By Rebecca Wolff, National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee
I hadn’t grasped the true human consequences of oil spills until we immersed ourselves in the situation going on in Peru.
The stories our team heard of lingering illness and food insecurity were heartbreaking. As one community member lamented, “When the oil spill happened, [the doctors] arrived in the community and gave out a few medicines, and then they never came back. Things shouldn’t be like this.”
By June 2016, 8000 individuals and at least 30 indigenous communities were affected. I never thought it could possibly get worse.
On August 10, the fourth oil spill since the start of 2016 was reported in the Peruvian Amazon. At least 10 indigenous communities were impacted by the spill in the province of Condorcanqui, department of Amazonas. Just two weeks later on August 21, the largest spill thus far was reported in the community of Nueva Alianza, Urarinas, Loreto.
Reports indicate over 4,040 barrels of oil were spilled, making it one of the most extensive of the more than forty spills to hit the country in recent years.
This latest spill has the potential to impact the Marañon River and the indigenous groups living there, including the Awajún who were affected by the January 25 spill in Chiriaco and the June 24 spill in Barranca. The Marañon is one of the most important rivers in Peru, starting in the Andes and eventually becoming a major tributary of the Amazon River.
Anger and frustration are reaching all-time highs across Peru. In February, after two spills saw over 3,000 barrels of crude oil flow into the Chiriaco and Morona Rivers, state-owned oil company Petroperú was told to cease pumping oil on their Nor Peruano pipeline. The 40-year-old pipeline is in a state of disrepair, the believed cause of the multiple spills this year.
A third oil spill in late June raised questions as to whether Petroperú had followed state orders to stop pumping oil and indicated the company had in fact been continuing to operate their faulty pipeline. One week after the June 24 spill, the Peruvian Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining sanctioned Petroperú for pumping oil without permission. The company’s president resigned during the controversy.
The cause of the newest spill has not been verified. The Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) released a statement on August 11 saying the spill may have resulted from an intentional cut to the pipeline. However, advocates I work with in Peru feel that unconfirmed accusations like this only help shift the blame and responsibility for the spill away from Petroperú. It also remains unclear whether Petroperú ever received permission, after the June sanction, to pump oil again. People are demanding to know if Petroperú was operating illegally, once again putting the Amazon at risk.
Communities and indigenous organizations are often the first to report oil spills on their territories, yet they are not seeing swift legal action or recognition of their rights and needs in wake of these environmental disasters.
“Legal processes are often partial and incomplete. There is a major disconnect between the process and the expectations of affected communities,” anthropologist Rodrigo Lazo, one of our Peruvian collaborators told me. In the Amazon, many individuals simply feel that not enough is being done to help.
For the past six months, my team and I have interviewed lawyers, community members, indigenous leaders, and advocates across Peru. The testimonies of those afflicted by the spills and those fighting on behalf of communities never waver. Oil spills have abruptly impacted livelihoods and health while polluting the land and rivers of the Amazon.
One mother worried about how she would feed her children when her farmland remained covered in oil, never cleaned up by Petroperú. A community leader explained the health and emergency food supplies provided in his area were not enough for the vast amount of people seeking support.
The number of oil spills occurring in the Peruvian Amazon is increasing at an alarming rate. As news from this latest spill continues to pour in, I wonder about the countless stories never told of how oil spills impact human lives. I can only hope the inspiring indigenous leaders, communities, and organizations our team has met will keep fighting to make sure that a fair legal and social resolution is achieved for all those stricken by these tragic oil spills.
More by Rebecca Wolff and Team Member Kevin Floerke