Lakes filled with oil and industrial waste dot the swampy landscape of the Pastaza and other Amazon tributaries where PlusPetrol and other oil companies operate.

Oil Company Under Fire in Amazon: New Inquiries, Exposés and Penalties Fuel Indigenous Movement

Darrin Mortenson
7/30/12

IQUITOS, Peru—The world that PlusPetrol has built in Peru’s Amazon over the last 16 years seems to be crumbling under the weight of the company’s alleged crimes.

The Argentinian oil company – notorious for allegedly spilling oil, dumping toxic petro-chemicals and production waters into streams used by indigenous communities – is finally getting the attention it deserves.

On the pleading of indigenous leaders whose people have suffered four decades under the oil regime in the region of Loreto, a congressional investigation finally led to the arrival of four members of Congress who, in late June, had to see for themselves the contamination that officials at all levels of government have ignored for years.

In one visit, a congresswoman slipped into an oil-filled pond that the company allegedly denied even existed. In another, legislators arrived on the scene as PlusPetrol workers were bulldozing dirt and trees on top an oil-filled lake to hide potential contamination.

“This is how it is. This is what we live with out there,” said Adolfo Rengifo Hualinga, vice president of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes (FECONACO).

In recent testimony before Peru’s Congress, PlusPetrol officials blamed indigenous “vandalism” for a majority of their spills, claiming that the Natives were responsible for poisoning themselves.

Child with Skin Problems

After Quechua communities on the Pastaza River rose up to protest PlusPetrol in June, threatening to add to Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s many woes, a cabinet-level commission was mobilized and dispatched to the community of Alianza Topal to diffuse tensions, resulting in new promises from the central government to make life better there – promises now formalized in a binding “Supreme Resolution” that covers residents of four Amazon watersheds. The first two-dozen medical personnel arrived in the Pastaza oil town of Andoas mid-July to start surveying the health of indigenous Quechua and Urarinas residents and show that the government might finally mean business.

The convergence of the government probes has also led to some of the most damning media coverage of Loreto’s oil industry in recent years, perhaps best exemplified in a photo by the Lima daily La República showing a man hip-deep in an oil-filled lake being pulled out with branches.

“Of the 75 (remediation) obligations listed in the PAC (Supplementary Environmental Plan), the company maintains that it has completed all but seven,” the La República caption reads. “The reality reveals the lie,” it concludes.

PlusPetrol remains conspicuously silent through it all, possibly due to damage control after another spill in the Trompeteros region on June 26 – right in the middle of the congressional investigation and visits by the government ministers. Indigenous leaders blame that spill on corroded pipes, some dating to the 1970s, that the company has been allowed to use to cut costs. PlusPetrol officials might also be quiet after several recent oil spills on the Rio Tigre, including one reported on June 11 by Emerson Sandy Tapuy, leader of Tigre River Kichwa communities and president of the regional indigenous federation ORPIO.

“They could finally see it and feel it, see with their own eyes that the contamination exists. Just like we’ve always said it existed,” Sandy said of the visit from Congress.

Despite any kind of defense, the company can only listen quietly to the new charges laid against it by the Peruvian environmental control agency OEFA, which recently sanctioned it for failing to mop up contamination it claimed to have cleansed from streams, lakes, lagoons and wetlands throughout Loreto.

“These resolutions confirm the accusations made by indigenous organizations affected by oil operations and contamination in the watersheds of the Tigre, Pastaza, Corrientes and Marañon (rivers), confirming that the company PlusPetrol is an agent of long term contamination in their territories,” reported the indigenous group PUINAMUDT on July 12.

This most recent evidence of PlusPetrol’s “infractions of environmental laws” and abuses of indigenous communities will surely provide fodder for the ongoing congressional probe, which is nearing publication of its initial report based on data going back six years. Insiders say the report could damage the reputation of PlusPetrol enough to make it impossible, or at least more uncomfortable, for cozy relationships with government officials to continue. It could also make it more difficult for Peru’s top ministers to ignore the company’s record and not hold local government officials accountable. Insiders talk of blowing the lid off years of corruption at regional and local levels.

The evidence could strike a blow to the wall of secrecy and complicity that has allowed PlusPetrol to operate in Peru with impunity for so many years, and finally expose it to the wrath of indigenous communities bent on getting some long-awaited justice. And with the oil industry planning double production in Peru over the next five years, an empowered and unified indigenous movement finally on the national stage could force the change needed to make sure business can’t be done as usual in Peru any more.

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