Indigenous groups threaten to physically block oil drilling in Peruvian Amazon

Crude oil contaminates an open toxic pool in the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest near Lago Agrio. (Credit: Rainforest Action Network/Flickr)

An indigenous political federation in the Amazon has warned the Peruvian government it will physically block any attempt by oil companies to operate on their lands.

The organization, the Federation of Achuar Indigenous People (FENAP), gave the warning last week after Peru’s recently elected President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted permission for a massive drilling plan in the area. Kuczynski campaigned on a promise to improve access to clean water for households in the Amazon basin and has come under fire for the controversial move that some say may worsen water quality in the area.

The project would be carried out by Santiago-based GeoPark Ltd. with state-owned energy company Petroperu – which mainly transports and refines oil – as its junior partner. The affected area, oil Block 64, is home to 45 nearby Achuar communities and believed to hold about 40 million barrels of oil.

FENAP says oil drilling in the region will pollute and destroy their ancestral lands.

“We have [a]healthy rainforest free of pollution, that’s why we don’t want oil companies to come in,” said FENAP President Jeremias Petsein, adding that oil pollution “is a reality in other indigenous communities; it makes people sick and destroys our way of life.”

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The Achuar’s ancestral lands cover about two-thirds of Block 64, but Petsein said most of the communities lack formal land titles. Moreover, GeoPark claims its project is mainly in areas where native communities not affiliated with FENAP have supported the oil operations.

“GeoPark respects the rights of indigenous people and would not seek to develop areas where local populations are opposed to drilling activity,” the company said in a statement.

The western Amazon has been contaminated by widespread oil pollution for decades. Petroperu has had eight oil spills this year alone, prompting criticism and concern from environmental and indigenous rights groups. After a spill last month, communities from seven indigenous federations protested and blockaded the Marañon River, a main transportation route in northwest Peru.

“We are carrying forward a just struggle to peacefully push a platform of fair social development that guarantees the right to a safe environment and water that sustains our people,” the communities said in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister Fernando Zavala.

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One of Petroperu’s spills, which took place in February, spilled at least 3,000 barrels of crude oil into rivers that at least eight indigenous communities rely on for water. Thousands of people in the northern Peruvian jungle protested as they faced a water-quality and health emergency.

The company has publicly blamed the spills on members of nearby indigenous communities, who they say were attempting to secure wages for local workers from the cleanup efforts, but there has yet to be any evidence to back up this claim.

Activists argue that oil and other extraction industries are destroying rich ecosystems around the world. Recent research suggests one of the most cost-effective ways to mitigate industrial damage to these ecosystems is to ensure tribal land rights and involve tribes in national planning. Doing so, experts say, would help protect resource-rich forests and sequester carbon.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com