Eye on the Amazon

Peru's Battle for "Independence"

As Peru systematically opens up its Amazon to oil and gas drilling, Amazon Watch is standing with many indigenous communities as they proclaim, "not in our territory!"

An indigenous monitor from the FECONACO team documents a new oil spill.

But in cases where oil operations do proceed in these fragile rainforests, the question emerges how can the affected communities themselves monitor the environmental, social, and human rights impacts? This is a fundamental issue for any mega-project running through or overlapping indigenous and other community territories, whether oil and gas related, a road, a hydro-electric dam, or even a large-scale conservation project.

Two different community-based monitoring models have emerged in recent years, which are vying for legitimacy. Both claim to be independent.

In assessing the relative independence of a monitoring effort, we should first ask, "independent from what?" In the case of hydrocarbons extraction from the Peruvian Amazon, monitoring should principally be independent from the companies (both international and Peruvian) that are operating the drilling platforms and pipelines.

Case Study 1 – Corrientes

Peru's longest-running oil operation (dating back to the early 1970's) is found in the northern province of Loreto, along the western border with Ecuador. For decades California-based Occidental Petroleum operated the oil concession, though in 2000 Argentina-based Pluspetrol took over.

In response to decades of toxic pollution being dumped into their rivers, the local indigenous federation FECONACO launched a monitoring program in 2006 with the support of indigenous rights NGO Shinai. Last week the monitors published a well-documented report of their activities and findings. The report details and denounces 18 major crude oil spills in 2010 and over 90 spills in the last three years.

Case Study 2 – Camisea

In the remote southern region of Camisea, Peru has promoted a $4 billion gas extraction and transportation venture. Throughout the last decade, many Peruvian and international organizations (including Amazon Watch) warned about the significant likely impacts of the project on local indigenous culture and health, and on the region's fragile environment.

Around that project, another monitoring model emerged in 2004 as a condition for loans from the Inter-American Development Bank. Called PMAC (for Community Environmental Monitoring Program), this model is advised by Peruvian environmental NGO Pro-Naturaleza. It receives its entire financial support directly by the oil company Pluspetrol, the entity whose operations are being monitored.

According to an October 2010 report by three Peruvian environmental organizations, PMAC's monitoring "is important in that there is an acceptable register of environmental effects in the region. However, one of the problems is that this monitoring isn't enforceable; that is to say that an environmental impact that is found and reported does not imply an obligatory response on the part of the companies. On another hand, financing originating with the oil company Pluspetrol leads to a certain quota of lack of confidence in the monitoring's transparency on the part of some sectors of the community." (pg. 37)

With those brief overviews of the two community-based monitoring models, I'd like to draw several key distinctions between two programs:

  1. Financing – In both cases, at least some money comes from Pluspetrol, the Argentinean company involved in both oil extraction in Corrientes y gas extraction in Camisea. Core financing for FECONACO's monitoring project comes from entities like WWF and the Rainforest Foundation Norway. The monitors' salaries, amounting to roughly 40% of the annual expenses, are paid for by the company. In the case of PMAC, however, the funding is entirely dependent on the company. As mentioned above, this has contributed to a credibility gap on the part of the impacted communities
  2. What they monitor and report – PMAC maintains a slick website and publishes a newsletter. Reviewing the latest edition available, it is evident that the monitors carry out many joint monitoring missions with government officials (the results of which are not found in the newsletter) and do work around trash clean-up in the communities. In general, their public reports demonstrate lots of activities, without the actual results (i.e. analysis of the data gained through monitoring) of those activities. The FECONACO team, as highlighted in their recent report, focuses on documentation of spills, current environmental damage and other infractions.
  3. Who they report to – The question about what happens to the actual monitoring information is crucial. In the case of PMAC, the data gleaned from their monitoring are sent to the company itself. This facilitates the possibility that information about the negative social and environmental impacts of the gas mega-project is kept out of the public's eye. The FECONACO program reports directly to the communities and files reports with relevant government offices like the Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría), the Supervising Office for Energy and Mining Investments (OSINERGMIN), and the Ministry of the Environment. As in the case of their recent report, the FECONACO monitors also distribute their findings to national groups, international allies, and the press.


In the end, it doesn't seem that monitoring efforts are completely "independent" or completely not. Perhaps it's more useful to place them along a continuum of "more independent" and "less independent", relative to the entity they are monitoring. According to our institutional experience in both Corrientes and Camisea, we can say that the FECONACO effort is in the former category and the PMAC in the latter.

Ultimately, this highlights a significant challenge for the global environmental and human rights movements: How can we identify and secure sufficient and long-term funding for community level monitoring efforts? Alerting the public and donors to the importance and concrete results of "more independent" monitoring mechanisms is an important first step.

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