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Oil, but no development
Cecilia Remón
11/2/2006
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Achuar indigenous group demands oil company to stop contaminating important river.

For the past 35 years, native communities along the Corrientes River basin in Peru’s northern Amazon jungle have consumed water contaminated by a nearby oil field, while governments turned a blind eye to their suffering. On Oct. 10, these communities ran out of patience and took over two facilities, demanding an end to the contamination.

The Corrientes River winds through Peru’s northeastern Loreto department, near the Ecuadorian border. Thirty-two Achuar, Quichua and Urarina communities live there — approximately 7,800 residents — and they are represented by the Corrientes River Native Communities Federation, known by the Spanish acronym FECONACO, one of the 57 federations and 1,250 native communities belonging to the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Jungle, or AIDESEP.

In the 1960s native community lands were included within the drawn limits of Blocks 1AB and 8, areas that the government designated for oil exploration. The government granted the California-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. Block 1AB in a 1971 concession. The US oil company operated the field until 2000, when it sold it to the Argentina-based Pluspetrol. Between 1975 and 2005 640 million barrels of oil were extracted from this block, generating US$16 billion in gross income. Block 8 was run by Peruvian state oil company Petroperu, before it was switched to Pluspetrol’s control in 1996.

Since oil exploration in the area began, the water extracted with the oil has not been re-injected to the actual oil pits, but has been dumped into the river, going against the international standard procedure.

Toxic water

Pluspetrol currently throws 1.3 million barrels (159 liters each) of production waters into the Corrientes River each day. These waters can reach temperatures of more than 90° C (194° F). They contain hydrocarbon particles, chlorine, and heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic and barium, among others, leaving a mark on community members’ health.

When consumed, the substances in this metal-laden water — and food grown with it — accumulate in the body, increasing the risk of genetic defects and cancer.

"Enough of these abuses", said Segundo Alberto Pisango, AIDESEP’s president. "This has to stop. There is no reason to allow [oil companies] to continue to get rich off the deaths of our indigenous brothers."

"They say ‘oil brings development’ when in fact, it’s the reverse. During 35 years of oil production, [members of the] Achuar people have found death and exploitation and the company is not handing out compensations," he added.

Early this year, Health Ministry officials visited the peoples of the Corrientes River basin. They conducted blood tests and found that samples from 98.6 percent of the population contained cadmium levels about the permissible limit. Just over 66 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 17 had blood lead levels above the limit, as did nearly a quarter of the adult population. Thirteen percent had levels that were dangerous to one’s health.

"Not only blood from people, [but also] waters, land animals, fish and soil are seriously contaminated, making the social and family lives of the Achuar unviable," FECONACO says.

In early September, FECONACO directors met with government officials in Lima, the third such meeting this year. "If there is no solution, the Achuar people will stand up," they told authorities. The indigenous leaders warned that they would use force if the government did not heed their demands, among them, the total re-injection of the production waters back into the oil fields by December 2007.

They also demanded that they be a part of the decision-making processes as well as supervise and monitor the environmental, health and human development factors in the area, as well as remediation and repair works on the contaminated sites. Leaders said they must be granted a "free and informed" consultation before any projects on new oil fields get underway.

They were true to their word.

A month later, on Oct. 10, some 700 Achuar community members surrounded Block 1AB and Block 8, causing Pluspetrol to shut down production. Four days later the government sent Health Minister Carlos Vallejos and Energy and Mines Minister Juan Valdivia to negotiate with the indigenous authorities.

Agreement reached

An agreement was reached Oct. 15, requiring Pluspetrol to re-inject all toxic production water in Blocks 1AB and 8 by the end of 2008. The Argentine company also agreed to finance a 10-year health program for the affected populations, including the construction of a rural hospital along with the Health Ministry in the town of Trompeteros.

The accords were finalized in governmental resolutions. But the protesters found that these documents did not contain the true agreements, so they decided to not withdraw from the facilities.

"We have evaluated the ministerial resolutions and important advances have been recognized, but we think they are missing some aspects to guarantee that these promises are fulfilled, because in some cases the executing entity has been mentioned, or the budget, or the timeframe," said one protester.

Cabinet Chief Jorge del Castillo threatened to send national police to remove the indigenous protesters, and accused the Racimos de Ungurahui Group (FECONACO’s legal advisor) of "instigating native peoples to maintain a hostile attitude and forget the commitments assumed with authorities and the company."

Ombudswoman Beatriz Merino denounced Del Castillo’s remarks and said that the contamination caused by the oil drilling — not the Achuar — was at fault.

"It’s a serious error to think that this problem can only be seen from an economic standpoint," Merino said in a press conference. "This has occurred because there has been tremendous damage to the native communities’ health."

Leaders from 32 Achuar communities, government representatives, Pluspetrol and the Ombudsman’s Office entered a new series of talks Oct. 22, ending in the signing of a new agreement, after which the indigenous community members left Pluspetrol facilities.

Pluspetrol will now be required to re-inject all production waters for Block 1AB much earlier, by December 2007, and from Block 8 by July 2008.


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Contaminants in the Corrientes River can cause cancer and other harmful diseases. (Photo: Martí Orta Martínez y Cristina O´Callaghan Gordo)
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