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More than 470 oil spills in the Peruvian Amazon since 2000: Report

  • A recent report called “The shadow of oil” revealed that 474 oil spills occurred along the NorPeruano Pipeline in Peru and on several oil blocks between 2000 and 2019.
  • About 65% of those spills were caused by corrosion in pipelines and failures in oil infrastructure, despite being blamed by authorities on “third-party” saboteurs.
  • The report showed that 344 of the spills were located in just two oil blocks.
  • The work of Peru’s Indigenous environmental monitors, whom proponents credit with accurately recording instances of spills that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, is still not formally recognized by the government.

Wadson Trujillo is an environmental monitor in Cuninico, an Indigenous community in northern Peru. In 2014, he was a witness to an oil spill in which thousands of barrels of oil spilled out of the NorPeruano Pipeline and flowed into his community, including into the Cuninico River.

Oil from the spill also reached the nearby communities of San Francisco, Nueva Esperanza and Santa Rosa, which are all in the district of Urarinas in the Loreto region. Although the event is considered emblematic in Peru as a result of the amount of oil that spilled, the problems that it caused have yet to be resolved.

“There are places and lands dedicated to agriculture that remain under the impact of the spill that affected us in 2014. There is no maintenance, monitoring or compliance with protocols on the part of PetroPerú,” Trujillo said, referring to the state-owned oil company.

An oil spill in the Indigenous Peruvian community of Cuninico in 2014. Image by Barbara Fraser.

Because of the lack of response, in May 2019, the National Coordinator for Human Rights (CNDDHH) of Peru determined there was much more to investigate when the country’s Congress decided to archive a report on oil spills linked to the NorPeruano Pipeline.

A subsequent research project led to a recently published report called “The shadow of oil” (“La sombra del petróleo” in Spanish; English summary here). The investigation found that between 2000 and 2019, 474 oil spills occurred in the Peruvian Amazon. These spills occurred along the NorPeruano Pipeline and in several oil blocks administered by private companies.

The report also determined that 65% of these spills were caused by the corrosion of oil pipelines and operational failures. This conclusion provides an opportunity to reopen the discussion about responsibility for these environmental incidents and the need to remediate thousands of sites impacted by oil spills, which have affected at least 41 Indigenous communities in the Amazon.

“After every spill, it was said that the responsibility was with the Indigenous communities, but there was no evidence that this was the case,” said Miguel Lévano, the coordinator of a subcommittee on oil spills within the CNDDHH. “It did not make sense, since they are the people being affected.”

The study, by researchers Aymara León and Mario Zúñiga, is based on official data from the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) and the Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining of Peru (OSINERGMIN). It also includes information from a report by Congress’s Multi-Party Investigative Committee that investigated the oil spills that came from the NorPeruano Pipeline.

Hundreds of impacted sites

According to the report, between 2000 and 2019, 189 oil spills were identified in Block 192, formerly known as Block 1AB. Until 2015, the block was managed by Pluspetrol, a company based in Argentina. An additional 155 oil spills occurred in Block 8, which is currently managed by Pluspetrol.

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Spilled oil next to farm fields. Image courtesy of the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

The report indicated that Pluspetrol has caused more contamination from oil spills than any other company, and that almost 95% of the oil that has spilled in the Amazon during the past two decades (2000 to 2019) came from these two oil blocks.

“Pluspetrol is the company that has had the most spills, and it is the [company] that has contested the sanctions imposed by the government the most. It resists carrying out the remediations,” said study co-author Zúñiga.

The locations of the oil spills between 2000 and 2019 include the NorPeruano Pipeline (94 spills), Block 31 (28 spills), Block 67 (four spills), Block 95 (two spills) and blocks 64 and 131 (one spill each).

Zúñiga noted that the Loreto region, where blocks 192 and 8 are located, has the highest number of sites affected by oil spills of any region in Peru. However, he said the annual funds that come from Pluspetrol for each oil well in Loreto would not cover the cost of all the damage from the spills.

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Oil spills in the Amazon have increased in number since 2007. Image courtesy of the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

Of the 2,000 sites impacted by Block 192, the Peruvian government has prioritized 32 sites, which would cost about $184 million to remediate, according to the National Environmental Fund of Peru, a Congress-established trust fund.

The researchers referenced the year 2012, when the price of a barrel of oil exceeded $100. Back then, the Loreto region received about $78.5 million in royalties from oil in Block 192 that year. “The amount of money that comes in every year from oil royalties would not even reach half of the prioritized sites. The costs of remediating the spills are so high that the royalties from the oil will not be able to cover it,” Zúñiga said.

Up until now, the Peruvian government has allocated $51.4 million to repair these liabilities. This figure would only cover about 10 of the prioritized sites, according to calculations by the agency responsible for the repairs.

To date, Pluspetrol has not set aside funds for these repairs. The company is currently in a dispute with the Peruvian government regarding this issue.

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An oil spill in Block 192 occurred in November 2019. Image courtesy of the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

“Is oil extraction profitable?” Zúñiga asked. He said that although Peruvian regions often obtain more than 80% of their annual budget from oil extraction income, these budgets usually do not consider the costs needed to undo damage from the oil spills that occur every year.

Four additional spills occurred in Block 192 after the investigation for this report concluded and while it was being reviewed, according to the report. Three of those spills occurred at sites under the responsibility of the Canadian company Frontera Energy, and one under the responsibility of state-owned PetroPerú.

“Pluspetrol has received the most fines but has paid the least,” said rights coordinator Lévano. “There are no remediation measures, and the people who continue to pay for the impacts of the contamination are the Indigenous peoples. Toxicology studies conducted in the communities affected by the spills show high levels of toxic elements in children and adults.”

Alicia Abanto, the deputy for environmental and Indigenous affairs in the Ombudsperson’s Office of Peru, questioned the delay in the remediation of the areas contaminated with oil.

“We insist upon the urgency of creating a contingency fund for environmental remediation because of the alarming delay. Although there have been reports of progress, such as the development of plans to attend to the affected sites, it is unacceptable that, more than four years after the creation of the fund, actions have not yet been started in any of the 32 contaminated sites that have been prioritized,” Abanto said.

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An oil spill in the Indigenous community of Nueva Alianza. Image courtesy of the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines wrote to Mongabay Latam and said that, since 2015, the Peruvian government has assumed responsibility for remediating the impacted areas. For that reason, it allocated about $14 million for the creation of the Contingency Fund for Environmental Remediation. The ministry also said that $51.3 million was granted in 2019 for the remediation of the prioritized blocks. According to the document, 30 rehabilitation plans have been produced using that money.

The ministry said it already has a budget assigned for this purpose. “The destination of these funds has been defined with the direct participation of the Indigenous organizations that participate — with their voices and votes — in the Fund Administration Assembly,” according to the ministry.

It added that the work on Block 192 is still in progress and that it is being “conducted by the [Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement], through its legal office.” Regarding the NorPeruano Pipeline, the ministry that it is “infrastructure that has been operating for many years under the care of PetroPerú. The inspection of its functional and operational conditions, as well as its security, is a task of [the Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining of Peru].”

Mongabay Latam sent written questions about the spills and possible remediation to Pluspetrol. The company said it would “transfer the request internally for the respective evaluation.” However, at the time of this article’s original publication in Spanish, Mongabay Latam had not received any further response from the company.

PetroPerú, which is responsible for oil drilling in Peru and for the NorPeruano Pipeline, also did not respond to Mongabay Latam’s request for comment.

Those responsible for the oil spills

One reason for conducting the study was to identify those responsible for the oil spills in the Peruvian Amazon, since statements from the companies and from the government consistently attributed blame to third parties who damaged the pipelines.

A review of the reports from the OEFA and OSINERGMIN led the researchers to a different conclusion.

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An oil spill in the community of Antioquía in November 2019. Image courtesy of the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

“The real data show that 65.4 percent of the spills that occurred in Amazonian oil blocks and along the NorPeruano Pipeline are a product of the corrosion of the pipelines and operational failures, while the spills caused by third parties represent 28.8 percent [of the spills],” according to the report.

In the case of Block 192, 77% of the spills were found to have been caused by problems in the oil infrastructure. In Block 31, the same figure reached 81%.

“Every time a spill occurred, it was indicated that it had been caused by third parties and that the Indigenous communities in the area were responsible,” Lévano said. “It was said that they were the ones who sabotaged in order to generate some type of benefit. But there was no evidence that it was this way.”

This did not make sense, Lévano said, because even the engineers who built the NorPeruano Pipeline said that something much stronger than a saw would be needed to rupture the pipeline.

According to OSINERGMIN and the OEFA, “There is a predominance of spills caused under the responsibility of the operators — mainly from operational failures and corrosion — and a much lower record of spills caused by third parties.”

The authors of “The shadow of oil” note that a separate report, written by the Amazonian Center for Anthropology and Practical Application (CAAAP) in Lima and the Vicariate of Iquitos for the CNDDHH, shows that some of the investigations opened by courts are being archived because there is not enough evidence to identify the responsible parties.

The CAAAP report said there was no evidence that the Indigenous communities were responsible for the oil spills. It even revealed possible collusion between PetroPerú and companies that would do remediation work.

A Mongabay Latam investigation published in Spanish in December 2017 gave an account of the discoveries of this congressional committee.

Alfonso López, the president of the Cocama Association for the Development and Conservation of San Pablo de Tipishca, said 2012 was the first time that the Peruvian government recognized the magnitude of the effects of oil spills.

López said environmental monitors were the ones who located all of the impacted sites, and for the first time, an agreement was signed with the government for the repair of the sites.

Peru derrame de petróleo en la Amazonía
An oil spill affected homes in the Peruvian communities of Nuevo Nazareth and Nuevo Jerusalén. Image courtesy of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River Basin (FECONACOR) and the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

“So far, the remediation work has not been done. The NorPeruano Pipeline breaks because it is deteriorating, but they accuse Indigenous people,” López said, referring to the delay in the repair process for the prioritized sites.

López also said the oil spills continue to affect an area called Cuatro Cuencas, which means “four basins.” In this area, where the Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes and Marañón rivers meet, an environmental emergency has been declared.

“The great Pastaza wetlands and the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve are being affected by oil spills. We have presented our complaints to the environmental district attorney, but they have not yet been resolved. Now, COVID-19 has been added to what we have already lived with for 50 years, with children who have contaminated blood and parents who are not healthy either,” López said.

The role of environmental monitors

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An Indigenous environmental monitor observes what was once a source of water. It has since been covered with dirt in an attempt to hide the oil contamination. Image by Vanessa Romo Espinoza.

“When there is an environmental emergency due to a spill and contamination, environmental monitors join forces, and in the community, we are always on the lookout for any leaks that may occur,” said Wadson Trujillo, the president of Cuninico and an active environmental monitor in the Peruvian Amazon.

A Mongabay Latam article published in November 2019 gives an account of the experiences of environmental monitors in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. The article also explains the use of technology in the surveillance work done by Indigenous peoples.

The research by the CNDDHH found that there has been a clear increase in the number of oil spills since 2007. “Although fewer than a dozen spills per year were recorded in the first few years of the decade, the figure has not been below two dozen since 2007, with the exception of 2012,” according to the report.

Although the researchers have not established the cause of this difference, they point to one possible reason: in 2006, the independent Indigenous monitoring programs began in blocks 192 and 8, which have both registered a measurable increase in the number of oil spills since that year.

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An environmental monitor in the Nuevo Andoas community in the Pastaza River Basin. Image by Vanessa Romo Espinoza.

The report also revealed that, in the blocks that had more reports of oil spills, Indigenous monitoring programs tend to be present. In some of the places included in the study, such as blocks 64, 67, 95, and 131, there have been one or two oil spills reported during the 19 years that were analyzed. These are sites where there are no Indigenous environmental monitoring programs.

“The low number of environmental emergencies in these blocks is surprising; this necessitates a more profound analysis to identify if the auditing efforts in these blocks are sufficient and if the lack of independent environmental monitoring programs are factors that contribute to a probable under-reporting of spills,” the report says.

An example is the difference between the number of oil spills reported by environmental monitors compared and those reported by the government between 2006 and 2010. “The environmental monitors reported 92 spills produced on Indigenous land, in blocks 8 and 192, while the government reported only 78 spills on those blocks in the same time period,” according to the report.

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Environmental monitors travel through their territory to identify any new threats or old damages. Image by Vanessa Romo Espinoza.

“We are fighting to enact a law that would recognize community monitors,” Trujillo said, adding that they do not receive any compensation for their work. “We use cellphones to report incidents. That helps us.”

Lévano said that, for more than seven years, citizens have waited for the approval of a law that would recognize this participatory monitoring system in areas of the Andes and the Amazon. “There has been a series of projects, and there is currently a proposal in the Committee of Indigenous Peoples of the Congress that we hope will enter into the debate.”

Lévano added that environmental monitors carry out their work in precarious conditions and on a voluntary basis. In some cases, he said, they are supported by federations or by nongovernmental organizations. “There is no training, and there is no implementation of equipment,” Lévano said. “Doing fieldwork with oil is very dangerous.”

Alicia Abanto from the Ombudsperson’s Office said environmental monitors are the first alarm against oil spills, not only for regulatory entities, but also for the oil companies themselves. “Considering the valuable work that they do, they should be provided with personal protective elements and instruments so that they can record and send the information they collect to the authorities. [There should also be] an economic outlay as compensation for the work they do,” Abanto said.

Banner image of an oil spill in the Peruvian Amazon courtesy of the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories (PUINAMUDT).

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Aug. 27, 2020.

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