Indigenous communities are forced to clean up a 3,000-barrel oil spill in Peru’s Amazon

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The oil spill on the Marañón River is covering rocks on the rivers’ shores, and also the white suits donned by the men who have been hired to clean up the spill in the Amazon tributary.

Indigenous communities are forced to clean up a 3,000-barrel oil spill in Peru’s Amazon
  • This isn't the first time that an oil spill affects the Peruvian Amazon. In July of 2014, an oil pipeline burst and 8,000 gallons of oil ended up in the Marañón River.
  • Peru's government declared a public health emergency on February 17, and got together with local community leaders three days later.
  • Experts say the recent oil spills in the Amazon are some of the worst in Peru --around 3,000 barrels of oil have ended up in Amazon River tributaries, affecting more than 8,000 people.

The images being shared on social media and by the international press these days show to the average eye what the impacts of a broken oil pipeline can be: water dyed deep black, turned into a liquid as thick as the oil that has contaminated them.

Those recent photos from northern Peru document how the oil spill is covering rocks on the rivers’ shores, and also the white suits donned by the men who have been hired to clean up the spill in the Amazon tributary.

This isn’t the first time that an oil spill affects the region. In July of 2014, an oil pipeline burst and 8,000 gallons of oil ended up in the Marañón River. The damaged pipeline —a piece of infrastructure that is almost 40 years old and without much maintenance– directly impacted the town of Cuninico, where around 130 families live, according to an article that appeared in Environmental Health News. Months after the spill, the communities of Cuninico and its surroundings areas complained of nausea and skin rashes, and of being afraid to eat the local fish, especially around the time of the seasonal flooding when the contamination would extend beyond the disaster area.

What’s known so far, is that the two most recent oil spills along the Oleoducto Nor Peruano pipeline are the responsibility of the state company, PetroPerú. The company says it will clean up the disaster, but says it is not to blame for yet another spill, the third in a month, which locals say took place earlier this February in Pucará, in Cajamarca province, during a maintenance job.

Oil and gas blocks in the western Amazon. Solid yellow indicates blocks already leased out to companies. Hashed yellow indicates proposed blocks or blocks still in the negotiation phase. Protected areas shown are those considered strictly protected by the IUCN (categories I to III). Image modified from Finer M, Jenkins CN, Pimm SL, Keane B, Ross C, 2008 Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity, and Indigenous Peoples. PLoS ONE 3(8): e2932. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002932
Gas and oil blocks in the western edge of the Amazon. Image courtesy of Finer M, Jenkins CN, Pimm SL, Keane B, Ross C, 2008 Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity, and Indigenous Peoples. PLoS ONE 3(8): e2932. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002932

However, experts believe the two recent oil spills in the Amazon are some of the worst to have happened in Peru –around 3,000 barrels of oil have ended up in Amazon River tributaries, affecting more than 8,000 people. Among them, are the Awajún and Wampis indigenous peoples. All along, starting with the first spill on January 25, local indigenous communities have done everything they can to contain the problem.

Peru’s national government declared a public health emergency on February 17, and got together with community leaders three days later. But help was late to arrive, and by then, local men, women, and children had come to the shores of the Marañón River to help with the cleanup.

Local media reports say that within a few days of the spills, PetroPeru representatives offered the equivalent of eight dollars per bucket of oil that people could get out from the rivers. The laborers were not warned about the dangers of such activity, nor were they given special protection or training.

In an investigation by Univisión, a number of children explained to Rodrigo Lazo, an archeologist, that they received between two and four soles per bucket. A sol is worth around 28 cents of a dollar.

“They paid us two soles for every bucket. We were gathering the oil with our hands and the oil fell on us. We were asking for more money, but the engineer said no,” explained one of the children in the news report.

Peru’s environment minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, has declared that the restoration of the flora and fauna in the regions affected, Loreto and Amazonas, could take up to a year.

“PetroPeru has already fulfilled the first stage of containment; now it is focusing on gathering the oil that is closest to the site of the spill,” explained Pulgar-Vidal. “The last stage is the restoration of fauna and flora.”

According to the minister, PetroPeru’s fine could end up being as much as 17 million dollars.

CUNINICO, Peru–Villager examine oil slick near this Kukama Indian village in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Barbara Fraser.
A resident of the village of Kukama, in Peru’s northeastern Amazon, takes a look at oil contamination on the river. Photo by Barbara Fraser.

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