Oil Disasters in Block 1AB and 8

Thirty-five years of oil production in Block 1-AB and Block 8 in the northern Peruvian Amazon have left the Achuar, Urarina and Quechua indigenous peoples who live in the area suffering malnutrition, sickness and social disruption. Successive oil companies – first US-based Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) and now Argentina's Pluspetrol – have been pumping oil in the concession known as Block 1-AB since the early 1970's. Until very recently, flagrant pollution has been the norm. Oxy's legacy of harm continues to be felt: the company's reckless operations illegally dumped approximately 9 billion barrels of "produced waters" – which contain highly toxic substances such as barium, lead and arsenic – throughout 30 years of operations (averaging 850,000 barrels dumped per day). Similar disregard for human life for the sake of profit in neighboring Block 8 has also resulted in a public health crisis. State oil company Perupetro operated in Block 8 until the Argentine company Pluspetrol took over in 1996.

In both oil blocks, the companies polluted for decades, lowering their production costs and maximizing return for their shareholders. Local people, however, have paid the costs. Adults and local children have tested positive for dangerously high blood-lead levels, and local residents cite countless tales of unexplained diseases, tumors, skin ailments and miscarriages from oil exposure. Fish and local game are not fit for consumption and fraught with contamination, and the soil is also no longer fit to produce the agricultural crops on which the Achuar depend for subsistence.

Today, the area is peppered with legacy toxic waste sites left from Oxy and Pluspetrol’s operations that continue to leach into the rivers and the food chain. Pluspetrol took over Block 1-AB and neighboring Block 8 in 2000, but problems continue. While the company has made a commitment to improve certain practices, dozens of oil spills every year continue to contaminate lakes and rivers and serious health problems persist in the affected communities.

Public Health Crisis in the Corrientes

"We no longer have any places to fish. We stopped fishing in our lake, because once when we ate fish from the lake, everyone got sick with nausea, diarrhea and other, incurable diseases. Five men died." Indigenous leader, Pucacuro community

The Achuar, Urarina, Quechua and other indigenous peoples of the region depend on clean forest and river resources for subsistence. But after 35 years of reckless practices, falling below the industry standards of the time, these resources have suffered extensive and near-irreversible damage. In 1984, the Peruvian government's National Office of Natural Resource Evaluation (Oficina Nacional de Evaluacion de Recursos Naturales, or ONERN) declared Block 1-AB to be "the country's most damaged environmental region." According to several recent reports, local waterways and sediments are severely contaminated with elevated levels of salinity, heavy metals including lead and barium, and hydrocarbons and associated toxic compounds. The dumping of produced waters has decimated local vegetation and, together with oil spills, contaminated agricultural areas. As a result, indigenous families must either eat contaminated fish and crops or move their farms to less productive areas.

In addition to the lack of uncontaminated food, many communities have no springs or alternatives sources of water and are forced to drink polluted river water. Affected communities are suffering from severe health impacts from exposure to oil-related contaminants. As a result of Oxy and Pluspetrol's illegal practices, the Achuar of the Corrientes are facing a serious public health crisis. Several studies have discovered that the Achuar are suffering from elevated levels of the toxic heavy metals lead and cadmium in their blood, both of which can cause significant negative health impacts. According to one study, a significant proportion of children tested in every affected community show a blood-lead level above the relevant health standard. Similarly, a study by the Peruvian government in the seven affected communities revealed that all but two of the 199 people tested showed blood-cadmium levels above the standard.

The costs of oil drilling have far outweighed any benefits for the Achuar of the Corrientes, and they remain some of the most neglected communities in Peru. Oil blocks 1-AB and 8 represent Peru's largest oil facility and generate nearly 50% of Peru's domestic oil production, yet state provision of basic services such as schools and health posts is limited or non-existent in this area. With the degradation of the forests, hunting and fishing grounds, local people struggle to feed their families, and they have few opportunities to earn money to buy necessary supplies.

Communities Fight Back

Faced with this environmental destruction and violations of their basic rights, communities are fighting back with every tool at their disposal. At the break of dawn on October 10th, 2006, more than 700 Achuar from the Corrientes River marched into the oil pumping stations in Blocks 1-AB and 8 and flicked the switch, shutting down 50% of Peru's oil supplies for 13 days. After tense negotiations, the peaceful action ended in victory for the Achuar, and the block owner Pluspetrol agreed to re-inject 100% of production waters and together with the regional government has agreed to support a health program and sustainable development plan for affected communities. As of now, little progress has been made in remediation efforts due to government bureaucracy and incompetence.

Under the agreement known as the Act of Dorissa, signed between Pluspetrol, the Peruvian government, and the Achuar communities of Corrientes, Pluspetrol and the Peruvian government are responsible for environmental remediation, the re-injection of toxic produced water, and the recognition of the right of the indigenous peoples of Corrientes to medical attention, food security, and indigenous monitoring of oil operations.

As of today, Pluspetrol states that they have completed re-injecting produced waters into the subsoil in Blocks 1AB and 8. This appears to be the only area of the agreement that has been fully carried out. Local populations have seen no improvements in access to healthcare, the regional social development plan worth 11 million soles has not been carried out, the provision of food for one year to affected communities was only partially completed, 14 communities still await access to potable water which was promised to them by Pluspetrol, and environmental remediation has been far less than satisfactory. According to indigenous environmental monitors, many affected zones have not been included in the Plan of Complementary Adjustment (PAC) designed to remediate contaminated areas.

A monitoring report evaluating the remediation efforts in Corrientes is available here.

The Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River (FECONACO) has implemented a community-based environmental monitoring system. Fourteen indigenous monitors have been trained and employed to monitor and report on occurrences that affect their territories. In the face of non-compliance by oil companies and government institutions, indigenous peoples are taking remediation and protection of their territories into their own hands.

The Achuar have also filed a lawsuit in the US against Occidental Petroleum (Oxy), demanding that the company clean up contamination left in the rainforest and compensate the communities. At present, we await a ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to decide the question of whether the case will be heard in the US or in Peru. With the assistance of allies, they have launched an international awareness-raising campaign that has successfully garnered coverage in major media outlets such as NPR, the BBC and the Washington Post.

Clean up and Pay up

The Achuar, Urarina and Quechua indigenous peoples living in Blocks 1-AB and 8 continue to struggle with the daily impacts of oil operations. Toxic and carcinogenic compounds are still leaching from waste pits where the legacy of oil spills are buried beneath a thin layer of earth. People who grew up drinking from contaminated streams are suffering from cancer and other health complications that originated during Oxy's 30 years of operations.

Oxy needs to clean up the mess they left behind. The company must also work with Pluspetrol to stop the ongoing contamination, as the systems built by Oxy continue polluting the environment. Perhaps most importantly, they need to provide financial compensation to the thousands of Achuar victims who have suffered profound harms to their health and environment and ensure that communities affected by Oxy's malfeasance have access to the modern healthcare they desperately need.

Pluspetrol shares a responsibility to clean up Oxy's toxic legacy, and the company is also directly responsible for continuing oil spills throughout oil Blocks 1-AB and 8 caused by poorly maintained and aging infrastructure.

The regional and national government has a responsibility to protect the Achuar from environmental harm and respect their right as indigenous peoples to participate fully in development decisions. It must strengthen and enforce environmental laws to bring an end to new spills and compel Oxy and Pluspetrol to clean up oil Blocks 1-AB and 8. The regional government must implement a sustainable development program and ensure people have access to adequate healthcare and other basic services.

Amazon Watch will continue to support the indigenous peoples of Blocks 1-AB and 8 to hold Oxy and Pluspetrol accountable for their past and ongoing toxic harms. We are also working with indigenous communities to demand that Pluspetrol and the Peruvian government meet their obligation to stop oil spills and provide access to healthcare and other basic services.

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