blocks to be auctioned in 2015. Yellow areas are titled indigenous communities. Green areas are natural protected areas. Brown/pink are territorial reserves for uncontacted indigenous peoples. Map produced by Instituto del Bien Común - Peru, with information provided by the Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines

Share & Comment

Related Multimedia


Yes, I will donate to protect the Amazon!

"The work you do is vital, and I am happy to support it."
– Charlotte R. A.