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Indigenous Protests of Oil Company Yield Accord in Peru’s Amazon

After threatening to seize several of the company’s Amazon oil wells unless officials sat down to talks, Achuar indigenous communities on the Corrientes River won major concessions from Argentinian driller PlusPetrol recently, including a commitment to finally clean up the oil-sodden lake and tributary of Atiliano near the communities of Pucacuro and Pavayacu.

The company may also have to pay for extensive damages to health, the environment and local livelihoods, according to the daily La Region, the paper of record for Peru’s Amazon region of Loreto.

“The right to life for Peruvians comes above other rights, but the state has prioritized the profits of oil companies, while intimidating and harassing the communities that demand respect for their rights, their right to exist,” said Andres Sandi Mucushua, president of the Achuar indigenous federation FECONACO, according to the daily.

A week before the talks, Sandi had described the situation on the Corrientes as “explosive” as PlusPetrol and Loreto Regional Government officials tried to dodge a long-planned meeting over the well-documented contamination. As tensions flared, two detachments of Peru’s National Police were dispatched to Pucacuro and Pavayacu, according to FECONACO leaders.

The government proved it had a good memory when it sent reinforcements.

The FECONACO group is noted for a bold seizure of PlusPetrol wells and other infrastructure in 2006 that, through subsequent peace agreements, forced the company to re-inject into the ground its deadly “production waters,” the toxic effluent of salty subsoil water and rock-softening chemicals used in drilling that it and other companies had fed into local waterways for decades. That accord, the so-called Acta Dorissa, has become a blueprint for other indigenous groups in Peru seeking justice in PlusPetrol’s zone of operations.

This time the Regional Government and PlusPetrol addressed the Achuar’s demands early enough to avert another clash.

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Backed by regional and national government officials as witnesses – including the Amazon representative from Peru’s public ombudsman, the Defensoria del Pueblo – FECONACO leaders forced reluctant PlusPetrol executives to take responsibility for the historic contamination of the lake, streams and wetlands that the communities depend on for fish, water and game.

The federation, FECONACO, which represents some 35 Native Achuar, Urarinas and Quichua communities from the Corrientes River basin, claims that since 1971 PlusPetrol and its predecessors – Peru’s national oil company PetroPeru and U.S. driller Occidental Petroleum – used Atiliano as a dump for oil collected from spills and for the toxic production waters and other waste.

Recent government studies have shown that the lake and surrounding marshes contain high concentrations of phosphates, chlorine, manganese, lead, copper, zinc and other heavy metals associated with hydrocarbons. At least 51 percent of the people of Pucacuro have tested positive for high levels of lead and cadmium in their blood, according to FECONACO attorney Vidal Coa of the Program for Indigenous Rights (PDDI).

A government study from 2004 concluded that the oil-laden layer of sediment at the bottom of Atiliano Lake poses a continuing source of contamination for the surrounding ecosystem.

PlusPetrol agreed to start the first phase of cleanup as early as May 25, according to La Region.

The draft agreement states, PlusPetrol must pay for a comprehensive study of contamination and health of locals by technical consultants of the federation’s choosing.

A more difficult hurdle remains however, as FECONACO attempts to force PlusPetrol to pay for food and drinking water for the 200 families of Pucacuro and as the community pursues the more elusive prize of indemnity.

Talks on those issues were set for May 21 in Iquitos under government arbitration.