To reach remote village of Nueva Alianza included a day-long ride on a public boat from Iquitos, the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon.

This is the site of a recent oil spill in the Amazon, one of the more than 20 spills within five years from the pipeline which belongs to a state-owned petroleum company, Petroperú. Company officials say cleanup has been delayed by village politics.

“We have to clean up the oil spill as soon as possible, we’ve been delayed for a month,” said Dino Valdieviezo, head of operations for Petroperú after arriving to the site on September 18.

Valdieviezo was part of a team of delegates from Petroperú that included Luis Zapata Palacios, head of corporate communications. Valdieviezo blamed cleanup delays from the August spill on those most directly impacted – local residents.

But the blame doesn’t come out of thin air.

A history of spills

Since 1997, there have been 190 spills – 67 from vandalism and 62 from corrosion – according to the Peruvian government regulatory agency for energy and mining, Osinergmin.

Six of those spills are under investigation, and others have been attributed to mechanical problems, and natural or other causes.

Petroperú has openly blamed vandalism as the cause of the Nueva Alianza spill, an accusation that has angered residents. Osinergmin has not issued a ruling. If it is determined that the spill was caused by vandalism, the legal consequences for the village are not clear according to Petroperú’s Zapata.

The Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement estimates that 4,000 barrels of oil has leaked to the river since the spill from August 21.

Tapuyima said that nobody in his village of mostly rice farmers and fishermen has the tools nor the skills to damage the pipeline. In fact, a resident of Nueva Alianza reported the spill on Aug. 21 after he saw crude spewing from the pipeline near the village – one of two leaks less than a mile apart.

Negotiation delays

Yet Valdieviezo also blamed area residents for delaying cleanup work, which still hasn’t begun.

“We received a call at 5 am on August 21 about the oil spills…and we did some prevention work to stop the oil from spreading, but the community won’t allow us to continue with the cleanup work,” said the 57-year-old Valdieviezo, who has worked with Petroperú for 33 years.

On Aug. 24, a Finnish company hired by Petroperú to clean up recent spills, Lamor, arrived to help assess the damage. There are also disputes over payment to locals who want to be hired for cleanup work.

“They were asking for 150 sol a day, but we normally pay 80 sol for a day’s work. And that’s why we are here for, to have a dialogue, to come up with solutions,” said Valdieviezo while holding up his fingers to gesture a calculation of how much residents wanted to be compensated for doing the dirty and dangerous work of cleaning up the oil.

150 Peruvian sol is equivalent to about $45 US.  In the past, community workers have been paid about $15 to $20 a day for cleanup work, and as high as $45 a day for cleanup work earlier in 2016, according to Petroperú.

After three rounds of negotiations over ten days, Petroperú  and the Nueva Alianza community reached an agreement, which was signed on Sept. 18 at the village’s community center. Residents packed the small community hall and crowded up against the windows from outside in order to witness the signing ceremony.

In the end, village leader Tapuyima said that according to the agreement cleanup work would start on Sept. 19 and about 150 workers would be paid about $24 each per day. That’s an influx of about $3,600 a day to the remote community of 670 people.

After the agreement was made, group photos were taken and the crowd followed the team from Petroperú to their helicopter before they returned to their headquarters in Lima. Despite the pouring rain, the atmosphere was full of hope. Residents cheered as the children’s hair flew high from wind generated by the helicopter. Many Nueva Alianza residents believe it was a victory for a cleaner environment and better paying jobs.

Stalled cleanup

But since the agreement was signed, village men have gathered in the town square to wait for cleanup work or any instructions. There has been none of either.

While Tapuyima has branded Petroperú “a liar” for the delay, other men in the square think the delay might be related to protests and downstream blockade at Sarmuro village where the clean up equipment is locked up at Petroperú ’s base. Repeated attempts by Mongabay for additional comment from Petroperú about cleanup delays were unsuccessful.

Villages affected by the pipeline spill have different approaches to the situation. Saramuro, the village downstream from Nueva Alianza where Petroperú has an area base, began staging protests on Sept. 1, triggering the evacuation of staff and a lockdown of the base.

“If there aren’t solutions, the protest will continue!” yelled leaders to a crowd of hundreds from various villages along River Marañon to Saramuro to support the protest in mid-September.

“Our river is polluted and now we have poison in our blood,” the crowd yelled while pointing out land next to the Petroperú  base that is contaminated by leftover oil covered up in sand and bags of waste from previous oil spill clean ups.

Villagers managed to form a blockade on the Marañon River. Any passing boat was forced to pay a toll of cash or supplies such as rice or plantains. The blockade has since ended, but it affected dozens of Petroperú workers.

“We can’t leave, but we are running out of food, and we are afraid of our safety,” said Gaspar Quintana, the 59-year-old captain of one of the eleven boats transporting oil between Saramuro and Iquitos that got trapped. There were a total of 66 crew members stranded on their boats.

“We have no way to communicate with Petroperú, and we have no information on the current situation,” said Quintana.

Saramuro protesters said their aim was to have a direct dialogue with Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the newly elected president of Peru, and related government ministers.

An estimated 4,000 barrels of oil spilled into the river at Nueva Alianze between August 21 and September 18. Photo by Ann Wang
An estimated 4,000 barrels of oil spilled into the river at Nueva Alianze between August 21 and September 18. Photo by Ann Wang

The blockade has ended, yet Tapuyima remains reticent about the future in spite of promised cleanup.

“You see it yourself there, the area where it’s polluted is where we fish, it is where our food comes from,” said Tapuyima. “How will we go on with our own lives?”

Other demands

Villagers have also seized on the opportunity to leverage other demands, including schools and clean drinking water. They want these necessities to be provided by the government or Petroperú as a form of social responsibility for the community.

“We want hospitals in each village, with doctors and equipment,” said an angry Miguel Manihuari Tamani, a 65-year-old native of Saramuro. “They are just taking our rich resources and giving it to Iquitos and Lima, the big cities. But what about us?”

In response to the protester’s demands, Palacios, corporate communications head for Petroperú explained that it is not the company’s responsibility to give communities jobs, schools or hospitals.

“We, Petroperú, are the middle ground, between communities and the government,” he said. “We should listen to the communities and let the government know their wishes.” Palacios, a relative newcomer at Petroperú, has been tasked with leading the negotiations at Nueva Alianza.

Gilter Yuyarima Tapuyima, the community leader of Nueva Alianza (right) and Luis Zapata Palacios, head of corporate communications for Petroperú signing agreements after the community meeting at Nueva Alianza on Sep 18. Photo by Ann Wang
Gilter Yuyarima Tapuyima, the community leader of Nueva Alianza (right) and Luis Zapata Palacios, head of corporate communications for Petroperú signing agreements after the community meeting at Nueva Alianza on Sep 18. Photo by Ann Wang

Palacios believes Petroperú is not neglecting the common welfare of the residents affected by the pipeline.

“To me, our social responsibility is to stay close with the community, and be able to work together,” said Palacios. “We are working in a new era, a new stage of social responsibility of Petroperú.” According to Palacios, “Petroperú is changing from the inside, and that is my responsibility.”

Back in Nueva Alianza, village leader Tapuyima disagrees with the protest.

“If you want to do a protest, you can do it without taking things from others,” he said from the front of his simple two-level wooden house by the river. “The only way to transport goods is by the river, a lot of people bring products from their own community to the city to sell, but because of the protest, they have to give up their supplies. Why are we offending each other, when we should all be against Petroperú ?”

Photograph: Hundreds of indigenous people from villages along River Marañon gathered at Saramuro, where Petroperu Station 1 is based, staging a protest against Petroperu and the government. Photo by Ann Wang

All photographs by Ann Wang. 

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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