By taking drastic action, the Achuar people of the Amazon have forced an oil company to finally start cutting back on pollution
By Dan Collyns
THE GUARDIAN, IQUITOS, PERU
Sunday, Nov 26, 2006, Page 9
It was by any measure a remarkable protest. More than 800 Achuar tribespeople from the borders of Peru and Ecuador, headed by their traditional leaders with their red and yellow feathered headdresses, arrived last month by the boatload in the twilight hours at four oil wells in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest.
Their faces streaked with paint and with some of them carrying hunting shotguns and ceremonial spears, they formed a peaceful blockade of Peru's largest oil facility. They stayed for nearly two weeks, shutting down power to most of the region's oil production, and its road, airport and river access.
It was a desperate attempt by the Achuar to get the Peruvian government to take notice of their plight. For decades they had been saying that their land had been heavily polluted and their waters poisoned by oil exploration, but they had been consistently ignored.
The plan worked. The loss of millions of dollars in revenue and around 40,000 barrels of oil per day forced the government and Pluspetrol -- Peru's largest oil and gas operator -- to concede to most of the Achuar's demands, including reinjecting all the contaminated waste water back into the ground within two years, and building a new hospital with enough money to run a health service for 10 years.
The victory was particularly sweet for the Achuar -- who number around 8,000 in Peru's vast Amazon region of Loreto -- because it was the only time in 36 years of oil exploration and extraction in their area that the state had intervened. Companies have long been given a carte blanche to flout international environmental laws.
"It was like a carnival back then -- they were bathing in it," says Luis Canale, the environment manager for the current operator, Pluspetrol. "That was the typical attitude when they first discovered oil here. It's certain that there was a lot of contamination caused by the oil companies who were here before, but the environmental laws now have fundamentally changed."
The laws may have changed but, the Achuar say attitudes haven't. When Pluspetrol took on the two oil drilling blocks in 1996 and 2000, it promised to clean the areas polluted by the abandoned oil wells of previous companies. But the daily dumping of around a million barrels of production waters -- containing high concentrations of hydrocarbons and heavy metals -- into rivers and streams has continued.
Canale admits it is "not the best practice."
In part of a complex relationship, the oil company now provides medical care for some 1,800 Achuar due to the lack of state facilities. Until now, the Peruvian state has had virtually no presence in many parts of Loreto, something the new government has said it wants to change.
For the Achuar, water is the source of life, but it has become the bringer of death. It has been contaminated with heavy metals and hydrocarbons through the production waters of oil drilling that are spewed out untreated into the rivers and streams without regard for international standards.
It wasn't until May this year that the Achuar's complaints of contamination were officially vindicated when Peru's health ministry found high concentrations of lead and cadmium in the blood samples of more than 200 of them. Pluspetrol maintains that levels of the heavy metals in its production waters do not exceed permitted limits.
On the banks of the Corrientes river, the village of San Cristobal exists side-by-side with Pluspetrol's Block 8, the second largest oil plant in the country. The community's leader, Chief Alfonso Hualinga Sandy, says the animals he used to hunt have been driven away by the pollution, the fish are scarce, and the medicinal plants he once gathered are dying.
The Achuar use the river water to bathe in, to wash their clothes, and they mix it with the fermented mash of cassava to make their traditional drink, masato.
The chief's wife, Ana Hualinga Sandy, a grandmother who has endured contamination by successive oil companies for almost 40 years, says: "When we say we are dying and demand that they stop the contamination, they do nothing. But when we take drastic measures, only then will we solve this problem. I feel a great sickness throughout my entire body. With this feeling I think I'm going to die. We were told they would stop the contamination. They said they would help us."
She says that stomach complaints, often with vomiting of blood, are common. Latin America is a major source of oil, not only for the US, but increasingly for the world's second largest consumer, China.
Peru has already signed away an estimated 43 percent of its tropical rainforest to oil concessions -- around 27 million hectares -- in the last five years.
Bill Powers, an American engineering consultant, says Peru needs to be more cautious about how it issues oil concessions in the Amazon. "If they refuse to demand best practices then they'll be setting up more conflict in the Amazon," he predicts.
"They'll also be setting up the knock-out environmental punch for the Amazon. It will become a degraded environment with degraded terrain, and the indigenous people will become just a bunch of dirt-poor people. For years the government has been marketing Peru as one of the best places on the planet to invest in, but there's not been a word about protecting the environment or its native people," he says.
Meanwhile, oil companies such as Conoco Phillips have already signed contracts to explore new concessions in Peru.
"The future is very bleak if the case is that an indigenous group is simply not going to be listened to unless they stop petrol production," says Gregor MacLennan, co-founder of Shinai, an NGO that works with indigenous people in Peru.
"The problem is that petrol companies think they can go to the jungle, act how they like, cover up any spills with mud, and be pretty sure that no one's ever going to find out what happened -- and that no one really cares enough about the people that live there to invest some money and do something about it."