- Indigenous Achuar and Wampis communities in Peru’s Amazon are opposing an oil project led by the Peruvian state oil company in Block 64, which will overlap with 22 communities.
- Since 2000, there has been over 474 reported oil spills in all of the Peruvian Amazon. One pipeline, the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, which passes through Achuar communities and is very close to the Wampis, has broken so many times that residents in the territory fear the idea of more pipelines being installed.
- In Peru, the state has rights over the subsoil and all resources and can exploit any territory it sees as valuable for its resources. The only safety net for the communities is prior consultation.
- The Achuar and the Wampis people are demanding collective titling of their lands and recognition as Indigenous nations in an attempt to protect their territory from extractive activities.
When feeling threatened, the Indigenous Achuar people of Peru perform a ritual war dance. Back in February, this dance came to light. Men and women gathered in the community of Yankuntich, located in the northern Loreto region,to march and hold hands while women sang about the strength of their ancestors. The dance was meant to send the clear message that they opposed Petroperú, the Peruvian state oil company, and its plans to exploit Block 64.
“My people will never allow oil, logging or mining activities. My grandparents passed down these rules to us, and we respect them,” said Nelton Yankur Antich, President of the Peruvian Federation of Achuar Nationalities (FENAP). “We want to leave a healthy territory to our future generations.”
It is not the first time that these Indigenous communities have opposed a project on their lands. On several occasionsover the last 27 years, the Achuar and Wampis peoples have fought against oil activity following repeated attempts by the Peruvian government and private companies to launch operations at Block 64, a field located in their district, Morona. Geopark, the most recent company to try, finally gave up after six years of trying to obtain a social and environmental license.
Block 64 has always attracted companies interested in exploiting its oil. But sooner or later, they come up against the region’s Indigenous people. The concession overlaps with several communities’ territories, a matter which isn’t a legal hindrance to the government but is still not accepted by the Achuar and Wampis.
Silvana Baldovino, director of the Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples Program at the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), explains that the Peruvian state has rights over the subsoil and all resources are available for use by the nation.
“This means they can even go so far as forcing their will on citizens where a project is considered a priority,” explained Baldovino. This, she said, is a serious problem for communities.
The Achuar and Wampis constantly receive letters and requests for meetings from oil companies and government bodies. However, their response is always the same – extractive activities on their lands will never be welcome.
“We do not want any kind of oil exploitation on our territory. We have seen that such projects lead to death,” insists Yankur Antich.
Mongabay found that 22 Indigenous communities’ lands overlap with sites of proposed oil activity on Block 64. Of these, nine communities are affected by a 100% overlap of oil activity on their territory. The Indigenous groups living in the project area are the Achuar, Wampis and Candoshi.
What happens when the territory you call home has been earmarked for large-scale oil activities? And in reality, just how untouchable are Indigenous lands in Peru?
Why are oil companies being denied access?
The tone of Wampis leader Galois Flores Pizango’s voice changes into one of indignation when he hears that Petroperu is now responsible for Block 64. The Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, which passes through Achuar communities and very close to the Wampis, has broken so many times that residents in the territory are terrified at the idea of more pipelines being installed.
This indignation is reinforced by findings revealed in the report The Shadow of Oil, published by Oxfam and the National Human Rights Coordinator. The document reveals that over the course of 19 years, between 2000 and 2019, 474 oil spills were reported in the Peruvian Amazon. And Block 192, which the Achuar and Wampis view as living proof of the possible consequences, is one of the most problematic: 155 spills and 2,000 environmental violations pending remediation.
It is for these reasons that Flores Pizango, vice-president of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation, or Pamuka Ayatke in the Wampis language, says that he no longer trusts oil companies.
“Our forest is our medicine, our store; it gives us everything we need, even saving us during the pandemic. We fought against COVID-19 by eating what it provided, taking its natural medicines,” Achuar leader Nelton Yankur told Mongabay.
One of the Achuar and Wampis’ biggest concerns is that the pipeline will cross their territory.
Mongabay analyzed the overlap of oil exploitation on Block 64 with Indigenous lands and found that 22 titled communities are affected by an overlap of 21% to 100%, according to information in the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socio-environmental Information (RAISG) database.
The situation is most worrying for the Achuar, with nine communities affected by a 100% overlap: Capahuari del Huasaga, Katira, Uwintsa and Tsuvatentsa Annex, Wisin, Nuevo Perú, Panintza, Wampientsa, Wijint, and Yankuntich. The Kuyuntsa, Panguintsa and Washientsa communities have an over 80% overlap, while the Brasilia, Rubina, Puranchin, Tsekuntsa, Kasurtsa, Mamus and Chuintar communities have an overlap that ranges from 20% and 70%.
The Wampis community of San Juan, which includes the Santa Cruz, Shapaja and Shinkatam annexes, is affected by a land overlap of 66%. Two Candoshi communities also join the list – Hortencia Cocha with more than 20%, and Puerto Pijuayal with 48%.
But is this overlapping legal? SPDA attorney Silvana Baldovino confirms that not only is such overlap legally permissible, but it is a recurring problem affecting Indigenous communities in designated concession areas. Baldovino explains that this is allowed under the Peruvian Constitution of 1993, which protects the Peruvian state’s powers to exploit any territory it sees as valuable for its resources. The only safety net for the communities is prior consultation, which was only brought into law in 2011 and which constantly comes under scrutiny for the way it is used.
“We feel it is relevant to us; the pipeline passes through our territory. For years we have suffered pollution in other parts of our territory – from mining, for example,” the vice-president of the Wampís Nation told Mongabay. “When Geopark left, we thought we had managed to get the project withdrawn, but then we found out that the situation has not changed under the new government. We have spoken out against it – we do not want an oil zone. We want to keep our territory largely as it is.”
Community concerns are not only limited to the installation and location of the pipeline, but also the transportation of crude oil. Galois Flores said that among its transport proposals, Geopark considered using ships as well as a pipeline.
“If the oil is transported via the Morona River, there is a high risk of boats capsizing and that is dangerous for us,” he told Mongabay. “If oil spills into the river, the ecosystem suffers, fish die and plants are contaminated.”
Flores refers to recommendations made by the National Service of Environmental Certification (SENACE) on documents submitted by Geopark, specifically to the section focusing on oil transportation. The organization noted a series of flaws and gaps, such as the need to “outline the hydrocarbon loading and unloading systems, as well as the safety measures to be adopted during this loading/unloading.” SENACE clearly states that what happens to spillage waste caused by ships in the event of an “unfavorable scenario” is essential to consider.
The vice-president of the Wampis Nation says that, as far as his people and the Achuar are concerned, “our opposition to oil exploitation is categorical, no matter in whose hands the Block ends up.”
A history of tensions
For Achuar leader Nelton Yakur, being subjected to constant threats from oil companies and the State means always living under pressure. Shapion Noningo, technical secretary of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation, maintains that consultation is not the solution to the problem, as it is currently seen as “a way to legitimize the company rather than a real consultation on whether or not the project is wanted.”
Nelly Aedo, director of the Indigenous Peoples Program (Programa de Pueblos Indígenas de la Defensoría del Pueblo), says that prior consultation should be done in parallel with the environmental impact study, when the project is still in its evaluation stage. Aedo, however, acknowledges that these recommendations are not always listened to.
“It is important to remember that Indigenous or native peoples, whose collective rights may be directly affected by legislative or administrative measures, have a right to consultation,” she says.
Oil Block 64 was first concessioned in 1995 under former president Alberto Fujimori, who is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity. The beneficiary company was Atlantic Richfield Peru (ARCO), which withdrew without starting exploration work.
The Achuar and Wampis communities remember that year as the time they began defending their territory from extractive activities.
Three years later, Talisman, a new company with Canadian capital, resumed exploration work at Block 64. Operations began in 2008 and came to an end in 2013. A report published by the organization Perú Equidad, called Block 64, A World of Conflicts, studied the risks and impacts of the project on Achuar and Wampis Indigenous rights. The report found that Talisman led to clashes between communities, “which is why they chose to abandon the project.”
A year later, in 2014, Chilean capital-backed Geopark took on the concession, this time in tandem with Petroperú. The state-owned company joined the operation with a 25% stake. Geopark claimed at the time that the oil field under the Achuar and Wampis communities’ land would require an investment of $448.3 million, which would be offset by exploitation. With such a return, it is no surprise that so many companies have insistently sought to explore and exploit the subsoil hydrocarbon over the last two decades.
Exploration attempts advanced in parallel with Indigenous communities’ efforts to secure greater recognition. In 2014, for example, the Achuar Nation – through the Peruvian Federation of Achuar Nationalities (FENAP) – began to mobilize, and in 2015 filed a lawsuit against the regional government of Loreto, the Ministry of Culture and Perupetro, demanding the Indigenous peoples’ recognition as a nation, including the full titling of their lands. Titular judge of the Second Unipersonal Criminal Court of Maynas, Sergio Antonio Del Águila Salinas, ruled in their favor and ordered that they be titled collectively. Following the 2017 ruling, Perupetro immediately appealed.
“It was a long trial. The Achuar were demanding that Block 64 be canceled and argued for the titling of their integral territory, meaning a larger area than the already titled and recognized communities,” said anthropologist Federica Barclay of Perú Equidad. Barclay explained that these untitled Achuar zones are considered by the Peruvian State as available to be awarded to other extractive projects.
“That is why public bodies like Perupetro appealed,” she adds.
For the Achuar, the full recognition of their lands is crucial because it would afford them further grounds to demand that the state cancel all oil concessions in their territory. At the time of the trial, both the Achuar and Wampis were also looking for a legal defense weapon that would prompt Geopark to abandon the Block.
The Achuar and Wampis Indigenous leaders took several steps to force Geopark out of the area. First, they focused on reviewing Geopark’s environmental impact study proposal in detail and exposed inconsistencies, such as the fact that information from a Wikipedia article had been included without citation. SENACE also identified this issue with the document.
“The titleholder is required to make it clear when citing from other texts and to should avoid using sites such as Wikipedia to develop its social basis,” SENACE writes in the document.
In 2020, the two peoples also launched an international campaign called Atsá Geoparkka (meaning No to Geopark in Wampis), which led them to meet with Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio spoke publicly in support of their demands and stated that their choice not to allow oil exploitation in their territories should be respected. They also organized a protest outside Geopark’s headquarters in Chile to present their demands to James Park, the oil company’s CEO.
The Indigenous leaders’ fears were palpable. Over the years, they had witnessed firsthand how plans to exploit oil had led to conflict in their territories.
In September, when it had not obtained approval for its environmental impact study after failing to act upon the 170 recommendations from SENACE, Geopark decided to withdraw, leaving the concession in the hands of Petroperu.
On July 15, 2020, Petroperu announced via its networks, “Geopark Peru S.A.C. has informed us that it has irrevocably chosen to withdraw from the license agreement for Block 64, in which it has 75% participation.”
But this was a short-lived victory for the Achuar and Wampis. In December 2021, Petroperu announced that Block 64 would return to operation, and crude oil extraction would resume.
Mongabay contacted Petroperu’s communications team to ask for comment on oil extraction projections in the Achuar and Wampis territory but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
Perupetro, the company responsible for promoting hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation contracts, requested a meeting with Indigenous leaders on February 10. Achuar Indigenous leaders held an assembly in the community of Yankuntich to determine what position to take on the request and invited Atilio Nayap Santiago, coordinator of Indigenous Justice for the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation. At the assembly, both peoples agreed that they would attend the meeting and restate their opposition to operations at Block 64.
However, the meeting had yet to take place when this article was published following a third COVID-19 wave of in the country.
Saying “no” to oil
A recent measure taken by Wampis leaders has been to draw up a document that outlines in writing how their people will protect the forest.
“We have signed a Wampis socio-political agreement to continue protecting the territory,” said Galois Flores.
One of the main pillars of the document is, “to assume the commitments and responsibilities incumbent upon the present Wampis generation for future generations, namely: to govern their territory in the general interest, to protect it from external aggressions, to maintain a healthy environment [and] to claim collective rights when required.”
Meanwhile, the Achuar have implemented a continuous watch to prevent outsiders from entering their territory. They are also continuing to fight for the collective recognition of their people, and to have their lands comprehensively titled. Despite winning this right in 2017 through the Second Unipersonal Court of Maynas, appeals brought by state institutions continue to delay the collective titling of their lands.
Federica Barclay of Perú Equidad explains that collective titling is a right for Indigenous peoples, “but it is the concept of integral territory that the government does not want to accept. It goes against its vested interest in owning the Amazonian territories.”
Nelton Yankur says that, for the Achuar, the integral territory is not only the place they call home and where they farm, but it has also been their hunting, gathering and fishing ground for centuries. For a long time, they have preserved forests, rivers, and other areas of biodiversity that go beyond the boundaries of the titled communities.
Katherine Paucar, a lawyer with EarthRights International, believes that this is why recognition has led to problems with the state. Not only does it imply self-governance, but “the government deems that outside the communities’ limits there are so-called uncultivated lands that belong to the state, which it intends to freely use for extractive activities.”
Paucar believes that if the Achuar and Wampis territories were titled in their entirety and not as small communities as with the Loreto regional government, the forests would be in the hands of the Indigenous peoples, who would have greater decision-making power over their future.
For Achuar leader Nelton Yankur, respecting the communities’ decisions concerning their territory is non-negotiable. “We want to make this known to the whole world so that they listen to us and support us in this struggle,” Yankr told Mongabay. Yankur added that they remain cautious because of the suffering their people have already gone through.
Their war dance is symbolic rather than a declaration of war, heralding a new era of union between Indigenous nations. They are demanding the removal of oil companies from Indigenous lands and proposing alternative approaches to development, which they say is needed now more than ever before.
Banner image: A protest held in the Yankuntich community against Petroperú‘s oil exploitation plans. Photo by Handrez García / FENAP.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Cultural Survival’s Daisee Francour and The Oakland Institute’s Anuradha Mittal on the importance of securing Indigenous land rights within the context of a global push for land privatization. Listen here: