Wampis communities hold state oil company to account over pollution in Peruvian Amazon

Petroperu
Petroperu

Wampis communities hold state oil company to account over pollution in Peruvian Amazon

Two Wampis indigenous communities in northeast Peru are seeing the environmental damage on their lands remedied following years of oil contamination in their territory.

The indigenous communities Fernando Rosas and Arutam are continuing to fight for compensation following longstanding health concerns and issues over safe water on lands crossed by the NorPeruano oil pipeline, operated by the state oil company, Petroperú. 

Villagers from the two Wampis communities, whose traditional lands are in the river Morona watershed in the Loreto region of the Peruvian Amazon, have suffered the impacts of oil spills from a nearby pump station for decades. Their ongoing complaints to Petroperú, the state oil company, have been continuously dismissed.   

José Peña Cachique, a leader from Fernando Rosas, explained to the Peruvian press that it was only more recently, in April 2017, that the government was forced to take them seriously when his community, with the support of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW), Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) and the Legal Defense Institute (IDL) were able to test soil and water samples. The analysis provided incontrovertible evidence of severe water contamination from the NorPeruano oil pipeline.

The incriminating results of this analysis were not enough, and the community was forced to file a formal complaint to the oil regulator, the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA). Since then, both OEFA and Petroperú have visited the affected communities to take additional samples. 

When the visits failed to secure actions to address the communities’ health concerns and demands for safe water and reparations, 200 community-members from Fernando Rosas resolved to occupy oil pumping station No. 4 on 24 April 2018. Petroperú initially issued a statement denouncing the occupation and claiming – falsely – that the protests were in response to a power cut, by the time the protests were halted on 27 April, the oil company and government ministries implicated in the contamination had agreed to open a dialogue to seek solutions. 

Wampis communities impacted by oil pollution continue their long fight to secure justice. Credit: Dan Haworth-Salter.

Wampis communities impacted by oil pollution continue their long fight to secure justice. Credit: Dan Haworth-Salter.

A delegation made up of community leaders and representatives of the GTANW subsequently met with the company in Lima in May and presented their demands. These included the remediation of environmental damage to the Shifeco stream and River Morona, which are principal water sources for both communities; the installation of a fully-functioning water pump to replace a malfunctioning system previously provided by Petroperú; guaranteed access to clean water for the communities; and the establishment of a health post in the area.  

The Wampis have since obtained favourable commitments from Petroperú, which has commenced remediation in their territory and committed to providing a water pump for both communities. However, the broader context is less encouraging: Petroperú still refuses to accept responsibility and compensate the affected communities along the pipeline. The company sent a clear signal of this stance in the same week as its dialogue with the Wampis, when it announced that it had appealed a historic resolution by OEFA from December 2017, which ruled that Petroperú must carry out maintenance on the pipeline in relation to oil contamination in Morona and Imaza. 

Towards the end of June, news emerged that Petroperú had temporarily overturned this ruling, by catching OEFA out over a minor technicality. OEFA must now file the complaint again to ensure that Petroperú is held responsible for the oil spills. Furthermore, Wrays Perez Ramirez, Pamuk(president) of the GTANW, has observed that local people are receiving negligible pay for carrying out the arduous and dangerous work of cleaning up the oil contamination. 

Following subsequent meetings with the Ministry of Housing about ensuring a safe water supply for Fernando Rosas and Arutam, the Wampis are currently awaiting a response from the government’s Council of Ministers, which is responsible for coordinating between the relevant ministries and Petroperú to come up with a solution. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has committed to setting up a health post in Fernando Rosas. 

Wrays Perez Ramirez, Pamukof the GTANW said: “At the same time that we welcome this gain for the communities affected by pipeline contamination, which is the fruit of the efforts of the communities themselves and their allies, the question remains: why did the national authorities ignore people from Fernando Rosas and Aurtam for so long, even when the contamination was occurring right next to Petroperu’s pumping station? Why have the authorities taken so long to resolve the communities’ problem?”

Juan Carlos Ruiz Molleda, coordinator of IDL’s Indigenous Peoples programme, said: “There is a clearly-defined procedure (outlined in Supreme Decree 081-2007-EM) which stipulates what the State must do in this kind of emergency, including that the relevant authorities visit the area, implement measures to ensure a clean water supply and provide compensation for the damages caused by the contamination. However, in this case these have only partially been met and the affected communities have been obliged to fight at every step so that the State fulfils its basic responsibilities.” 
 

Notes:

  • There is a significant history of oil pollution in the northern Peruvian Amazon, since Occidental Petroleum began operations in the Tigre, Corrientes, Pastaza and Maranon river basins in 1971.  
  • During nearly 50 years of operations, indigenous organizations have repeatedly denounced pipeline spills, toxic waste leakage, and large-scale discharging of production waters with temperatures up to 90 degrees Celsius and high barium content into the rivers. In 2005 alone it was estimated that Pluspetrol discharged the equivalent of approximately 1.1 million barrels of waste into the River Corrientes, River Tigre, River Pastaza and River Marañon. These operations have had a devastating impact not only on indigenous peoples’ territories, but on their health and the animals and fish forming the basis of their diet. 
  • Despite numerous protests, demonstrations and abundant evidence, it was only in 2012 that the government established a cross-sector commission to investigate the true extent of the devastation. The commission’s conclusion was to declare, in May 2014, a ‘health and environmental emergency’ across the four river basins.
  • Oil and gas concessions covered over 80 % of the Peruvian Amazon in 2012 and their operations, including frequent spills from pipelines, have been responsible for severe degradation of forests and their associated biodiversity and ecosystems.