Eye on the Amazon

Petroperú Slicks Seep On in the Amazon

Tania Ines looks out over the Marañón River in San Pedro, a Kukama indigenous community in Peru's northern Amazon where a string of recent oil spills have wiped out fish and threatened the local food supply.

"This isn't just about this spill, or the last one, or the next one that will happen when the pipe breaks again because it will as it always does," said Tania Ines looking out over a reflective Marañón River from the open thatched-roof house where she, her husband and their four children live in the center of San Pedro, a Kukama indigenous community deep in Peru's northern Amazon. She crossed the room with a pace indicating endless time, collecting a crying baby at the other side and returning to sit at the edge of weathered steps. She looked as though she were waiting.

"The water is ruined – we're all getting sick from it," Ines turned the fussing baby from one hand to the other. She told me he had been suffering from diarrhea, likely due to the contamination of one thing or another, as everything seemed to have been touched. "I gave him a bath in the river water and he's had stomach problems since. It's the same with this one," she pointed to the infant's sister peeking out from behind Mama's legs. "...with all the children really."

It's been weeks since a Petroperú pipeline ruptured just upriver from San Pedro – again – one of five known breaks in the region in less than six months that spewed crude into the jungle and contaminated the river and surrounding rainforest within Kukama territory and the buffer zone of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, the largest protected area of its kind in the country. Kukama villagers, who depend on fish as a source of food and income, fear for their future as one oil mess spills into the next with increasing incidents and seasonal floods pushing contamination and dead marine life to further reaches. Nausea and skin rashes have become commonplace, especially in children, and locals worry they won't be able to eat fish from the river again.

In Pictures: Oil Slicks Seep On in the Peruvian Amazon

The first of the recent string of spills came in late June, when the North Peruvian – Petroperú's 40-year-old decaying main pipeline that pumps oil some 845 km from San José de Saramuro, slicing through the Amazon rainforest and on through the Andes before dumping into a port on Peru's northern coast – burst underwater near Cuninico, another Kukama village on the banks of the Marañon.

"I saw big masses of crude and debris coming down the river, then dead fish started floating up on the shore where the women do the washing, their bellies turned up to the sky until there were so many," recalled César Mozombite of the nearby Urarina community on a recent visit to the site of the spill. As we canoed down a narrow canal that traced the pipeline's underwater path, he pointed out swirly blue pools of oil glistening on the water's surface and thick globs of crude stuck between tangled tree roots. The once pristine forest felt like a stagnant wasteland.

"It was horrible to see so much oil, thousands of gallons coming down the river and covering the forest as far as you could see and farther, you can still see it," said Ander Ordóñez Mozombite, an environmental monitor with the indigenous community group ACODECSPAT. As if on cue an island of sticky crude floated down the canal toward the bow of the canoe nearing a spill site.

The pipeline is operated by state-run Petroperú, transporting oil from Pluspetrol fields in conjunction with partnerships with the British/French company Perenco, China's state-controlled PetroChina and PetroVietnam. Petroperú blamed locals for the first break, claiming the spill originated from a "direct cut" in the submerged pipeline.

"It's all just crazy – how would we even do that when the pipeline lies deep below the river? And why?" Mozombite asked, going on to describe how the old pipeline has been neglected for decades while continuing to pump more and more oil across the Amazon.

The company then called on the same villages to clean up the toxic mess, hiring dozens of local indigenous people in an attempt to make evidence of the spill quickly disappear. The workers were given little or no protection, exposed to contamination and asked to use dispersants (toxic chemicals designed to bond to crude and make it sink during the "remediation" process, essentially hiding spills rather than cleaning them up). A story by a local TV news station revealed video footage of underage workers up to their necks in murky black waters, sifting through thick crude with their hands protected only by thin gloves and rubber boots.

Petroperú worked to quickly repair the June break and cover up the mess, and the North Peruvian began operating on July 12, 2014. The crusty tube burst again on November 16, 2014, this time spewing some 6,000 barrels of oil into the river and forests according to local estimates. Indigenous leaders noted that the pipeline has not been properly maintained, pumps hot and heavy loads far beyond its carrying capacity and has a history of breaks and leaks.

Oil development in the Peruvian Amazon has long been a major source of tension between indigenous communities, the companies that operate there and the government, a situation that has threatened the lives of indigenous peoples and has led to violent confrontations. For over four decades foreign and national companies have bulldozed large swaths of forest to build roads, riverbank boom towns, helicopter pads and pipelines that pump toxic waste waters into the rivers. In the last five years, oil development has increased rapidly after the Peruvian government offered up nearly 75% of its Amazon to oil concessions. This, coupled with measures that lowered fines for environmental crimes last year, protect the oil industry, allow it to wreak havoc on the local environment and infrastructure and set the scene for a "free ride in" and a "get out of jail free card" for extractive industry investors.

Further east in a remote Amazon region where Peru meets Brazil, members of the Matsés living on both sides of the border told local media they are prepared to fight with spears, bows and arrows if companies enter their territory to explore for oil. In recent years, the government has declared four Amazon headwater regions – including the Marañon – environmental emergency zones after finding alarming levels of contamination.

Petroperú considers the region remediated.

Back in San Pedro, Ines and her community fear for their livelihood and future. Mothers have reported vomiting, dizziness and skin rashes after bathing themselves and their babes in the river. They do not trust that they can resume eating fish, even from far reaches upriver. Furthermore, experts warn that many of the health impacts of oil contamination don't show up until years down the line, long after evidence of a spill has been buried. Exposure to PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) – which are categorized as probable human carcinogens – are known to cause skin, liver and immunodeficiency problems and birth defects.

"Many fish died. We're eating fish from a can, but that too is running out. Right now the company brings us these things, they bring cartons of water so the community doesn't feel so desperate," claims Ines, pointing out an opened rusty tuna can half buried in a patch of muddy grass. "But we can't do this forever, and we can't eat the fish from the river. I don't know what will happen."

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