Issue of June, 29, 2009
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Workers clean up oil spill in the Amazon
Credit: Ben Powless
Petroleum Sullies the Peruvian Amazon
By Milagros Salazar - IPS/IFEJ

More than 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon was divided up into concessions for oil investments between 2003 and 2008, according to a non-governmental report.

BAGUA, Peru, Jun 29 (Tierramérica).- "Now the fish are going to disappear," said Luis Umpunchi, an Awajún Indian, one of about 20 people gathered around a broken oil pipeline in the Jayais community, in the northern Peruvian region of Amazonas.

Everyone there looked at the oil spill with concern. Some touched the black liquid, which mixed with the mud resulting from a recent rainfall.

"That oil will reach the Marañón River, with our crops growing on its banks," added Antonio Chu Pumpunchig, who was harvesting plantains when he heard about the leak in one of the pipes of the Norperuano line, run by the government-owned Petroperú company and which has several pumping stations in Amazonas.

Station Number 6 in particular was taken over earlier in June by indigenous groups in Bagua province as part of protests against laws threatening their territories, and was an epicenter of violent clashes in which 24 police and at least 10 civilians died, although the protesters say the number of dead was much higher.

The populations most affected by the oil spill are situated in the Cenapa and Nieva river basins. But the indigenous communities that live closer to cities like Bagua, capital of the province, also fear that their rivers will be polluted, as occurred with the Achuar Indians. The Achuar live along the Corrientes River in the neighboring region of Loreto, in the country's far northeast, where the Argentine oil company Pluspetrol operates.

Petroperú workers who arrived in Jayais to clean up the spill refused to talk about the cause of the break in the pipeline, which stretched across a ravine.

Amazonian families make their living from fishing, hunting, growing plantains, maize and cocoa along the rivers and manioc in the hills. Along the roads, merchants buy plantains from them, and sell the product in the markets at four times the price.

"We are not making demands because we are savages, but because we need these resources to survive. The earth is our mother, and the forest is the pantry for feeding our families," said Umpunchi.

The most likely is that part of the spilled crude will reach the Chiriaco River and will subsequently end up in the Marañón, he said.

More than 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon was divided into concessions for hydrocarbon investment between 2003 and 2008, according to a March report by the non-governmental organization Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR, for its name in Spanish), based on official data.

To promote private investment in the jungle, the administration of President Alan García approved a dozen legislative decrees as part of the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which triggered indigenous protests in 2008 and this year.

Faced with the tragedy resulting from this month's clashes, the government backed off part of the policies and Congress overturned two of the more controversial bills.


The Awajún and Wampí peoples, who live in Amazonas, feel threatened by the mining and oil drilling activities, which are located at the headwaters of their rivers. Many of the areas are protected and most are ecologically very vulnerable, which gives rise to disputes between the companies and the residents over water and land resources.

"This is my house. Here is where my grandparents lived and I want my children to inherit it," said Julia Esamat, 53, an Awajún from the village of Wawas, in the Chiriaco district.

"We have moved forward ourselves, without the government," she told this reporter. "Now the authorities can't come and take from us what is ours."

There are nearly 60 petroleum concessions, 15 of them approved in an irregular way, overlapping 12 protected areas in 10 of the country's regions. Among them is the Santiago Comaina protected zone in Amazonas, according to the DAR report.

For lot 116 of Santiago Comaina, the French firm Maurel & Prom holds a permit for exploration. To reach the area, the company signed an agreement with the presidents of the indigenous federations of Condorcanqui province. But because those leaders did not consult the communities, they were removed from their posts, according to a report in La República newspaper in May 2008.

Furthermore, in Amazonas gold and uranium exploration projects have been authorized in the Cóndor mountain range, bordering Ecuador. According to native groups in the Cenepa watershed, those concessions were transferred in an irregular way from the Dorato Perú company, a subsidiary of the Canada-based Dorato Resources.

In a press statement in November 2008, Dorato Resources said it had acquired all shares of the Peruvian mining company Afrodita. The transaction would have occurred through Afrodita and front organizations as buyers, according to Marco Huaco, of the NGO Racimos de Ungurahui.

Huaco says the project violates Article 71 of the constitution because in order to authorize foreign investment along the border, the Executive branch has to issue a supreme decree declaring it a "public necessity," which did not occur.

In addition, it would have violated Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, a 1989 agreement that requires prior consultation with local indigenous communities about economic activities that affect their means of livelihood.

The Development Organization of Cenepa Border Communities, one of the four indigenous entities of Amazonas, in April presented three complaints about the case to the Mining Concession Directorate.

The authorities replied that they were not aware of the Canadian company's participation, that the concessions were granted to Peruvian entities, and that they would investigate the claims, said Huaco, an advisor to the Development Organization.

The group also brought the Cóndor case before the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, who was in Bagua Jun. 18.

The document presented to Anaya, to which this reporter had access, states that the project affects 9,636 indigenous peoples in Cenepa because it is situated at the head of the main tributaries to the Marañón River, and crosses the protected Ichigkat Muja National Park, which the government recognizes for its "great vulnerability" in ecological and human terms.

In several statements of rights to title issued in favor of mining entities, the National Institute of Natural Resources recognized the impossibility of carrying out mining activities in Awajún territory, states the text presented to Anaya.

"If mining is carried out in that area, it would mean the partial extinction of that Amazonian peoples," said Huaco.

The indigenous leaders will bring the case before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN special rapporteur on Genocide Prevention and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

* This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service and IFEJ - International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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