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Peruvian Indigenous Groups Thwart Oil Drilling in Their Territory - for Now
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=54388"><span class="small">John C. Cannon, Mongabay</span></a>   
Saturday, 31 October 2020 08:17

Cannon writes: "In the Peruvian Amazon, two Indigenous groups have been battling the government and oil companies for decades to prevent an incursion they believe would forever alter their homeland."

An oil pipeline through Wampis territory. (photo: Jacob Balzani/Mongabay)
An oil pipeline through Wampis territory. (photo: Jacob Balzani/Mongabay)

Peruvian Indigenous Groups Thwart Oil Drilling in Their Territory - for Now

By John C. Cannon, Mongabay

31 October 20


n the Peruvian Amazon, two Indigenous groups have been battling the government and oil companies for decades to prevent an incursion they believe would forever alter their homeland.

An immense oil concession known as Lot 64 overlaps with much of the Achuar Nation’s 8,020-square-kilometer (3,100-square-mile) homeland, as well as a portion of the neighboring territory of the Wampis people. The Achuar Nation is home to around 12,000 people living in 45 communities along tributaries of the Pastaza and Morona rivers. Some 15,000 people live in 85 communities in the Morona and Santiago river basins of the Wampis territory.

But Lot 64 could also produce 10,000 barrels of oil a day, according to GeoPark, a private oil company based in Chile, and its partner, state-owned Petroperu. That would be a significant proportion of the roughly 35,000 to 70,000 barrels of Peru’s daily oil production between 2014 and 2020, based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy and the website Trading Economics.

GeoPark is the latest in a succession of foreign companies, including U.S.-based ARCO, that have tried to tap into the lot’s oil since the mid-1990s. Any development of the block, the Achuar and the Wampis say, would almost certainly contaminate rivers vital to their existence in this corner of the Amazon.

Leaders of the two nations have fought for a permanent cancellation of Lot 64. Then, in July 2020, the Achuar and Wampis tallied a major, if temporary, victory. Amid the pandemic, tumbling oil prices and a stalled government approval process, GeoPark pulled out of its lease and gave up its 75% stake in the concession.

The Wampis and Achuar leaders say they’ve made their desires clear, their resistance appearing to have played at least a part in turning back the unwanted invasion.

But the win may be short-lived, the leaders say: Less than a month after GeoPark’s exit, Petroperu clearly stated it wants to find another partner for Lot 64.

“It is not a final victory, it is a step forward in our struggle,” said Wrays Perez, the pamuk, or president, of GTANW, the autonomous government that represents the Wampis people, in an email. “If that lot continues to exist, it will be like an open wound where a fly can lay its eggs and grow worms.”

Lot 64: Decades of discord

The Peruvian government established Lot 64 in 1995. It covers more than 7,600 km2 (3,000 mi2) of rainforest in northern Peru, the bulk of which is also Achuar land. From the beginning, the government’s plan was to elevate the capabilities of its state-backed oil company, Petroperu, by extracting — with the help of a foreign partner — 42 million barrels of the especially valuable light crude thought to be under the block’s surface. When GeoPark received the Lot 64 concession by a supreme decree signed by the president in 2014, the company aimed to begin extraction by 2021.

As they had when Petroperu had linked up with previous partners, the Achuar and Wampis raised concerns about the impacts of drilling infrastructure, an influx of outsiders, and the transport of oil through hundreds of miles of the rainforest. The threat of spills along the oil’s path to the coast was particularly worrying, especially for the Wampis.

Petroperu and Geopark had planned to build a 44-km (27-mi) pipeline across Achuar territory to a military base in the Wampis homeland. From there, the oil would be transferred to barges for a 225-km (140-mi) journey down the winding and narrow Morona River, past around 20 Indigenous communities.

At that point, the oil would be pumped into the corroded, leak-prone NorPeruano Pipeline for a 1,100-km (700-mi) trip through Indigenous territory to a refinery on the coast. Each step along the way, Perez and Indigenous rights advocates say, would risk fouling the region’s forests and waterways — the literal lifelines for the Amazon ecosystem and the peoples who inhabit it.

A recent study by Peru’s national coordinator for human rights found that more than 470 oil spills have happened in the Peruvian Amazon since 2000. The authors write that Indigenous groups living on lots 8 and 192, two other blocks in the northern Peruvian Amazon that would also tie into the NorPeruano pipeline, have been the victims of more than 70% of those spills. According to the study, they are still seeking remediation for the harm caused by dozens of these spills — a situation that Perez and other Wampis and Achuar leaders want to avoid.

The researchers write in an English summary that nearly two-thirds of the spills resulted from “the lack of adherence by companies to environmental regulations” and the crumbling state of the NorPeruano pipeline, which was built in the 1970s.

“The oil pipe that goes from this area to the Peruvian coast is disastrous,” said Frederica Barclay, president of the Indigenous rights organization Perú Equidad, in an interview.

Other sources say state-owned Petroperu doesn’t have the resources to finance cleanup efforts on its own. Yaizha Campanario, from Peru Equidad’s Indigenous program, said she hadn’t seen a figure for how much it would cost to address the spills on lots 8 and 192.

“But it’s so much that the company will never want to pay it,” Campanario told Mongabay.

Three Achuar communities, where observers say GeoPark has provided health care and youth scholarships, support oil exploration around their villages. But given the industry’s checkered history in the Amazon, the Wampis and Achuar have otherwise near-universally declined to consent to any attempts to extract oil from Lot 64.

“What we are looking for is the annulment of [Lot] 64 to end this threat of contamination of our territory, the forests, the rivers,” Perez said.

In fact, the Achuar Nation’s constitution forbids its people from allowing harm to nature. And one of the foundational claims of both nations’ resistance in Lot 64 rests on Peru’s status as a signatory to International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which the country ratified in 1994, before the creation of Lot 64. ILO 169 is a binding international convention that serves as a baseline for guaranteeing Indigenous land rights and consent in how outsiders use their land.

“ILO 169 is a law for Peru, and the country has to obey it,” Barclay said. She said court rulings have upheld the requirement that Peru adhere to ILO 169. And a 2011 law codified the international principle of free, prior and informed consent, or FPIC, in the country’s legal system.

The 2011 law tasks Peru’s Ministry of Culture with ensuring that Indigenous groups are consulted about projects on their land and their consent is obtained. Perez and the other leaders opposed to drilling on Lot 64 say they were never consulted about the project, though they also say they don’t wish to be. They remain steadfast in their rejection of the lot’s existence.

GeoPark also noted the government’s failure to sort out the consent issue in exiting its contract on Lot 64.

An Amazon-wide issue

A recent report on mining from the World Resources Institute (WRI) found that six Amazonian countries, including Peru, have laws designed to protect Indigenous and rural communities from the inundation of mining interests currently underway across the region. Legal and illegal mining — including both active and inactive claims — encroaches on about one-fifth of the Indigenous territory in the six Amazonian countries studied.

“There must be robust legal rights for Indigenous peoples and regulations and safeguards for the environment must be established and implemented,” Eleodoro Mayorga Alba, Peru’s former minister of mines, said during a press call to launch the report.

But the existence of legal statutes alone isn’t enough to protect these groups, said Peter Veit, director of WRI’s Land and Resource Rights Initiative and an author of the report.

“Safeguarding Indigenous territories — including the sustainable development and environmental benefits they generate — will require stronger commitments and urgent actions from governments, companies, civil society leaders, nongovernmental organizations and others,” Veit said.

Rights advocates like Peru Equidad’s Barclay contend that the presence of GeoPark (until recently) on Achuar land contradicted the country’s ratification of agreements like ILO 169 and the 2011 prior consultation law. They argue that commitments to Indigenous rights don’t exist in practice. As a result, there is little faith on the part of the Wampis and Achuar that their concerns would be taken into account, even if an official consultation process were to be held as required by law.

“No consultation has been attempted, but even if there are consultations, the government may unilaterally decide in the company’s favor,” Shapiom Noningo, the Wampis Nation’s technical director, told Yale E360 in July.

The Wampis and Achuar have also taken issue with the involvement of the military and several outside actors in what they see as an illegitimate operation. The U.S. Agency for International Development, a government entity, had backed a baseline study to prepare for an environmental impact assessment (EIA) on Lot 64, but it canceled its financing after Perez and the president of FENAP, the federation that represents the Achuar, expressed their concerns in a 2019 letter to the agency.

“The original Achuar and Wampis peoples pre-existed the Peruvian State and we have an ancestral occupation of the territory,” they wrote. “We are determined to keep it healthy and free from all contamination.”

GeoPark’s website also revealed that the company had begun working with the Center for Conservation and Sustainability at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a U.S. government-supported scientific organization based in Virginia and affiliated with the country’s National Zoo. Groups like SCBI do sometimes partner with mining and extractives companies, though the arrangements can be controversial.

SCBI said it had permission to carry out a study around the community of Brasilia, one of the Achuar villages that reportedly supports oil exploration on Lot 64. SCBI also said its role “was to gather data and make recommendations for conservation and sustainable development,” in a written response to Mongabay’s request for comment on its role in the project. “This information would help GeoPark better understand the ecosystems in which they are operating and find ways to minimize their footprint.”

In a letter to Steven Monfort, SCBI’s director, Perez and FENAP’s president questioned SCBI’s association with Geopark, a company that they argue isn’t respecting the Achuar and Wampis claims to sovereignty, even though SCBI had obtained Brasilia’s consent for its study.

“We would very much regret to see your highly regarded scientific institution involved in a situation that goes against internationally recognized indigenous rights,” the letter says.

At the time of publication, SCBI had not responded to the letter from the Wampis and Achuar leaders.

The question applies to Peru as well: Given the repeated rejection of the project by the Wampis and Achuar nations, why would a government-backed entity continue to press forward? Some observers have suggested that cash-strapped Petroperu sees Lot 64 as a do-or-die imperative.

“This is basically the lifesaver for Petroperu,” Kathia Carrillo, communications officer with GTANW, told Mongabay.

Since the designation of Lot 64 in 1995, Petroperu has brought in a string of private, mostly foreign companies to handle the business of searching for oil. GeoPark became the latest when Petroperu awarded it a 75% stake in Lot 64 in 2014. But over the next six years, the company would find a series of obstacles to profitable oil production at the site.

In a July 9 statement that GeoPark representative María Camila Casallas shared with Mongabay in response to a request for an interview, the company acknowledged that it “has not produced a single barrel of oil from Lot 64.”

Under Peruvian law, GeoPark had to carry out an EIA to detail the impacts it expected oil extraction would have on the environment and the people in the area. This is a process separate from the government-led requirement for prior consultation.

When the country’s environmental authority, SENACE, reviewed the assessment in early 2019, the agency found GeoPark’s EIA lacking. SENACE raised 172 issues, or “observations,” including failures by GeoPark to determine whether it would have any “environmental liabilities” associated with the project or if it would impact areas of cultural significance to local peoples. The Wampis government GTANW said these observations amounted to “serious flaws and omissions” in GeoPark’s methodology.

In June 2019, GeoPark withdrew the EIA because, according to the U.K.-headquartered NGO Forest Peoples Programme (FPP), it couldn’t fix the problems. Retracting the EIA effectively halted the project. And then the pandemic hit in early 2020.

On March 15, 2020, the Peruvian government announced a nationwide lockdown to try to control the spread of the virus. It exempted oil companies, allowing them to maintain staff presence if they had actively producing wells.

As GeoPark itself noted, Lot 64 has never produced oil. It is not clear why, then, GeoPark employees were allowed to remain on Lot 64, when these staff, and their need for resupply, represented possible entry points for the virus into the remote Indigenous communities.

GeoPark’s statement said seven staff members stayed in one of the camps on Lot 64 during the quarantine, but they had “strict instructions to respect lockdown, orders which were strictly adhered to.”

The GeoPark contingent received two boats with supplies “in non-stop, single purpose trips to deliver food and medicines” at some point between March 15 and June 22, according to the company’s statement. The Achuar and Wampis communities bristled when they reportedly saw that the supply boats were guarded by members of the Peruvian military.

On May 26, the GTANW filed a criminal complaint with the public prosecutor’s office based on the threat that the presence of GeoPark employees posed to the communities.

“At every step, all supply and prevention activity undertaken by GeoPark has been communicated to local communities and authorized by local government,” GeoPark said in its response to GTANW’s complaint. “Throughout this time all required health and security protocols have been strictly implemented.”

These assurances weren’t enough for Perez.

“They should remove their personnel,” he said at the time, according to FPP. The nations’ leaders had also decided to close their territory to outsiders. “What happens if one of them gets infected and this creates a problem by infecting the communities? The responsibility will lie with GeoPark and the national government.”

He added that little government support for Indigenous health care existed before the pandemic, and its onset only further laid bare the dire need for trained medical workers, protective equipment and medicines in Indigenous territories.

GeoPark eventually pulled the seven staff members out of Lot 64 on June 22, just weeks before pulling out of its contract altogether. But the company continued to defend their presence during one of the most turbulent periods of the global pandemic.

The magnitude of the role that COVID-19 played in ending GeoPark’s involvement in Lot 64 isn’t clear. By the time of the pandemic, the withdrawn EIA had stymied any further progress toward pumping the first barrel of oil from the site. Also in 2019, a delegation of Achuar and Wampis leaders visited GeoPark’s headquarters in Santiago, Chile, during an investor meeting to convey their rejection of the company’s presence on Lot 64.

For its part, GeoPark contends that it did what it could to move forward with developing the site for oil.

“Lot 64 has been in force majeure” — that is, beset with unforeseen circumstances standing in the way of fulfilling the company’s contract — “since June 2019 as the Peruvian authorities have failed to determine whether there was adequate prior consultation regarding forest management between the Company and the local communities, necessary to advance the project,” the company said in its July 9 statement.

Some observers, including FPP, have questioned whether invoking force majeure was a legal maneuver for the company to get out of the contract with Petroperu, as global oil demand dipped and prices along with it. But GeoPark said that drawn-out consultation processes have been a consistent issue in Peru since the prior consultation law came into force in 2011. The government also seems to be aware of this issue and has said it aims to pare the process down by at least six months.

For its part, the GTANW said its members — with the exception of the few communities that support the project — have made their desires clear: that the future of their territory does not include drilling for oil.

Petroperu, which, as the country’s state-owned oil company, must adhere to regulations laid out by Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, does not appear to be listening. (Neither Petroperu nor the ministry responded to several requests for comment from Mongabay.)

In a statement dated Aug. 13, 2020, Petroperu said it would assume control of GeoPark’s stake in Lot 64, if approved by the national government as required by law. The next step would be for Petroperu to find yet another private partner, which it said it intends to do in the statement. The president of the Peruvian Hydrocarbons Society, an industry group, confirmed those intentions, according to the magazine Semana Económica.

For the Achuar and Wampis, that means that GeoPark’s exit from the project didn’t end their struggle over Lot 64. Perez said the Wampis and Achuar will continue the fight to prevent the destruction of their homelands. The Wampis are not opposed to development, Perez said, but they also want Peru to respect the agreements it has made with the international community and to the peoples who live within its borders.

“[W]e will insist with this demand that nature be respected so that the Amazon, which is a source of life for humanity, is not destroyed.”

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