After more than a week of peaceful protests, indigenous Quechua residents of the Pastaza River basin finally pushed the Peruvian government to launch a high-level investigation of foreign oil companies operating in Peru’s northern Amazon region of Loreto.
Delicately trying to avoid more of the scrutiny and criticism earned by its violent handling of recent protests over mining projects elsewhere in Peru, President Ollanta Humala’s Administration quickly dispatched top officials to the Pastaza, including the national minster for the environment, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, and other top staff.
The Pastaza standoff ended peacefully early this week with a written commitment by the government to immediately form a multi-sector commission to investigate oil contamination in Loreto and a promise to launch a comprehensive health program in the mostly indigenous communities of the Pastaza, Corrientes, Marañon and Tigre river basins within a month.
While Quechua leaders had for months requested talks and demanded government compliance with a year-old deal promising improvements in health, education and an oil cleanup, it took a protest and implied threats of direct action against company operations to get the government to act. The initial response was military; special units of police were sent into Quechua villages to quell the protest. But participants said discipline by the police and protesters, as well as the presence of international witnesses from Alianza Arkana and members of the legal team of the Program in Defense of Indigenous Rights, helped keep the calm.
During the week-long action, residents of at least 17 Quechua communities under the leadership of Aurelio Chino Dahua, president of the main Quechua indigenous federation FEDIQUEP, converged on the village of Alianza Topal near the oil town of Andoas, where they met several times with the ministers and Loreto’s regional governor, Ivan Vasquez.
The unprecedented visit included a trip to an oil-slicked lake that locals say is poisoning community water sources downstream, as well as interviews with villagers who showed the officials skin rashes and other illnesses that they say are caused by the contamination from drilling-chemicals and oil.
“They (government officials) were finally there to see how serious it is. They could see that the people were prepared to take the river, to take the airfields, to take over the company’s operations,” said Jorge Tacuri, a lawyer representing FEDIQUEP and several other indigenous federations in the region.
“Until now they had never even visited to see for themselves,” Tacuri said.
The main source of community ire and now target of the environmental investigation is PlusPetrol, an Argentinian oil company known for frequent spills and disregard for indigenous communities affected by its operations on the rivers in Loreto.
Until now PlusPetrol has been somewhat of a political sacred cow, seemingly untouchable because of its status as the largest producer of oil in Loreto and Peru’s top producer of natural gas through a consortium known as Camisea, which operates in the south.
But PlusPetrol’s privileged position appears shaky.
Intense lobbying and occasional protests against the company by indigenous groups in Loreto have caught the attention of a few members of Peru’s congress, who late last year formed a working group and held hearings on PlusPetrol earlier this year. The group was scheduled to travel to several contaminated sites in Loreto starting last week. The trip was suddenly called off, however, causing public outrage and sparking the recent protests on the Pastaza and elsewhere.
Some observers at first believed that the congressional working group had been disbanded for political reasons after a shakeup in Humala’s party over his heavy handling of mining conflicts resulted in several party defections, including that of a key member of the working group looking into PlusPetrol’s Amazon operations.
But the congressional team has reformed and is now back at work. Next week the team is expected to arrive at a contaminated site within the limits of the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, an important preserve in the Marañon basin which is supposed to be off limits to industrial development but where PlusPetrol enjoys a special lease.
The simultaneous investigations by the multi-sector commission, known as the PCM, and by the congressional working group should put considerable pressure on PlusPetrol and force leaders at all levels of government to account for official neglect and many broken promises to indigenous residents over the years.
“This could be the beginning of everything we’ve been dreaming about,” Tacuri said.
Tacuri and other witnesses to the Alianza Topal accord say that one of the most important gains made was that the conversation and the promises focused not just on the Pastaza but included residents of all four rivers – a principal goal of the indigenous federations trying to forge unity in the face of mounting threats from globalization.
Leaders from other Amazonian indigenous peoples travelled to the Pastaza in solidarity with the Quechua, including Alfonso Lopez, president of an important Kukama indigenous federation on the Maranon, and Andres Sandi, head of the Achuar federation FECONACO from the Corrientes. Both leaders and their communities have long had disputes with PlusPetrol and both signed the document so-called Acta de Alianza Topal this week.
Another clear triumph spelled out in the accord is a promise by the Peruvian government to provide trained monitors to detect and document oil spills and other forms of contamination in all four river sheds – not just the Pastaza. Trained monitors provide early warning to residents downstream of the frequent spills and their documentation and evidence gives legs to legal actions against the responsible oil companies.
While the accord reached on the Pastaza is seen as a major victory for the indigenous communities of Loreto, leaders say there are still details to be worked out, including their demand that indigenous communities be officially consulted according to international law before PlusPetrol can try to negotiate a renewal of its concession in oil Block 1AB. The government has not yet responded to the demand. Leaders are scheduled to meet with PCM next week in the port city of Iquitos.
Darrin Mortenson is a writer and program coordinator of Alianza Arkana‘s Environmental Justice and Human Rights program. This article originally appeared on Alianza Arkana’s website.