Peru: It is impossible to remain silent

On both sides of the border between Ecuador and Peru, there are oil and gas operations. The consequences are disastrous for the environment and for the indigenous peoples who live there. Two Augustinian missionaries living in Iquitos (Peru) talked about the challenges for the church and for the indigenous people.

Governments traditionally have partnered with oil companies, to the detriment of their own people. The practices of ChevronTexaco in Ecuador are well known. In Peru, Pluspetrol, an oil company with Argentinian capital, concocts shady financial strategies in offshore tax havens. The conglomerate it has created owes 1.5 billion soles (approximately US $46.8 million) to SUNAT, the Peruvian internal revenue agency. The company’s environmental practices leave much to be desired. And its relationship with the indigenous population has caused more than considerable impacts. This has not kept Pluspetrol from entering into agreements with the church for ‘assistance programs’ or other programs for indigenous peoples – a terrible practice.

During our early years in the Amazon basin, we saw only the oil barges that traversed the river and the indigenous people’s fear of being overtaken by the tugboat called the Ciudad de Iquitos. The boat’s strong wake swamped and sank any number of canoes. What ‘woke us from the dream of cruel inhumanity’ was an oil spill in October 2000. We were alerted by radio, and two hours before we saw the entire Marañon River turn black from bank to bank, our noses were assaulted by the strong, penetrating smell of oil. We had never seen or smelled anything like it. We had few resources and limited contacts, and we knew nothing at all about oil.

It was impossible to remain silent. There were no telephones, and the city was a 24 to 30-hour trip away by river boat, a journey that has been shortened since then by passenger boats with outboard motors. But our cry reached even the government’s ears. The minister of women’s affairs, who had ties to the human rights movement, came to visit, arriving in the oil company’s helicopter. The media barely reported the story. Local residents did not understand why we were so upset. One merchant pushed the oil slick aside as we watched and filled a bucket with river water to take home. “This is the way it has always been”, people told us. “You’re getting upset for nothing; no one will pay any attention to you”.

In the indigenous cosmology, the disappearance of animals or deterioration of the environment is the result of human evil. If the evil persists, either a conversion occurs, or the only thing to do is wait until the world is upended and a new era begins. Noise, bad behaviour and a lack of ethics can cause this ‘end of the world’, which is followed by a new earth.

We contacted a member of Greenpeace in Lima, but their headquarters was in Santiago, Chile, and they could not travel to the area. The church was worse: they looked askance at us. Peru had other urgent needs, and the environment seemed like a hobby for the rich. We had to put up with people laughing at us and patting us on the back log.

We were too naive and inexpert. We were stunned when someone dared counsel us that those were not real problems and offered us a list of true concerns. Nearly two decades later, during his visit to Puerto Maldonado, Pope Francis, whose sensitivity to environmental issues is far greater than average in the church, said: “We know of the suffering caused for some of you by emissions of hydrocarbons, which gravely threaten the lives of your families and contaminate your natural environment”. A few furtive tears slid down our cheeks.

The time we spent in the oil-producing area and the pain in accompanying the Kukama people gave us new insight into the 845 kilometre (525 mile) Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, built in 1977, which crosses the Andes Mountains to connect the oil wells in Block 192 (formerly 1AB) and Block 8, in the Amazon, to Bayóvar, on Peru’s Pacific coast. We gradually began to comprehend the scenario.

Two new events are important for understanding the impact on indigenous peoples in the area. One is a 2012 agreement between the governments of Peru and Ecuador to ‘promote and facilitate the transportation of oil from South-eastern Ecuador by way of the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline’.

The other is the Peruvian government’s investment of more than US $5 billion in upgrading the refinery in Talara, on Peru’s northern coast.

These two issues connect the oil-producing area on both sides of the Peru-Ecuador border with the petrochemical industry proposed for the Peruvian coast. But the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, which is 40 years old and seriously deteriorated, does not receive the attention it deserves and has suffered periodic spills.

A Peruvian parliamentary commission found irregularities and excessive payments in the contracting of the companies that have cleaned up oil spills.

After a spill in 2010, Kukama families along the Marañón River began to collect rainwater to drink. The cultural change is huge. The Kukama believe that rainwater causes goiter, rheumatism and itching. Because of protests by indigenous communities, several years ago the government began to install temporary, small-scale water treatment plants in some communities. We have serious doubts about whether they effectively eliminate heavy metals and about disposal of metals trapped by the filters. But we also believe the plants conceal the real problem: the fish. The water treatment plants give the impression that everything is fine. But contamination of the river poisons fish, which are an essential part of the Kukama people’s diet. The water treatment plants cover up the real problem and the fish travel throughout the watershed.

What began as a localised oil spill opened our eyes to a local facet of geopolitics. This region along the Peru-Ecuador border, which is covered by oil concessions and crossed by the Northern Peruvian Oil Pipeline, is the ancestral territory of many indigenous people: Waorani, Záparo, Taushiro, Omurano, Urarina, Kukama-Kukamiria, Awajún, Wampis, Achuar, Shapra, Kichwa. Some of these peoples are on the verge of extinction.

The spatial interconnection created by the pipeline should force us to look at wider scenarios. Some NGOs, with vision limited by the scope of their projects, act only in narrow areas that do not allow them to see the problem in its true dimensions. The atomisation of the church is another great challenge, especially for the vicariates located in this border area.

It is not just a matter of oil spills, or even of the pipeline or the oil concessions on both sides of the border, or of the petrochemical industry. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, because of the accumulated impacts. This overall situation will not improve until there is a change in the country’s energy matrix. Pope Francis has told us of the need to convert economies based on fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, to cleaner sources of energy. The idea of changing the energy model makes governments nervous. However, recently mayors of some of the world’s major cities have begun to question oil companies’ role in climate change. We hope that this movement grows in the coming years and results in positive change.

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