- While the meeting was under way in Nueva Alianza, at the confluence of the Urituyacu and Marañón rivers in Peru's northeastern Loreto region, a protest over oil operations was brewing downstream in San José de Saramuro, where the troubled northern Peruvian oil pipeline begins.
- The recent events underscore growing discontent among indigenous communities living in a region where decades of poorly regulated oil production have left hundreds of contaminated sites, and where residents who depend on rivers for drinking water and fish for protein worry about long-term health effects.
- The Peruvian government regulatory agency for energy and mining, Osinergmin, had registered 190 spills from Petroperú’s pipeline and privately operated pipelines in the country since 1997.
Negotiations on Aug. 31 between national government officials and leaders and residents of Nueva Alianza, an indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon, ended an impasse over cleanup of about 4,000 barrels of oil that spilled from two pipeline breaks 10 days earlier. But the talks left many questions unanswered and local residents dissatisfied.
While the meeting was under way in Nueva Alianza, at the confluence of the Urituyacu and Marañón rivers in Peru’s northeastern Loreto region, a protest over oil operations was brewing downstream in San José de Saramuro, where the troubled northern Peruvian oil pipeline begins.
That protest erupted on Sept. 1, with demonstrators blocking the Marañón River, a crucial waterway connecting the key Amazonian city of Iquitos with highways to the coast. The protesters’ demands include replacement of the deteriorated pipeline, remediation of 40 years’ worth of oil pollution in the Amazon, compensation for damages, and an environmental monitoring law.
The recent events underscore growing discontent among indigenous communities living in a region where decades of poorly regulated oil production have left hundreds of contaminated sites, and where residents who depend on rivers for drinking water and fish for protein worry about long-term health effects.
A series of recent spills along a pipeline operated by the state-run oil company Petroperú, which carries crude 854 kilometers (about 531 miles) from Amazonian oilfields over the Andes to the Pacific coast, has drawn the most recent attention. The two breaks in Nueva Alianza were the fifth and sixth spills since January.
A pipeline break near Chiriaco, in the Amazonas region, in late January was followed in early February by a leak in the Wampis community of Mayuriaga, upstream from the Morona River in the Loreto region. In June, there was a spill in Barranca, also in Loreto, and Aug. 10 another in the district of Nieva in Amazonas.
Before the Nueva Alianza spills, the government regulatory agency for energy and mining, Osinergmin, had registered 190 spills from Petroperú’s pipeline and privately operated pipelines in the country since 1997.
Most — 97 — were from pipelines operated by the Argentinean company Pluspetrol Norte in its oil fields in Loreto or between those fields and Petroperú facilities. Petroperú ranked second, with 37 spills, 20 of them in the past five years, according to Osinergmin.
Of the 190 spills, 67 were due to vandalism and 62 to corrosion. Six are under investigation, and the others were attributed to mechanical problems, natural causes, or other causes.
Petroperú has publicly attributed the Nueva Alianza and Nieva spills to vandalism, although Osinergmin has not issued a ruling. Residents of Nueva Alianza were angered by what they considered an accusation that community members cut the pipeline to create cleanup jobs.
Petroperú is planning to sign agreements with communities to patrol the pipeline in their territories, but it is not clear what their legal responsibility would be if vandalism occurred, according to Luis Zapata, Petroperú’s head of corporate communications.
A resident of Nueva Alianza reported the spill on Aug. 21, after he saw crude spewing from the pipeline near the village. Two leaks about 1.3 kilometers (about 0.8 miles) apart dumped some 4,000 barrels of crude into the canal containing the pipeline before workers arrived the next day to plug the holes.
Over the next few days, inspectors from Osinergmin and the government’s Environmental Assessment and Oversight Agency (OEFA) arrived to inspect the damage.
When three employees of Lamor, a Finnish company hired by Petroperú to clean up recent spills, arrived on Aug. 24, community members stopped them briefly before allowing them to go to the spill site, which is about a 15-minute walk from the village.
In a press release, Petroperú said the community was impeding cleanup operations and warned that if rain caused oil from the canal to wash into nearby streams and rivers, the community would be responsible.
Gilter Yuyarima Tapuyima, president of Nueva Alianza, denied that the community was blocking the cleanup, and said the Lamor employees had gone to the site once they identified themselves to community authorities. His claim was supported by an interview with one of the Lamor employees in a video report by Radio Ucamara of Nauta.
But Yuyarima and other community leaders insisted that they wanted a Petroperú manager to visit the community and discuss cleanup plans with them before the work could begin.
Meanwhile, residents kept a wary eye on the sky. Nueva Alianza had seen no rain for nearly two weeks, but a downpour could flood the spill site, sending crude down two streams, including one that empties into the Urituyacu River, the community’s main source of water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing.
The impasse continued until Aug. 31, when a negotiator from the prime minister’s office, representatives of the ministries of Culture and Health, and Petroperú managers arrived to meet with community members.
During the meeting, residents said they were worried about the spill’s effect on their food supply, as the canal was a popular fishing spot. They also objected to Petroperu’s policy of contracting two international companies — Lamor and INMAC, a construction and engineering firm with offices in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru — to coordinate cleanup.
They called for Petroperú to hire local companies, many of which have sprung up since the recent spills to provide labor for cleanup efforts.
Most of the nearly 200 people at the meeting also protested a Petroperú manager’s announcement that the company would pay laborers the equivalent of about $15 per day for cleanup work. Workers received about $20 a day to clean up spills two years ago, and as much as $45 a day for cleanups earlier this year.
The lower rate offered in Nueva Alianza appeared to be related to Petroperú’s allegation that the pipeline was deliberately cut. In a region of the country where steady employment is scarce and unskilled laborers often earn just a few dollars a day, some observers said the high pay could create a perverse incentive for local people to vandalize the pipeline to create jobs.
The five-hour meeting ended with an agreement that workers from Lamor would spend the next week assessing the damage and drawing up a cleanup plan. INMAC would then hire local laborers directly to work on the cleanup teams, giving priority to residents of Nueva Alianza and neighboring communities.
Yuyarima’s request for food, water, and medical assistance for the community, which has been waiting 10 years for a health post, were put off, and owners of local companies who had hovered around the community building during the meeting left the village the next day, apparently out of the running for cleanup contracts.
Javier Aroca of the National Office of Dialogue and Sustainability, the chief negotiator at the meeting, said afterward that the government had achieved its goal of winning the community’s agreement to allow Lamor to assess the damage so cleanup could begin.
He attributed the original impasse, in which community leaders refused to let the cleanup proceed until a Petroperú representative arrived, to a breakdown in communication between the community and the company.
Aroca said Petroperú managers were worried about safety. After the February spill in Mayuriaga, villagers there prevented government officials from leaving the community until the president of Petroperú arrived in person to talk with community leaders.
“Petroperú (executives) told us they couldn’t go into (Nueva Alianza) alone,” Aroca said.
Danny Nugkuag Cabrera, director of the Ministry of Culture’s Office of Indigenous People’s Rights, agreed that communication had been poor. He also said that for the community, concern about environmental damage took a back seat to the demand that local companies be hired and discussion of wages.
For local residents, however, environmental harm — especially to fish — is closely tied to income. Now that the canal, which residents describe as a place where they could always count on a catch for dinner, is off limits for fishing, they will have to invest more time and money for gasoline for boat motors to travel upriver a day or more to fish.
Fishermen who sell their catch are also worried that buyers will shun them, fearing that the fish are contaminated — a problem that still plagues the nearby community of Cuninico two years after an oil spill there.
The Petroperú pipeline begins at Pumping Station No. 1 in the village of San José de Saramuro and follows the Marañón River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon. At least three spills since 2014 have occurred in the buffer zone of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, a protected area of wetland and seasonally flooded forest that also contains oil wells.
The pipeline canal and a network of streams and lakes that connect to it were a rich fishing ground until the spill in Cuninico in June 2014. Overnight, half a dozen communities that depended on the fishing in those lakes lost their main source of protein and income. That assistance lasted only until the initial cleanup ended in December 2014.
The fishing still has not recovered, according to leaders of Cuninico and the neighboring communities of Santa Rosa, Urarinas, San Antonio, and San Francisco. Leaders of some of those villages, who also attended the session with national government officials in Nueva Alianza, asked for assistance as well, but the request went unanswered.
After the pipeline breaks in Chiriaco and Mayuriaga early this year, dozens of villages downstream from the spill sites received emergency food and water. After the June 2014 spill, however, only Cuninico received assistance, and only until the end of the initial cleanup in December 2014.
Pablo Silva, president of Santa Rosa, which borders both Cuninico and Nueva Alianza, said his community is now caught between two oil spills, with nowhere left to fish nearby.
Dead fish appeared in the pipeline canal in Santa Rosa and Cuninico around the time of the spill in Nueva Alianza. Villagers initially thought the fish kill was due to contamination from the oil, but the current direction of water flow in the canal — from Santa Rosa toward Nueva Alianza — makes that unlikely. The water flow changes direction in heavy rains and with the seasonal rise and fall of floodwaters.
Dead fish also appeared in the canal and surrounding lakes several weeks before the oil slick appeared along the pipeline in Cuninico in 2014, possibly indicating a slow leak from corrosion before the pipeline ruptured. Local villagers are worried that the same thing could happen again, especially after residents of Cuninico who were surveying their community boundaries with regional government workers noticed an oily-smelling sheen on the surface of the pipeline on Sept. 2.
Petroperú managers say the pipeline has been idle since February, when OEFA ordered the company to replace seriously deteriorated sections of the pipeline and repair less serious damage.
After the spill in Barranca in June, then-Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal said Petroperú records showed the company had been pumping just days earlier. Zapata said that was a test and denied that Petroperú has pumped crude since February.
In the wake of the spills, villagers along the Marañón wonder whether the fish are safe to eat. Fish caught in February near the sites of the Chiriaco and Mayuriaga spills contained levels of lead and cadmium that exceeded maximum allowable levels, according to a study by SANIPES, a government oversight agency.
More worrisome for the residents of Cuninico and the neighboring community of San Pedro, where a spill attributed to vandalism dumped 7,000 barrels of crude into the pipeline canal in November 2014, were results of a study of metals in villagers’ blood and urine.
That study, conducted in January 2016, found cadmium and mercury levels exceeding safety thresholds in the blood and urine of villagers in San Pedro and Cuninico. It also found blood lead levels in children that were within Peru’s safety limits, but that exceed the maximum allowed in the United States, which has stricter standards.
A larger study of residents in oil-producing areas in the Peruvian Amazon is now under way, with results expected early next year.
On Aug. 31, Peruvian Prime Minister Fernando Zavala announced that the executive branch would seek special legislative powers to restructure Petroperú, although he gave no details. Opposition legislators called the move an effort to privatize the company.
The leaky pipeline is part of aging infrastructure in the country’s oldest and most polluted Amazonian oil fields, which operated with little regulation from the 1970s until about a decade ago, when new norms required that production water — the hot, metals-laden water pumped out of wells with oil — be re-injected underground instead of dumped into rivers and streams.
Similar practices have taken a toll in Ecuador and other parts of the Amazon, as well, and oil pollution poses an overlooked hazard to fragile ecosystems, scientists say. In a recent letter in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, Brazilian fish ecology expert Valter Azevedo-Santos and colleagues warned that “If the current trend continues, Amazonian aquatic biodiversity — probably the richest on Earth — will experience large-scale and irreversible losses in a short time.”
- Azevedo-Santos, V.M., GarciaAyala, J.R., Fearnside, P.M., Esteves, F.A., Pelicice, F.M., Laurance, W.F., & Benine, W.F. (2016). Amazon aquatic biodiversity imperiled by oil spills. Biodiversity and Conservation. doi:10.1007/s10531-016-1192-9