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Protest against oil pollution ends with accords on pipeline inspection, remediation, compensation

  • Protesters from Marañón, Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre and Chambira watersheds began river blockade September 1.
  • Three Peruvian Cabinet ministers led negotiating sessions in the village of Saramurillo, on the Marañón River, which ended the night of December 15.
  • Government officials say accords do not conflict with agreements reached in recent years with other indigenous federations in affected watersheds.

Saramurillo, Peru – Indigenous leaders protesting oil pollution in Peru’s northern Amazon region signed a series of agreements with government officials December 15 on issues ranging from inspection of aging pipelines to remediation of contaminated sites and compensation for damages.

The accords put an end to a three-and-a-half-month impasse during which protesters blocked the Marañón River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon and a crucial transportation route for passengers and cargo.

The agreements resulted from stop-and-start negotiations during which three Cabinet ministers traveled to this small indigenous community, which is flanked by a key oil pumping station operated by the state-owned oil company Petroperú. Two of those ministers returned with Prime Minister Fernando Zavala, Peru’s Cabinet chief, on December 19 to pledge government support for the accords.

“Now the work will begin,” said Wilmer Chávez, president of the Inter-Ethnic Organization of the Upper Pastaza (ORIAP), one of the organizations that took part in the protest, noting that indigenous representatives are to participate in various commissions to address the issues.

The agreements involve pollution in the country’s two oldest Amazonian oil fields, Block 192 (formerly called 1AB) and Block 8, where four decades of poorly regulated operations have left several thousand sites contaminated with oil and other waste.

Children show their demands in a session of negotiations between indigenous leaders and representatives of the Peruvian government. Photo copyright Barbara Fraser.

They also refer to the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, operated by Petroperú, which carries crude from those oil fields over the Andes Mountains to the Pacific coast. A series of spills along that pipeline this year triggered the protest in Saramurillo.

Some of the accords overlap with agreements reached in recent years between the government and indigenous federations in the Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre, and Marañón watersheds — known as the “cuatro cuencas,” or “four watersheds.

Those federations, which have led various protests over the past decade, were not among the organizations protesting in Saramurillo. Leaders of the Saramurillo protest complained that past agreements were moving too slowly and that their organizations wanted more of a say in actions planned for the affected areas.

Government officials said the two processes — the one in what is referred to as the “cuatro cuencas” and the one that began in Saramurillo — can continue on separate tracks for the time being.

Any agreements reached in one set of talks will apply to all communities in those watersheds, as well as villages in the Chambira River watershed, which participated in the Saramurillo protest, according to Rolando Luque, who heads the National Office of Dialogue and Sustainability.

The Saramurillo accords call for a thorough inspection in the first half of 2017 of the Petroperú pipeline, as well as other pipelines that crisscross Blocks 192 and 8. Indigenous representatives will participate in the drafting of terms of reference for the inspection and in the subsequent pipeline maintenance.

Remediation of contaminated sites will also begin in 2017, with a fund of about $15 million that was established in 2015. That fund was set up as part of a prior agreement with the “cuatro cuencas” federations. The organizations that were represented in Saramurillo will have a voice at the meetings of the remediation fund’s board of directors.

Under the Saramurillo accords, the Congressional Commission on Andean and Amazonian Peoples, Afro-Peruvians, the Environment and Ecology agreed to introduce a bill on community environmental monitoring and to promote nationwide discussions on Peru’s energy future, including whether the country should continue to produce oil in the ecologically sensitive Amazon region.

Protesters listen during a negotiation session between indigenous leaders and representatives of the Peruvian government in the community of Saramurillo, in the lower basin of the Marañón River. Photo copyright Barbara Fraser.

The government and indigenous organizations will also form a commission to investigate the impacts of the four-plus decades of oil operations in Blocks 192 and 8. That agreement could get a boost early in 2017, when representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. special rapporteur on toxic substances are expected to make an official visit to Peru.

Four of the agreements call for government investment in education, health, water and sanitation, and income-producing projects in communities affected by oil spills, as compensation for damages. Some protesters who attended the talks said they thought the compensation should go further, as those programs are basic services that the government should provide regardless of the pollution.

The protesters also called for an end to the “criminalization of protest,” which is particularly reflected in a law that makes retaining vehicles at roadblocks — or, in this case, the river blockade — tantamount to kidnapping. The government and Petroperú agreed not to press charges against the protesters for the blockade, although private citizens could file suit.

The blockade was one of the most controversial steps taken by the protesters, who stopped scores of river boats carrying passengers and cargo, as well as nine oil barges that remained tied up at Saramurillo until November 27.

Except for the barges, most boats were allowed to continue their journey after a 24-hour delay if they offered the protesters food or cash. While the protesters said those payments were voluntary, boat operators and passengers called them extortion. Leaders of some communities that did not join the protest, even though they had been affected by oil spills, cited the handling of the blockade as one reason for their reluctance to participate.

Several issues, including titling for communities within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, which includes oil wells from Block 8, and payments for easements related to the Petroperú pipeline, went unresolved.

Some of the agreements, such as the pipeline inspection, have specific time lines. Others, including those related to compensation, lack precise dates. The pace of progress is likely to determine whether those who took part in the protest continue to see the accords as a victory or become disenchanted, as they have with past agreements that have gone unfulfilled.

The sometimes-tense protest had dragged on for 40 days before government officials first arrived for talks. The protesters had refused to send representatives to Lima to negotiate, insisting instead that high-level government officials meet with them in their territory — “apu to apu,” as they put it, using the local term for an indigenous chief.

The Defense Ministry transported more than 80 protesters to Lima — a day’s travel by river and then a two-hour flight away — during the week of November 14, in a deal brokered by a former Army commander who gained the protest leaders’ trust.

Demonstrators in Saramurillo watch from the shore the departure of barges from the state company Petroperú that were retained during the protest. Photo copyright Barbara Fraser.

The trip mainly appeared to be orchestrated as a way for the government to ensure that the river blockade would be lifted while Peru hosted world leaders that week for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings. After an initial meeting with government officials and an appearance at a congressional commission session, the protesters spent four days at a hotel in downtown Lima with no apparent agenda.

But on the night of November 19, at a meeting with the justice and defense ministers and other government officials, the protesters agreed to release nine oil barges that were being held at Saramurillo and allow Petroperú to return to the pumping station, which it had evacuated when the protest started.

In return, the government agreed that a Cabinet minister would lead negotiations and Zavala would travel to Saramurillo to sign off on the final agreement.

The talks continued in Saramurillo from November 27 to 29 with Justice Minister Marisol Pérez Tello. They continued December 6 to 7 with Energy and Mines Minister Gonzalo Tamayo, but that session led only to agreement on the first of the protesters’ seven demands. Production Minister Bruno Giuffra finished the task with two marathon sessions December 14 to 15, with the last accord signed just after midnight.

During the talks, the presidents of the half-dozen indigenous organizations represented in Saramurillo took turns presenting their arguments, as leaders and residents of various communities — holding spears, their faces daubed with paint — listened, occasionally shouting support or opposition.

Several times, two Kichwa women from the upper Tigre River spoke emphatically in their native language, describing the impact of the pollution on their families. Their remarks, which were not always translated for the non-indigenous officials from Lima, were peppered with Spanish terms for concepts that did not exist in their native languages — words like “contamination,” “petroleum,” “lawyer,” “police” and “prison.”

Julia Chuje Ruíz — whose son, José Fachín, a law student, was one of the main advisers to the indigenous leaders in Saramurillo — later told a reporter that she had described how the clean water she saw in streams and lakes near the Tigre River as a girl turned black with oil after drilling began in the 1970s.

Marisol Perez Tello, Peruvian justice minister, walks with protesters from the heliport of the Petroperú pumping station to the community of Saramurillo, to dialogue with indigenous leaders. Photo copyright Barbara Fraser.

She recalled stirring the oily water with her hands to clear a place to bathe in the river, which is still the main source of water for drinking, cooking and washing. “We didn’t know what it was,” she said of the oil. “The company didn’t tell us anything.”

She said she realized the danger posed by pollution in 2008, when local residents seized the airstrip in Andoas, on the Pastaza River. That was the headquarters of Pluspetrol, the Argentinian company that operated Block 192 until last year and which still operates Block 8.

A police officer was killed during those demonstrations, and Fachín was one of about 20 protesters arrested and jailed. All were later cleared of charges and freed, but Chuje has not forgotten the anxiety of traveling to the prison to see her son. Nor has she forgotten the deaths of her teenage son and two brothers, or the village children buried in Vista Alegre, where she used to live, who died vomiting blood. She blames the pollution, although the deaths might also have been due to diseases that arrived with oil company workers.

Behind a wood-frame house in Saramurillo early on the morning of December 16, Chuje served a visitor a bowl of masato, a traditional drink made from fermented cassava, from a pot she was stirring over an open fire.

She had left the final negotiating session before midnight, skipping the dancing and toasts that followed the signing of the last accords. Over the years, she has seen various protests, followed by negotiations and the signing of pledges. She hopes this time will be different, but she isn’t sure.

“How many months have we waited to sign?” she asked. “When I see things change, that’s when I’ll celebrate.”

Settler of the indigenous community of 6 de Junio in Loreto region, inspects an oil spill that occurred in October. Photo copyright Barbara Fraser.
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