Oil spill in Peru just the latest in a long history of pollution in the Amazon

Members of the Cofán Dureno community in northern Ecuador have suffered numerous problems from oil production on their lands. File 2010. (Credit: Rainforest Action Network)

Thousands of people in the northern Peruvian jungle are facing a water-quality emergency after the rupture of two major oil pipelines owned by state oil company Petroperú. The incident spilled at least 3,000 barrels of crude oil into rivers that at least eight indigenous communities rely on for water.

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because oil spills in the Amazon aren’t really anything new. The western Amazon has been contaminated by widespread oil pollution for decades. This was indicated by a study of pollution records by Spanish researchers in 2014, and cited more recently by Think Progress, which says there have been at least 11 oil spills in the area since 2010.

Petroperú said the first leak, which was caused by a ruptured pipeline and took three days to fix, was triggered by a landslide. The cause of the second spill is currently under investigation.

The government has declared a 90-day water quality emergency. Some reports have indicated damage to an unspecified number of cacao crops, and Peruvian officials estimate that it will take a year to restore damaged wildlife.

“We must protect the Amazon rainforest, but also the crops, and many have been affected,” Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar told Andina. “The state company will have to be punished with the highest fine.”

Petroperú could face fines of up to $17 million if the spills were found to have affected local people’s health, according to the BBC.

The cleanup is the responsibility of Petroperú, but some reports have said that both the company and the government have been slow to react. According to RYOT, more than 250 people are working to clean up the areas that are affected by the oil spill.

Pictures depicting minors collecting oil also contributed to some accusations that the oil company was hiring minors to help clean up, though Petroperú President German Velasquez insisted that the company only hired adults. Local residents backed up this claim in a report by El Comercio, and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala also denied accusations that Petroperú had hired minors clean up the spill.

“These are malicious affirmations,” he said, adding that “if there’s proof that children were hired for this work then those responsible will be punished accordingly.”

Despite reports from local groups that the rivers have been contaminated, Humala also said that 90 percent of the spillage has already been recovered, and Petroperú has promised a full cleanup and is providing food and water for local residents.

Although Petroperu attributed the first spill to landslides, some blame both the ruptures on the 42-year-old pipeline’s age and state of disrepair.

“Petroperu can’t attribute the pipeline fracture to nature,” environment and energy specialist Freddy Rojas told El Comercio. “This pipeline is from the ’60s, so they have to foresee these accidents. Mismanagement in this area is clear.”

Since 2008, oil developments have increased rapidly after Lima offered up 75 percent of the Peruvian rainforest to oil companies.

One of the indigenous groups affected by the recent spill – the Achuar community – also suffered the adverse effects of pollution caused by petroleum operations just a few months ago, leading to protests.

In the Amazon province of Bagua, protests against oil exploration in 2009 pitted locals against police officers in bloody encounters which left dozens dead from both sides.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Seattle-based journalist covering health, inequality and human rights in Latin America and worldwide. As a second-generation immigrant from Greece, Lisa’s objective is to encourage awareness of global issues and cultures through her stories. You can contact her at lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.