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Peru: Indigenous Communities Mobilize, Occupy Oil Wells

Indigenous communities have mobilized to occupy 14 oil wells in Lot 192, the largest oil concession in Peru, which is operated by the Argentine company Pluspetrol. PlusPetrol’s contamination of the region since 2000, plus its predecessor Occidental Petroleum’s similar behavior since 1971, have led to devastating health and environmental impacts among the Indigenous Quechua, Quichua, and Achuar communities who live and depend on that land. It has been estimated that Pluspetrol is losing over 3,000 barrels of oil per day since the protest's start on January 24th and that to date it has lost over 2 million dollars.

Lot 192, formerly 1AB, is located in Loreto, Peru and is deep in the Amazon rainforest. Protesters have also blocked a nearby road, one of very few in the area, while yet another group has blocked a section of a river, impeding eight boats loaded with food and supplies bound for Pluspetrol’s encampment from traveling upriver. 

These simultaneous mobilizations are no coincidence; rather they are a result of careful community organizing, despite the complicated logistics of long distances between the communities of the Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre, and Marañon river watersheds. Without good cell connection, personal visits from one village to another can take up to 30 days of traveling by boat.  This organizing is made possible by leadership structure in the form of an Indigenous federation for the communities of each river valley, plus a platform that unites the four federations, the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territory (PUINAMUDT). The Apus, or traditional leaders, of the four federations, which represent over 100 communities and over 20,000 people, have said many times that they are not protesting oil development in and of itself; what they are fighting is "the abuse and indifference of the State over 43 years."

The president of the Loreto department of Peru, Fernando Meléndez, spent three days visiting communities in the region and meeting with their leadership. He has said, “The communities were abandoned, but now they have a president that will listen to them, that’s what I’m working on. I am taking the necessary time to resolve the communities’ problems.”

The Peruvian newspaper Nacional reports that PlusPetrol is inclined to maintain dialogue in “an environment of social peace, which is why they called upon community authorities to "give up their forceful measure that threatens the freedom of river transportation and the oil company’s activities.” Yet these communities have been suffering the impacts of oil contamination for over 40 years. Oil has invaded the water they drink and bathe in, the soil they grow their food in, and the plants and animals that comprise their diets. The Indigenous Federations have sought remedies in the national and international legal spheres and received little response; despite an Environmental State of Emergency  and a Health State of Emergency being declared in the area, no meaningful action has been taken to mitigate it. Most recently, the Peruvian government and interested oil companies have begun the bidding process for to renew the concession in August 2015, a process which the Indigenous federations have explicitly said they were not open to consulting on until they had been compensated for past use of their land and related damages. Thus, while the company might consider the communities' manifestations forceful, it is hardly realistic to imply they are unjustified.

Anthropologist and ally to the Amazonian communities Alberto Chirif says, “I have to say, this protest doesn’t surprise me; the Indigenous federations have been addressing a series of demands to the State for three years with the goal of making way for a prior consultation process before bidding on Lot 1AB begins again[.] The State has not addressed a single one of their demands and has instead sought to distract from the issue, which makes a mockery of the Indigenous populations because none of their demands, such as improving water service, health conditions, and schools, are addressed.”

The latest dialogue session on this issue, which was held on February 11 between Pluspetrol representatives and members of the Achuar Indigenous community of Pampa Hermosa in the Corrientes River Valley, was unsatisfactory to the Indigenous parties. For future mediated dialogues, the communities are demanding to speak with Pluspetrol North's Director of Operations for Peru, Rubén Ferrari, rather than the representative who has currently been made available to them, community relations representatives Alfredo Zuñiga. The next meeting will take place on February 13.

Carlos Sandi, president of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River Valley (FECONACO), has stated that the 16 wells will not be allowed to resume activity until the community's right to compensation is respected, and that Pluspetrol's claims that Pampa Hermosa is not within the area of influence of Pluspetrol's operations are false.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian government has joined Pluspetrol in urging the communities to give up their protests. But "[t]he community is still waiting for the company or the state to fulfill its responsibility, because we're talking about a historic debt to the Indigenous communities in this part of the Amazon," said Sandi.

Kichwa leader José Fachín says, "This is a protest by the whole Kichwa people. They're ready to die for it. The price of oil is low, but the pain caused is extremely high." 

Listen to a Spanish-language radio documentary produced by Cultural Survival about the effects of oil spills on Indigenous communities on the Pastaza river of Peru, and the strategies their leaders have developed to protect their environment, below.  Stay tuned for the English version, coming soon!