Eye on the Amazon

#AdiosGeoPark: Peruvian Indigenous Peoples Expel Another Oil Company

The Achuar People of the Pastaza and the Wampis Nation secure a new victory for the climate justice movement by defeating fossil fuel company GeoPark

Amid many horrifying stories emerging from the Amazon – including the recent COVID-19 deaths of Indigenous elders from Ecuador to Brazil – there are also important victories from which we should draw inspiration and strength. The struggle to defend 5 million acres of Achuar and Wampis ancestral territory in the Peruvian Amazon has just notched another win, with the announcement of the irrevocable departure of Chile-based oil company GeoPark from oil lease Block 64.

The present defense of this biodiverse region – roughly the size of Massachusetts – has been a multi-decade process, dating back at least to the creation of Block 64 in 1995. Prior to this latest news, Amazon Watch has long partnered with the Achuar People of the Pastaza to successfully expel a steady drumbeat of international oil companies, such as ARCO, Occidental Petroleum, and most recently Talisman Energy in 2012. Following effective legal battles, the Wampis celebrated the cancellation of oil contracts in Block 116 in 2018, and they have also forced the cancellation of mining concessions within their territory.

A well-known history of Indigenous opposition notwithstanding, GeoPark leased Block 64 in October 2014. The incentive was powerful – Block 64 promised hundreds of millions of barrels of highly-desired light crude oil and much of the exploration work had already been carried out (and paid for) by the previous oil companies. The company hoped to expand across South America, and this was a golden opportunity to establish a foothold in Peru. GeoPark perceives itself as a "different kind of oil company," and might well have believed that it could succeed in Block 64 where more established companies had previously failed.

In December 2016, Geopark announced that the Peruvian authorities had given it a regulatory green light to move forward with the project. At that moment the Indigenous resistance campaign intensified, as detailed in the following "Ten Key Moments in the Campaign to Expel GeoPark." Each moment is emblematic of different strategies employed by the Indigenous communities in collaboration with ally organizations, the cumulative impact of which we believe ultimately forced GeoPark to pack its bags.

Ten Key Moments in the Campaign to Expel GeoPark

(1) December 2016: Immediately following GeoPark's announcement about the Peruvian government's regulatory approval to advance with the project, a delegation of Achuar leaders traveled to Lima and made their rejection of GeoPark very clear through a formal notification, which was personally delivered to GeoPark's Peru office and drafted with support from their lawyers at the International Institute for Law and Society (IIDS). Amazon Watch connected the delegation with a Reuters reporter, resulting in an important article (with the prescient headline, "Amazonian tribe in Peru says it will block new oil drilling plans") and demonstrating their capacity to generate negative media coverage of the company among international outlets.

(2) October 2017: At their semi-annual assembly in the community of Tsekuntsa, the 45 communities of the Achuar People of the Pastaza (under the organizational banner of the Federation of the Achuar Nationality of Peru – FENAP) collectively reaffirmed their opposition to oil operations within their ancestral territories – based on the lived experiences of their Achuar relatives along the Corrientes River. This proved to be an important moment for the Achuar to review their history of resistance and to express broad community rejection of GeoPark, which they did through dozens of community-by-community photos that Amazon Watch documented and circulated internationally.

(3) August 2018: In a powerful expression of solidarity – and a watershed moment for the movement to expel GeoPark – Achuar leaders traveled to an assembly of the Wampis Nation to exchange experiences and create an alliance. Following days of discussion, the Wampis Nation and FENAP issued a joint statement rejecting the presence of GeoPark and calling for the elimination of Block 64. This effort to strengthen strategic alliances among Indigenous peoples was an innovation on prior campaigns to expel companies from Block 64 and would prove to be crucial toward the ultimate outcome.

(4) October 2018: FENAP President Jeremias Petsein traveled to the United States to deliver the keynote address at Amazon Watch's annual gala. Taking advantage of his visit to San Francisco and Washington, DC, we organized in-person and telephone meetings between Jeremias and representatives of institutional investors that hold shares in GeoPark, such as BlackRock and CalPERS. These meetings strengthened the existing campaign to pressure institutional shareholders to leverage their influence with GeoPark to ensure that the company respects Indigenous rights, including their right to say "no."

(5) February 2019: Equidad Peru, an organization that accompanies both the Wampis and the Achuar, published a detailed report titled, Block 64: A World of Conflicts. The report provided a solid foundation to document the history of Indigenous rights violations in and around the block. Cynically, these violations include ongoing implementation of a "divide and conquer" strategy – such as financial support for individuals or "phantom indigneous federations" that back the company's position – still employed around the Amazon by extractive industries and governments to weaken local communities' resistance.

(6) June 2019: As a crucial step toward construction of extensive infrastructure in Achuar and Wampis territory (new oil wells in the site known as Situche Central, a refinery, and a 40 km pipeline), GeoPark had submitted an environmental impact study (EIS) in mid-2018. By early 2019, Amazon Watch was worried that environmental approval might be imminent and that construction would start as soon as permission was granted. Through a colossal effort, Indigenous communities and allies worked to criticize the study and impede the environmental approval process. Extraordinarily, GeoPark withdrew the study in June, tacitly admitting that the original study was so flawed the company would need to initiate a new study entirely.

(7) June 2019: Perhaps the peak of the campaign took place when the fight was taken into the GeoPark headquarters and straight to CEO James Park. In close collaboration with Equidad and IIDS, Amazon Watch helped coordinate a delegation of Achuar community leaders and Wampis leaders, including women representatives, who traveled to Santiago, Chile for the GeoPark annual shareholder meeting. The group secured entry into the meeting and, over the course of an hour and a half, rejected GeoPark dozens of times and applied unwavering face-to-face pressure on top company executives. By the end of the meeting, it appeared to dawn on James Park and the other executives that the community representatives weren't buying their discourse and attempts to enter into never-ending ‘dialogue' while the company pushed forward on the ground. For me personally, the powerful exchange was a privilege to witness and a highlight of my thirteen years with Amazon Watch.

(8) October 2019: Following the monumental events of June, the communities learned in late July that GeoPark was courting the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to implement a ‘social baseline study' for Block 64 – likely the foundation for a new and improved EIS – as part of the "Amazon Best Social and Environmental Management Practices" (Amazon BMP) program. FENAP and the Wampis Nation promptly issued a letter to USAID, reiterating their opposition to Geopark and rejecting any study carried out without their consent. This advocacy – complemented by expressions of concern from the U.S. Congress that we helped catalyze in collaboration with International Rivers and Healing Bridges – culminated with an October meeting in Lima between Achuar and Wampis community leaders and key USAID officials. The strategic effort to challenge corporate strategies to greenwash the oil company's dirty activities resulted in USAID severing its ties with GeoPark and, several months later, the cancellation of the entire $23.5 million Amazon BMP project.

(9) May 2020: The final nail in the coffin came in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a national state of emergency and quarantine, GeoPark continued to shuttle personnel into its remote base of operations along the Morona River. The Wampis Nation accused the company of posing a serious contamination risk and filed a lawsuit against GeoPark with the support of EarthRights International. The Wampis Nation complemented their strategy to take legal action with an international publicity campaign titled #AtsáGeoparkka ("No to GeoPark" in Wampis), a webinar resulting in national media coverage, and efforts to target investors.

(10) July 2020: As indicated in the company's most recent operational update, "On July 15, 2020, GeoPark notified Petroperu and Perupetro of its irrevocable decision to retire from the nonproducing Morona block (Block 64) in Peru, due to extended force majeure which allows for the termination of the license contract." The news generated Spanish-language articles in Reuters and EFE (both of which highlighted that the move is an "Indigenous victory") and Amazon Watch issued an English-language press release featuring initial reactions from Achuar and Wampis leaders.

Why did GeoPark decide to leave? The stated force majeure issue is simply the legal justification for its departure. We can assume that the departure is a function of depressed oil prices, a resulting slashed capital expenditures budget for 2020, and of course the years of multi-faceted Indigenous resistance outlined above. In short, the financial, legal, and reputational risks finally outweighed the company's perception of Block 64's long-term benefits.

Indigenous peoples can claim victory, but the struggle to End Amazon Crude is not over

Today, we celebrate years of collaboration and hard work to fend off another multinational oil company that was supported by the world's largest investment firms and powerful governments. At the same time, however, we must continue our strategic accompaniment of the Achuar People and Wampis Nation and other Indigenous peoples across the Amazon:

  • Petroperu, Peru's state-owned company that has been GeoPark's partner, has 30 days to decide whether or not to assume 100% responsibility for Block 64. If not, the Peruvian government could decide to lease the block once again as part of their "economic reactivation," which includes efforts to catalyze further oil and gas operations. This struggle won't end until the Peruvian government annuls Block 64 and terminates their efforts to encourage oil operations there. As featured in a Spanish-language press statement, FENAP President Nelton Yankur said, "We want a healthy territory, free from contamination for our future generations. That's why we don't accept any oil exploitation in our territory. We are going to continue fighting until we have secured the nullification of [Block 64]. The Peruvian government never consulted us."
  • Oil aside, the Achuar and Wampis are facing other ongoing threats: mining, illegal logging, and the increasing risk of COVID-19 sweeping through their communities to devastating effect.
  • GeoPark may be leaving Block 64, but it poses a threat to other Indigenous peoples elsewhere around the region. The Siona community of Buenavista (in Putumayo, Colombia) has been fighting Amerisur, a company that was purchased by GeoPark in early 2020. In December 2019, three years after the Achuar notification rejecting GeoPark, the Siona issued a similar statement with the support of Amazon Frontlines.
  • Far beyond GeoPark, northern consumers must confront the network of global financiers that are investing in Amazon crude and driving the Amazon toward collapse to stop bankrolling this destruction.

Today, we celebrate a major victory after years of collaboration and hard work to fend off another multinational oil company that was supported by the world's largest investment firms and powerful governments. This is a significant win not just for the Indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, but for all communities around the world resisting extractive industries that are invading their territories and destroying the planet. Oil companies would be wise to recognize that our global movement to keep it in the ground is effective when led by Indigenous resistance. We aren't backing down, and we're only getting stronger with every win.

Postscript: This victory belongs to so many people

Let's take the moment to acknowledge that as with all campaigns of this magnitude, there are many different entities and individuals who should rightfully celebrate with pride. Of course, the foundation and mandate came from the Indigenous communities, represented by FENAP and the Wampis Nation. Elders, community members, and elected leaders all played a key role.

The Achuar People and Wampis Nation benefit from the long-term support of Peruvian civil society groups like Equidad Peru, IIDS, and Racimos de Ungurahui.

International allies who provided strategic and financial support include Rainforest Foundation Norway, Rainforest Partners, Rainforest Action Network, Forest Peoples Programme, Observatorio Ciudadano (Chile), FundaciĆ³n Pachamama (Ecuador), International Rivers, and Healing Bridges.

Journalists and documentary filmmakers played an important role, such as Pablo Tourrenc of Vagabond Films and Charles Gay who visited Achuar territory in March 2018 and produced several short films used to publicize the Achuar demands internationally.

And you! Amazon Watch couldn't accompany the Achuar, the Wampis, and other Amazonian Indigenous peoples without your ongoing support.

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