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Shadows of oil in Peru: Shipibo people denounce damage, contamination left by company

Humberto Sánchez.

Humberto Sánchez, the former leader of the community of Canaán de Cachiyacu, holds the pipeline that crosses through the community. There was never a consultation for its installation. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

  • Community members guided a team of journalists to the creeks and land of Canaán de Cachiyacu and Nuevo Sucre, in the district of Contamana in Peru’s Loreto region, to demonstrate how they have been affected by the various spills attributed to the Maple Gas oil company for over 25 years.
  • Shipibo community members say that due to contaminated water, they still suffer from illnesses and their farms no longer produce crops. The contract established that the company must comply with environmental protection laws, but Perupetro confirmed that it simply abandoned its operations.
  • Mongabay Latam traveled to two Indigenous communities on the banks of the Ucayali River and listened to the concerns of their residents regarding the serious environmental impact that they claim was caused by the operations in Block 31-B and Block 31-E.

On an iron grill, six catfish are almost ready to eat. Hilda Rodríguez crouches to move the firewood and stoke the fire. She flips over the inguiris — green bananas from the Amazon— that she is roasting next to a boiling pot of eggs. The six catfish, blackish and with thin tails, are the only fish that Rodríguez’s brother has been able to catch on the Cachiyacu Creek that morning. This will be their family’s lunch. They are all part of the Shipibo-Conibo Indigenous community, and on this hot afternoon in March, they have gathered in the native community of Canaán de Cachiyacu in the Loreto region in Peru’s eastern jungle.

“Have you tried the roast catfish?” they ask me.

“Yes, of course,” I answer.

“Before, the smell of oil was stronger when we’d cook it. Now, not so much,” says Rodríguez as she walks across the plank floor of her brother’s house.

Rodríguez’s brother takes one bite of his fish, frowns, and says that the taste of metal has not completely disappeared either. The same is true of the sábalos (Elacatinus prochilos), bocachicos (Prochilodus magdalenae), and every other food prepared using water from the creek.

A seven-hour speedboat trip on the Ucayali River separates the city of Pucallpa (in Ucayali) and the district of Contamana (in Loreto). To reach Canaán de Cachiyacu from the port in Contamana, it takes 25 minutes in a motorboat on the same river. The homes of about 150 Shipibo-Conibo families of artisans, fishermen, and farmers        begin on the shores the Ucayali River and spread across an enormous forested hill. These wooden homes have electricity 24 hours a day, but no drinking water. This is why community members have always been using water from the Cachiyacu Creek, a tributary of the Ucayali River that crosses through this Shipibo community. Although this water has been their source of life, it has also damaged them.

According to the community members, the crude oil that overflowed during drilling in Block 31-B flowed into the town through the Cachiyacu Creek. The effects of this contamination, they say, have touched the lives of over 1,000 Shipibo-Conibo people so far.

Houses by the banks.
For several years, fishermen from Canaán de Cachiyacu left this lagoon with their bodies covered in oil, but they did not know what it was. The contamination continues to this day. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

The oil’s path

Over 60 years ago, Petroperú, a state-owned company, began drilling for crude oil in the Maquía field, where Block 31-B stretches over 62,500 hectares (about 154,440 acres). Inside this ancestral Indigenous territory, the native community of Canaán de Cachiyacu obtained its property title for 1,155 hectares (about 2,854 acres) in December 1975. According to an analysis conducted by the #ManchadosXelPetróleo journalistic alliance, the community’s entire territory overlaps with part of the oil block. In 1994, Maple Gas Corporation of Peru, an American company, signed a licensing contract with Perupetro until March 2024 and began drilling in Block 31-B. In mid-2018, Maple Gas abandoned its production. Because of a series of breaches by the company, Perupetro ended the contract in February 2019, according to what the company told Mongabay Latam.

Maple Gas’ operational base, in the Maquía field, is not inside the titled territory of Canaán de Cachiyacu, but nine of the 26 oil wells that the company manages are. In this area, which is a one-hour walk from the center of the town, is where the community reported the oil spills. A section of the oil pipeline —and part of the road that leads to the Pacaya field (where Maple Gas operated Block 31-E)— are also within the community’s territory.

Canaán de Cachiyacu is one of the 24 Shipibo, Yine, Asháninka, and Kukama communities that make up the Federation of Native Communities of Lower Ucayali (FECONBU). In addition to Canaán de Cachiyacu, Nuevo Sucre and (to a lesser extent) Libertador were also in the oil’s area of influence. Oil-related activities have changed the lives of these communities’ residents.

From the canoe that takes us through the Cachiyacu Creek, Joel Pezo, the former lieutenant governor of Canaán de Cachiyacu, points out a lagoon where —years ago— the area’s fishermen finished their days smeared in something that looked like dark petroleum jelly. Back then, according to Pezo, no one in the community was aware that it was oil sticking to their skin, causing these Shipibo people itching and burning sensations that lasted several days. Pezo also recounts when the community members waited for the catalanes, or fish-hunting birds, to swoop towards the lagoon, since they knew that these birds would no longer be able to fly and would die there.

“We took out those birds, roasted them, and ate them like that. We weren’t aware of anything,” says Pezo with a half-smile that appears to show resignation.

The crude oil spills in Block 31-B.
The crude oil spills in Block 31-B reached Canáan through the Cachiyacu Creek. In this photo, two former leaders follow the route that the contamination traveled. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

Next to Pezo is Humberto Sánchez, the former leader of the community of Canaán de Cachiyacu; he is trying to remove the enormous logs blocking the path of the canoe. This is an area of the creek where the farms and forests along its banks were starting to collapse during periods of high water levels. The land in this area, according to Sánchez, has become unproductive due to the contaminated water that seeped in from the creek, which the Shipibo community members had used to irrigate their crops. “Because of all this contamination, some people have died, but before, we did not know why,” says Sánchez. Pezo says that the medical staff who occasionally visited Canáan de Cachiyacu never performed clinical analyses, even though the community members often complained of stomach-related illnesses.

“Right now, we don’t know if we are sick, or what illness we have,” Pezo said to Mongabay Latam.

The canoe comes to a stop when Sánchez informs us that we have arrived at the point where the pipeline crosses the creek, and then the entire community. The corroded steel pipeline has a diameter of 15 centimeters (about six inches) and is being held up by braided metal ropes. However, because of the pipeline’s weight and the lack of maintenance, one end is almost touching the creek’s water. From afar, it looks like a security gate for the boats heading towards the Maquía field. The Shipibo residents of Canaán are uncertain of whether there was a crack in this pipeline that caused the oil spills. What they did manage to clearly identify, however, is that the Maple Gas wells overflowed and caused oil to spill into a stream (known as Turbocaño), and from there to the Cachiyacu Creek, which flows into the Ucayali River.

Sánchez dries the sweat from his forehead and leans on the pipeline to push the stopped canoe. This rainy season in the Peruvian jungle makes him think that the contamination may have begun again in the creek and in the fish that the families eat. Sánchez says this while he looks at the brown water that we’re navigating. When it rains, according to Sánchez, the abandoned wells fill up, causing oil residue to overflow into the creek. Even without a company operating in the area, the contamination in Canaán de Cachiyacu continues.

Logs have fallen from nearby land.
In this area of the Cachiyacu Creek, logs have fallen from nearby land. The soil in Canaán has become infertile due to the oil. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

The battles in Canaán

The first person who exposed the oil-related problems in Canaán de Cachiyacu was Pezo, then-lieutenant governor of Canaán de Cachiyacu, during a 2003 workshop organized by FECONBU. Pezo, today a 63-year-old artisan and fisherman, says that he brought two containers of water from the creek to the meeting to show how much oil was inside. “It was the same contamination that we still cannot solve,” says Pezo. This episode led to a series of complaints against Maple Gas for the illnesses that the community members attribute to the oil spills in the creek. They also complained of the company’s lack of job opportunities for Shipibo residents.

“We talked to them about our lack of water, but they always answered that this was the government’s job,” says Sánchez, who was the Apu (an Indigenous leader) of the community when the community’s struggle began.

A study prepared by the non-governmental organization Earthrights International found that Maple Gas was responsible for contaminating the water and the environment in Canaán de Cachiyacu. The report also confirmed that the company had built a 20-foot-wide road without completing a prior consultation process for the community. The protests, triggered by Earthrights International’s findings, compelled Maple Gas to commit to helping the Shipibo community, but this never happened. The crisis reached a boiling point on July 8, 2005, when dozens of community members took control of and paralyzed the company’s nine oil wells within the Canaán de Cachiyacu territory for 24 hours. Ten days later, still without a solution to their complaints, they attempted the same protest method again, and this time it lasted a week. On July 25, 2005, Maple Gas and the community’s leaders signed an agreement.

“The creeks were our market. There was everything. Today, nothing is like it was before.”
Jackson Carbajal, leader of the community of Nuevo Sucre

Vladimir Pinto, the Peru Field Coordinator of the international organization Amazon Watch, was the legal advisor of the Indigenous community during the conflict with the company. As part of the non-governmental organization Racimos de Ungurahui, Pinto told Maple Gas that Canaán de Cachiyacu had pre-existing territorial rights before its land was titled. He explained to them that the intention was not to push out the oil block, but to file a compensation claim for using the land. However, according to Pinto, the oil company was very careful not to discuss “environmental damages” during the negotiations.

In the minutes, the community proposed that the compensation should include the 10 years that —by that date (July 2005)— Maple Gas had been operating, and that the compensation should be paid until the drilling license ends. Representatives of the company —according to the signed agreement— said that they would abide the law and that they were ready to comply with all of their obligations. Perupetro reported that in January 2007, Maple Gas began to pay an annual compensation payment of $9,436 USD to Canaán de Cachiyacu. This amount has varied over time.

“This was a symbolic case. As a social conflict, it was the first in which the agenda included the idea of compensation for the use of the territory,” says Pinto.

The Mashiría Creek.
The Mashiría Creek is one of the areas in Nuevo Sucre that have been most contaminated by the oil spills in Block 31-E. Image by Enrique Vera.

Javier Macedo, a math teacher in his second term as FECONBU president, says that it took almost three years of fighting to reach agreements and help the community’s rights to prevail. One day in August 2018, while driving his motorcycle near the airport in Contamana, he saw the company’s desks and freezers being stacked on the street. At that moment, Macedo realized that Maple Gas had silently left its operations at Block 31-B. Pezo says that the company did not implement an abandonment plan that would include damage repairs to the Shipibo community. This is despite the fact that the licensing contract included strict compliance with environmental protection laws. Pezo says that on the date that the oil company left Canaán de Cachiyacu, it owed two years’ worth of compensation for the use of the land for 2017 and 2018. According to Perupetro, the last payment from the company to the community was for 52,601 Peruvian Soles (about $13,250 USD) in 2016.

According to a report on disciplinary procedures against Maple Gas that Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) sent to the #ManchadosXElPetróleo journalistic alliance, there were at least 37 events for which monitoring was initiated in Block 31-B and Block 31-E between July 2011 and July 2021. Of these 37 cases, which include breaches of the company’s environmental commitments and its lack of care in preventing oil spills, the OEFA found administrative responsibility and imposed corrective measures in 20. The OEFA imposed fines totaling 400.49 UITs (Peruvian tax units, known as Unidades Impositivas Tributarias in Spanish) for 12 of these cases. Because the current value of one UIT is 4,600 Peruvian Soles, these fines amount to about 1,840,000 Peruvian Soles ($511,000 USD).

“Because of all this contamination, some people have died, but before, we did not know why.”
Humberto Sánchez, former leader of the Indigenous community of Canaán de Cachiyacu

With regard to Block 31-B, the OEFA imposed two fines within this timeframe. The highest, which was 90.7 UIT, was due to the damage to the flora and fauna that Maple Gas caused by not having taken preventative measures for its drilling work. The company was also fined for failing to present an abandonment plan for its facilities and infrastructure and for having stored chemical waste in inappropriate containers and in an area without a roof or drainage system.

In 2018, Pezo was briefly the leader of Canaán de Cachiyacu. He says that during that time, he called for meetings in the Ombudsman’s Office of Pucallpa with Perupetro and Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines — the office responsible for ensuring compliance with the agreements — to determine who would be in charge of compensating the community after the oil company’s departure. A solution has yet to be found.

“Do you think that we deserve this?” he asks me, waving an overused copy of the agreements that were never fulfilled.

“No. And they left as if nothing had ever happened,” he answers himself.

Maple Gas.
Maple Gas left Canaán de Cachiyacu without fully paying for using the land. Joel Pezo laments this while he reads the unfulfilled agreements. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

Other oil stains

In the heart of Nuevo Sucre, about 50 Shipibo people are deciding on their community’s anniversary activities: a school parade, a celebration with dancing, and a soccer tournament on the town’s field, which also functions as its main square. It is Saturday, March 5, and in 17 days, it will be 48 years since this native community obtained its title for 2,123 hectares of land (about 5,246 acres). In almost half of a century, Nuevo Sucre has only managed to have electricity by using a set of generators donated by the government, and it only has access to water because of a tank constructed by the community itself. These generators and the water tank —according to community members— function using oil that the community members have always had to buy, even though Maple Gas has operated in and around their territory for almost 22 years.

“Pumping water to the whole community lasts three days, then we have to buy more oil,” says Jackson Carbajal, the young leader of Nuevo Sucre, who has stopped the meeting. The task of collecting money is very complicated —he says while standing under a roof made of sticks that protect him from the sun— because not all of the community members can contribute two times per week. In times of high consumption, they often are expected to contribute three times per week.

There is only one school in Nuevo Sucre.
There is only one school in Nuevo Sucre, and it is an elementary school. Children help their parents with building houses and household tasks. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

Nuevo Sucre is 15 minutes by motorboat from Canaán de Cachiyacu, but these two towns have very similar histories. Petroperú was in charge of oil drilling in the Pacaya field, where Block 31-E spreads over 141,000 hectares (about 348,419 acres). The Indigenous territory titled for Nuevo Sucre in 1974 is inside the oil block. The analysis conducted by the journalistic alliance confirmed that there is a complete overlap between both areas. Starting in March 2001, Maple Gas took over operations in Block 31-E after signing a licensing contract with Perupetro.

From the community of Nuevo Sucre, it takes a five-hour walk along a trail to reach the Maple Gas base at the Pacaya field. Until five years ago, Gilbert Tuesta, the vice president of the community, traveled these 23 kilometers (about 14 miles) every Monday and Thursday when he worked at the oil company as a pipeline inspector. Tuesta was in charge of monitoring and reporting whether the pipeline used to transport the oil had any defects that could cause spills. He also needed to check whether the road that comes from the Maquía field was operating properly. Maple Gas’ base and oil wells, which are now abandoned in the Pacaya field, are not within the Nuevo Sucre area, but the pipeline and the 20-foot-wide road are.

In contrast to Canaán de Cachiyacu, all of the spills that have affected Nuevo Sucre came from ruptures in the pipeline. Carbajal explains this difference while he points into the distance to describe how the contamination came to the area through the three creeks surrounding his town: Mashiría, Yarinillo, and Yarina. The Shipibo residents of Nuevo Sucre estimate that in the past, in one day of fishing along the three creeks, they could go home with between 20 and 30 kilograms (between 44 and 66 pounds) of sábalos, bagres, and doncellas. However, ever since Maple Gas began to operate, and even now that the company has left the area, they often end their days without catching a single fish. “The creeks were our market. There was everything. Today, nothing is like it was before,” says Carbajal.

Houses in Nuevo Sucre.
Nuevo Sucre contains about 80 houses made of sticks and leaves. About 500 Shipibo people live in these homes and provide themselves with light by using solar panels. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

Dark creeks

About 50 meters (164 feet) from the center of the community, the land slopes in a way that creates a path to the Yarinillo Creek. Ronald Bartra, a Shipibo farmer who worked for Maple Gas until 2014, says that this, and the other two creeks, are in a period of overflow that is typical of the winter in the jungle. “This is why you can see better how the contamination has left the water murky,” says Bartra. Near the Yarinillo Creek are banana and rice crops, some of which belong to Bartra and Tuesta. Like all the other farmers in Nuevo Sucre, they must use buckets to take water from the creeks to water their crops. The community does not have any system installed for this purpose. Both recognize that this method of irrigation—using contaminated water from the creeks— has been affecting the crops little by little.

“Follow the damage. The soil has remained bad, and it barely produces anymore,” says Macedo, the president of FECONBU, in front of the elementary school in Nuevo Sucre — the community’s only school.

On January 13, 2009, the Mashiría Creek was the site of the first of the three serious oil spills that the Indigenous community experienced that year. It was due to a fracture in the pipeline. Bartra says that the water suddenly darkened, killing the fish and various animals that had come out of the forest to drink from the creek. Only 11 days after that spill —while the oil spill’s impact was still disrupting the community— a new rupture in the pipeline caused even more oil to flow through the Yarinillo Creek.

The Yarinillo Creek.
The Yarinillo Creek is the closest creek to the homes in Nuevo Sucre. Because of the oil spills, there are barely any fish in the creek anymore. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

The community members used to take water for their food from the Mashiría and Yarinillo creeks. Because of the contamination of this water in January 2009, according to Bartra, everyone in the community spent four months without getting close to either of these areas. On April 8, 2009, another spill occurred in the Yarina Creek. All of the spills were later described in a letter from the Nuevo Sucre community to the International Finance Corporation’s Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, which financed Maple Gas.

The damage attributed to Maple Gas in the field and the creeks of Nuevo Sucre led the community’s residents to make a series of complaints. In April 2008, the oil company agreed to make an advance compensation payment for using communal territory. The payments began at 18,526 Peruvian Soles (about $4,675 USD). Tuesta says that the 2018 payment amounted to 21,000 Peruvian Soles (about $5,300 USD), according to the exchange rate for that year. However, he says that the environmental impact that the company had already caused for the Shipibo people was immeasurable.

The leader of Nuevo Sucre points to the forest.
The leader of Nuevo Sucre points to the forest bordering the Mashiría Creek. The crude oil from Block 31-E also reached his community through there. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

The report on disciplinary procedures sent by the OEFA to the journalistic alliance shows 10 fines against Maple Gas for the company’s oil drilling activity in Block 31-E. These disciplinary procedures were imposed for breaching environmental commitments and for failing to monitor the air and drinking water quality, among other causes. The highest fine, 82.8 UIT, was imposed on the oil company for failing to prevent the decay of the pipeline that caused another spill in the Yarina Creek around April 2015.

Just like in Canaán de Cachiyacu, the community members in Nuevo Sucre say that Maple Gas did not complete a remediation plan for the damage it left in Block 31-E in June 2018. Perupetro told the journalistic alliance that Maple Gas made a compensation payment for using the community’s land, but only until 2017. In March 2019, the licensing contract, which was going to be extended until March 2031, was terminated.

The state-owned company —in charge of signing contracts for oil drilling— told Mongabay Latam that Maple Gas declared bankruptcy and that, for that reason, it is responsible for the state in which it left its oil blocks. Perupetro inspected these abandoned fields before ending its contractual links with the American company.

“They left us in a bad state in every respect,” complains Carbajal, the young leader of Nuevo Sucre. He says that he trusts that Nuevo Sucre will improve. He then leaves as he has to return to the community’s anniversary preparations.

Canaán de Cachiyacu along the edge of the Ucayali River.
Canaán de Cachiyacu lies along the edge of the Ucayali River. The homes of at least 1,000 Shipibo community members are scattered along the shore. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

Mongabay Latam tried to communicate with Maple Gas, but the company is being liquidated. In February 2019, the situation surrounding the ordinary bankruptcy procedure —which began before the National Institute of the Defense of Competition and Intellectual Property Protection (INDECOPI)— was published. Perupetro specified that on the date that the General Committee of Creditors was established, Maple Gas had debts totaling over 220 million Peruvian Soles (about $55.7 million USD), with different creditors.

Banner image: Humberto Sánchez, the former leader of the community of Canaán de Cachiyacu, holds the pipeline that crosses through the community. There was never a consultation for its installation. Image by Enrique Vera for Mongabay.

This story was first published here on our Latam site on April 19, 2022.

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