Over the past two weeks, indigenous protesters blockaded an access road and airstrip in Peru’s oldest oil concession, Block 192, deep in the Amazon rain forest of Loreto region, as their leaders travelled to Lima to pressure government authorities for a public consultation on future oil drilling there. It was the latest confrontation in a long struggle of indigenous communities to get the government and oil companies to take responsibility for widespread pollution in northeastern Peru that has poisoned the land and rivers and threatened the health of tens of thousands of Natives.
Though much of Peru’s Amazon Basin is divided into oil concessions, Block 192, located near Peru’s border with Ecuador, has been the epicenter of oil production and pollution for more than four decades. Covering approximately 290,000 hectares (717,000 acres) in the watersheds of four Amazon tributaries – the Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre and Marañon Rivers – the block has been exploited since the 1970s by a series of oil companies, with grave environmental consequences. Decades of dumping contaminated water from petroleum wells into nearby streams and rivers and periodic oil spills have affected the health of many of the approximately 60,000 people from various tribes who live in the area.
Most of the oil extracted from Block 192 and other oil fields in the region is pumped through a pipeline that traverses the rain forest and Andes Mountain Range to a port on Peru’s northern Pacific Coast. That pipeline, which was constructed in the 1970s, has seen a growing number of ruptures in recent years, resulting in oil spills that have affected dozens of indigenous communities. This has led to protests and blockades in recent years that resulted in agreements between indigenous organizations and the government for environmental remediation and compensation for damages and use of ancestral lands.
“Just as the state guarantees the earnings of the big oil companies, it needs to also guarantee our rights,” said Carlos Sandi, an Achaur leader who represents indigenous communities along the Corrientes River, before entering a meeting with government officials last week. “We aren’t against the exploitation of the oil, but we demand that it be done responsibly, while protecting the environment, and that they clean up the contaminated sites in our territory.”
Sandi and leaders of other indigenous federations in the Block 192 area complain that the government has been slow to comply with agreements signed in 2015, which include the state’s commitments to build potable water systems for affected communities and environmental remediation of sites contaminated with oil waste, as well as titling indigenous territories and improving in healthcare and other services. According to the Peruvian organization Observatorio Petrolero, which collaborates closely with the indigenous federations of the Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre and Marañon Rivers, the state has completed about 37 percent of its commitments under those agreements.
A survey identified 2,000 contaminated sites in 92 areas of Block 192 and the government has approved a budget of 50 million soles (approx. $15 million) for environmental remediation there, but authorities have yet to identify a qualified company to do the job and recently opened a second round of bidding for it.
The main point of discord during last week’s meetings was the government’s rejection of the indigenous federations’ request for a public consultation prior to negotiating a new, 30-year contract for the concession. Block 192 is currently being operated by the Canadian company Frontera Energy Corp. under a contract that will expire in late 2018.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines held a public consultation in Block 192 in 2015, but abruptly ended it with an agreement signed by representatives of just two communities. Leaders of the main indigenous federations rejected that agreement and subsequently petitioned the government for another consultation, which the Ministry opposes. The Native federations have appealed the recent rejection of their petition, and are awaiting an opinion from the Ministry of Culture, which is responsible for indigenous affairs, though the final decision will be made by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
While the protesters in Block 192 have abandoned their blockade and occupation of oil facilities, their leaders departed Lima saying that they will give the government 20 days to resolve their appeal, after which protests will resume.
“If we don’t reach an agreement, we will take action again,” said Aurelio Chino, a Quechua leader of the Pastaza River federation. “My brothers in our villages will take up their spears again.”