- The reporting alliance ManchadosXelPetróleo (StainedByOil) tracked down government records of oil spill cases and fines against companies working in the Amazon of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador between 2011 and 2021. In Colombia, information was also requested for the Orinoquía.
- One constant in the investigation was a lack of information and transparency, especially in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.
- The database constructed from government documents revealed there were at least 282 cases against 72 oil companies in Peru and Colombia, and that around half have been fined for more than $55 million.
- In all four countries, oil lots overlap with Indigenous territories and protected areas. There are 1,646 communities and 52 protected areas that partially or completely overlapping with extractive activities.
On some days, a strong smell of oil wafts through the Indigenous Kichwa community of October 12, located in Peru’s Amazonian region of Loreto. Residents going outside to see what it is often find an oily stain spreading through the ravine that more than 100 families rely on for fishing, cooking and bathing.
On March 17, the community reported a new spill that, like so many others over the past five years, originated from oil Lot 192.
Residents said they’re fed up.
“The situation never gets better,” said Natanael Sandi, an Indigenous environmental monitor who tracks the damage caused by oil spills. “All the companies have had oil spills, from OXY to Pluspetrol and Petroperú. The pipes are in disrepair. They were installed years ago, which is why they’re constantly contaminating the area.”
Mongabay Latam has reported on these problems at least a dozen times over the past six years. We also published stories about similar problems in other countries in the region. The questions raised by these stories were almost always the same: How bad is the situation? Which companies were involved? How much were they fined?
To answer these questions, Mongabay Latam partnered with Colombia’s Rutas del Conflicto and Cuestión Pública, Ecuador’s La Barra Espaciadora, and El Deber in Bolivia to request official information from environmental agencies in the four countries. In Peru and Colombia, more than 200 cases were opened against 72 oil companies over the past decade. In Ecuador and Bolivia, a lack of government transparency and access to information prevented similar figures from being obtained.
Information from Peru and Colombia also showed that 169 fines and 14 cases are still active. Each of the cases can be reviewed in the visualization below.
But the environmental damage isn’t the only problem created by oil spills. The investigation also found that oil activity has been expanding into Indigenous territories and protected areas in the Amazon. Geospatial analysis allowed the reporting team to pick up on more than 1,200 cases in which oil concessions overlap with Indigenous territories or protected areas.
You can read below about each of the investigations carried out in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia.
A decade of fines
Following responses to 10 information requests we sent to eight state offices in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, we created a special database that was analyzed by the ManchadosXelPetróleo (StainedByOil) reporting alliance. In some cases, the information we obtained was incomplete, so additional requests had to be made. In other cases, officials never responded or didn’t disclose the names of the sanctioned companies.
With the information obtained from the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) in Peru, and Corporinoquia and Cormacarena, the agencies that oversees the Orinoquía region in Colombia, the reporting alliance was able to determine that, in the past 10 years, 282 cases against oil companies have been opened in response to environmental infractions in those two countries: 143 cases in Peru involving 16 companies, and 139 in Colombia involving 56 companies.
To date, officials in both countries have levied 169 fines against 36 oil companies — 16 in Peru and 20 in Colombia — for impacting the environment during operations. The sum total of the fines amounts to $55,327,451. Almost all of this total, 98.8%, was levied against companies in Peru.
According to information obtained from officials in both countries, the companies Pluspetrol Norte (Peru) and Perenco (Colombia), had the highest number of cases in the respective countries and were the most-fined companies between 2011 and 2021. In the Peruvian Amazon, Pluspetrol Norte has received 73 sanctions and is facing legal repercussions for trying to avoid paying fines by liquidating the company. Perenco’s fines, levied by Corporinoquia, amounted to $169,000 from 27 cases. The fines were handed out because of damages to residents and vegetation and animals, especially in the Casanare region.
Also in Colombia, Petróleos Ecopetrol S.A., also known as Ecopetrol, had 20 cases and three fines that added up to $110,167. It was followed by Ingecoleos Ltda., with three cases and two fines of a combined $68,815.
It’s important to note that the information included for Colombia only includes figures sent by Corporinoquia and Cormacarena. Although the National Authority for Environmental Licenses of Colombia (ANLA) also responded to a January information request regarding fines and other punishments against oil companies, the information was incomplete. It didn’t include the names of every company, so a second information request was sent. According to ANLA, Perenco and Ecopetrol top the list of companies with the most fines in the Amazon over the past 10 years.
In Peru, Pluspetrol Norte tops the list with 73 cases and resulted in 72 fines, amounting to $47,322,662. It also faces legal repercussions for trying to avoid paying fines by liquidating the company. In second place is Maple Gas Corporation del Perú with 14 cases, all of which resulted in fines totaling $685,685. It’s followed by state-owned Petróleos del Perú (Petroperú), with eight cases and two fines adding up to $4,959,033. The company also has the highest single fine in the entire database: $4,956,772. It was for a leak in the Norperuano de Loreto pipeline that polluted the surrounding waters and ground.
That case against Petroperú, the only state-owned oil company in the top six most-fined in Peru and Colombia, involved a January 2019 oil leak in the Loreto region. According to details of the case, the problem occurred in the Norperuano-Tramo II pipeline, which impacted the Numpatkain creek and some parts of the Rojo River. The OEFA said the company was sanctioned for violating environmental regulations and failing to adopt measures to avoid negative impacts on plants, animals and public health. The company, according to the case, has appealed the decision, which will be reviewed in the Environmental Control Court.
For Marcos Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, the fines only work if they’re significant. “If the fines are very low, they just become the cost of doing business. The amount should be related to the severity of the problem and size of the earnings of the companies,” he said. If they aren’t respected and paid, he said, they won’t work as a deterrent. “That’s why the delays not only lead to passivity, but also worsen the impacts and lose legitimacy and trust in the legal system. That’s a big cost for the state.”
At least two oil companies facing fines are operating in more than one country in the region. Colombia’s Perenco, for example, also works in Peru through the company Peru Petroleum Limited, and has two fines adding up to $88,182 for polluting water, soil and impacting plants and animals on Lot 67. These fines were handed out in 2017, the last of which came in June 2021. It’s a similar situation with Frontera Energy, which has offices in Colombia, Ecuador and Guyana. Until 2021, it oversaw Lot 192 in Peru. That operation was the subject of five fines worth $516,049.
Vanessa Cueto, vice president of the NGO Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR), said that, in Peru, granting concessions to companies is based more on economics than a record of responsible practices. “It doesn’t just happen with hydrocarbons, but also in mining and infrastructure. There’s still a way to go for establishing norms for reviewing a company’s background. Nobody wants to take responsibility for environmental liabilities,” she said. The information in this investigation, she added, “provides a comprehensive view of the problem in our energy sources, with a look toward using cleaner energy.”
Although the reporting team obtained information in Peru and Colombia, requests submitted in Bolivia and Ecuador are still pending. The Ministry of Environment and Water in Bolivia didn’t respond to an information request, and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition in Ecuador sent a list of oil spills in the Amazon from the past 10 years, adding up to 1,202 spills, but didn’t include a list of the companies involved.
The environment ministry in Ecuador said every oil operator is required to report incidents within 24 hours. In its response, it said “80% of the reported spills are related to minor emergencies of less than five barrels and that occurred within facilities with waterproofing.”
The data provided by the ministry identifies each lot and date of the environmental infractions. Based on this information, we were able to determine that the lot with the most spills was Block 57 Libertador, operated by state-owned PetroEcuador.
The ministry’s response also shows the principal causes of the reported spills in Block 57 were “operation failures caused by internal corrosion of the pipeline.” The ministry said “in order to ensure that similar events don’t occur again, compliance with reports of mechanical integrity, changes in pipes, and preventative and corrective analysis of the pipes have been implemented.” But the data showed there were 30 spills in 2020 and two in the first half of 2021.
Despite only obtaining bits and pieces of information from the government, both La Barra Espaciadora in Ecuador and El Deber in Bolivia managed to report on important cases that show oil fields overlapping with Indigenous territories and vulnerable ecosystems. In Bolivia’s case, the reporting team found that out of 53 national, state and local protected areas, 21 overlap with oil fields. And in the Ecuadoran Amazon, reporters traveled to the Sinchiurco community where the Guanta 1 platform operates. In this Indigenous Kichwa territory, they found a history of damage and negligence dating back to the 1980s, including by the companies Texaco (from the U.S.), Petroamazonas (Ecuador), PDVSA (Venezuela) and Petroecuador.
Water, soil and vegetation were the natural resources more impacted by oil spills over the past 10 years. In Peru, there were 45 cases associated with environmental damage to soil, 24 to vegetation and 20 to water. In Colombia, 46 cases involved damage to water sources, and 26 involved damage to vegetation.
Documents obtained through information requests revealed more details about the damages to the environment. In Peru, overflowing oil tanks, leaking pipelines and mismanaged hazardous and non-hazardous waste disposal were the main causes of environmental problems.
In Colombia, it was mostly oil spills that affected rivers, riverbeds, and surface and subsurface water concessions, in addition to irregularities in wastewater discharge areas.
The Orinoquía region, which straddles the departments of Arauca, Casanare, Vichada and Meta, had 139 cases, while Loreto had 120.
Some of the sanctioned companies, like Maple Gas Corporation del Perú and Pluspetrol Norte, appear to be in the middle of liquidation, a possible way of avoiding having to pay fines.
“The problem is that if the private sector doesn’t take on the cost, the state is stuck with it,” Miguel Lévano of Oxfam Peru said. He pointed to the case involving Pluspetrol in Lot 192, where the company has yet to take responsibility for 2,000 incidents of pollution documented by the OEFA.
Lissette Vásquez, a deputy in Peru’s Ombudsman’s Office working on environmental, public services and Indigenous peoples issues, said that “as a country, we can’t tolerate more cases like Lot 192.” She added, “We had a company that pulled out without resolving these issues and attempted to liquidate to avoid taking on the fees.”
Vásquez said precautionary measures could help hold companies responsible, “to the extent that the state complies with and enforces the law, people will gradually regain confidence in extractive activities like oil.”
Land taken by oil
A geospatial analysis of the Amazon Rainforest in the four countries, based on information from the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), found 1,647 Indigenous territories have been affected by oil activity. In the case of protected areas, there are 52 national, state and locally designated areas in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia that have been affected. In Colombia, although there aren’t any protected areas that overlap with oil lots, there are 70 protected forest reserves that do in that part of the Amazon.
In the four countries, more than 76% of Indigenous communities that overlap with oil blocks are completely within the oil blocks. And in the case of protected areas in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, that figure is 30.7%
Seeing this information on a map reveals a clearer picture of how oil operations spread through the intense green of the jungle. The situation becomes even more complex when considering testimonies from the field: many communities and Indigenous groups complained about the companies not going through the prior consultation process before activities started on their land.
Although this overlap is legal in each of the four countries, experts said it’s a bad start to establishing a relationship between the state, private companies and communities. Lissette Vásquez from Peru’s Ombudsman’s Office, said 20% of social conflicts in the country are related to hydrocarbon activities. “If we only consider active conflicts, that figure rises to 24%, and the majority are in the Amazon,” she said.
For Pedro Tipula, a geographer at the Institute for the Common Good (IBC) in Peru, the rules are clear. “The law [on prior consultation] is concrete and when you affect not just territorial rights but human rights, then you have to consult the people,” he said. Vásquez said the problem starts when prior consultation is treated as “just another bureaucratic hurdle to get over.”
Laura Montaño, a researcher at Colombia’s Environment and Society Association, said that, although the entire oil block isn’t being used — and therefore would not directly affect Indigenous peoples — the oil projects are developed in some cases as near as 200 meters (660 feet) from Indigenous territory. “So when they ask the Ministry of the Interior for a report on the presence of Indigenous communities, nothing shows up, and it’s not necessary to carry out a prior consultation,” Montaño said. But when operational failures happen near water sources, the communities are indeed impacted.
This cross-border investigation is the result of coordination between Mongabay Latam, Rutas del Conflicto and Cuestión Pública in Colombia; La Barra Espaciadora in Ecuador; and the newspaper El Deber in Bolivia. Mongabay first published it here on our Latam site on April 19, 2022.
General editing: Alexa Vélez. Editors: María Isabel Torres y Antonio Paz. Coordination: Vanessa Romo. Research and analysis: Gabriela Quevedo y Vanessa Romo. Geospatial analysis: Juan Julca. Reporting team: Gloria Alvitres, Enrique Vera, Cristina Fernández, Yvette Sierra, Vanessa Romo and Alexa Vélez (Mongabay Latam); David Tarazona, Angie Garay, Valeria Báez, Andrea Rincón and Nicolás Sánchez Cuestión Pública in Colombia; Pilar Puentes, Catalina Sanabria of Rutas del Conflicto in Colombia); Diego Cazar Baquero and Ana Cristina Alvarado de La Barra Espaciadora in Ecuador) and Iván Paredes y Nelfi Fernández de El Deber in Bolivia. Visuals, data and design: Rocío Arias, Daniel Gómez, Carlos Mazabanda of Todos los Ojos de la Amazonía and Eduardo Mota García. Audiovisual Production: Estudio Androide and Christian Ugarte. Story graphics: Kipu Visual. Social media: Dalia Medina and Richard Romero.
Banner illustration: Kipu Visual.