Peru's Paracas Reserve Imperiled on Two Fronts
By Abraham Lama
The Paracas marine reserve in Peru, already threatened by pollution from fishmeal factories, now faces possible impacts from a natural gas plant.
LIMA, (Tierramérica).- The construction of the first natural gas fractioning and liquefaction plant in Peru, next to an important marine nature reserve in Paracas Bay and 250 km south of the capital, is fueling deep environmental concerns.
The natural gas comes from the Camisea fields, in the Peruvian Amazon on the other side of the Andes, and is transported to the plant by a 540-km pipeline, the source of another controversy.
When the first phase of the fractioning plant was inaugurated on Aug. 7, President Alejandro Toledo declared that Peru was entering a new historic era, ''because we will no longer be a country that imports energy. We will become exporters.''
In this first phase, the plant will produce 33,000 barrels of liquefied gas daily, with 25,000 barrels to be used in Peru and the rest exported to the United States, said Toledo.
''At the end of the second phase will be exporting to Mexico and the United States around 700 million dollars of liquefied gas during the next 33 years, but we need additional investment of 2.0 billion dollars to achieve that,'' he added.
But despite the celebratory atmosphere, the president urged against ''political statements and noise-making that would disturb or scare off foreign investors.''
Toledo was apparently aiming his words at environmentalists who have protested the location of the natural gas plant just six kilometers from the Paracas Marine Reserve, which holds rich biodiversity, including 160 fish species, 216 bird species and 25 types of dolphins and whales.
According to Energy and Mining Minister Jaime Quijandría, the site was chosen for its technical advantages and, he says, the threat is minimal thanks to cutting-edge design and the construction of a shipping platform 3.2 km from the beach.
But Carlos Herrera, who once held Quijandría's ministerial post, says that when designing of the project began four years ago, the plant was slated to be built in Pampas de Clarita, 70 km from Paracas, ''sufficiently far away from the reserve.''
PlusPetrol, the company in charge of exporting the natural gas, says it has set up an environmental monitoring system that includes 160 points of control in the bay's waters and coastline.
But environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) argue that it is not clear who will be in charge of managing and evaluating the ecological monitoring.
Paracas is the scenario of a previous battle, one that pit the NGOs that demanded the closure of four fishmeal factories built illegally on the edge of the reserve against the factory owners.
The fishmeal factory owners, who had won a series of postponements for relocating their operations, where unexpectedly benefited by the Camisea natural gas project, because to build the fractioning and liquefaction plant, the government changed the area's zoning status from residential to industrial.
''As a result, the location of the plant has already caused serious harm, because now the fishing operations that were supposed to be moved last year are now being allowed to stay as a result of the zoning change,'' sociologist María Elena Foronda, president of the National Society for the Environment, told the local press.
The seven NGOs that have come together to defend the Paracas ecosystems appealed unsuccessfully to the Constitutional Tribunal in 2003 to issue a ruling on the zoning change.
Although Sandro Chávez, head of the Peruvian Association of Biologists, announced that the case would be pursued in the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, most of the environmental groups appear willing to pursue their defense of Paracas Bay through evaluation of the announced oversight and monitoring measures.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is about to decide on the final disbursement of funds for the project.
''The credit is already approved, but the payments are done in stages. For the financial closing the IDB set 100 environmental and social conditions that, according to the government and companies, have been resolved, but we do not agree,'' attorney Carlos Chirinos, of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, told Tierramérica.
''We shouldn't be alarmed because some of the IDB officials have said the final disbursement is imminent. We have the commitment of (Bank president) Enrique Iglesias that it will not happen until the environmentalists' objections have been satisfactorily dealt with,'' says biologist Patricia Majluf, of Spondylus, a local NGO.
The corporations participating in the Camisea project -- the U.S. Hunt Oil, Argentina's PlusPetrol, Belgium's Tractebel, the South Korean SK and Peru's Graña y Montero -- have been denounced for irresponsible environmental management in the area of the natural gas fields and in the building of the pipeline.
Indigenous communities from the Camisea region have complained since 2002 that the drilling of 21 wells and the construction of 75 heliports and of dozens of work camps caused landslides, destruction of ravines and the disappearance of their hunting and fishing resources.
The most serious charge involved the spread of disease by the personnel of the oil companies. A report by a delegation of experts from the Health Ministry found that between June 2002 and June 2003, 80 percent of the Nanti, Indians on the Nahua Kugapakori reserve, contracted illnesses previously unknown in the area.
The epidemics led to the deaths of seven percent of the population.
''The jungle communities lack the immunological defenses for diseases that are common for the rest of us. They can die from a simple case of the flu,'' said epidemiologist Josefa Antigoni.
The oil companies paid out compensation to some Indians, but most -- who are poorly organized to carry out a lawsuit -- ended up abandoning their land.
In May, peasant farmers from Convención Valley, in Cuzco, sued pipeline builders Techint and PlusPetrol for the damage to their land and local ecosystems caused by the pipeline.
* Abraham Lama is a Tierramérica contributor.