According to Amazon Watch, between January 25 and February 3, two breaches in the main Peruvian pipeline caused the spilling of at least 3,000 barrels of oil in the north of Amazonia, in the provinces of Bagua and Loreto, endangering the indigenous populations that live in the area. The news has had little resonance: the national company Petroperu has confirmed the incident only after twenty days, and a month passed before international publications that are actively involved in environmental issues, such as The Guardian and BBC, reported the news. In our neck of the woods, that is, in Italy, the news has been basically ignored.
The story comes from an interesting report by Lorenzo Colantoni for Radio Bullets (http://www.radiobullets.com/). But he is certainly not the only one. Between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, 31 000 liters of sulfuric acid were spilled by a freight train in Queensland (north-east of Australia), near the village of Julia Creek, triggering the first environmental disaster of 2016 (whereas 2015 had ended with a terrible case of the spilling in Brazil). The authorities have banned access to an area of 2 km around the disaster. Sulphuric acid is highly corrosive, and its vapors can cause strong lung irritation. An insult to nature and health.
Long story short, it is a bad beginning. Although the damage in this case cannot be compared to catastrophic events such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon platform was spilling 50,000 barrels a day – still according to Colantoni – its impact should not be underestimated. The Amazonian ecosystem is very delicate: it is rich in biodiversity like few other regions in the world, even little amounts of oil can cause it significant damage. The jungle, which constitutes the ecosystem itself and which is all around the pipelines, makes containment operations extremely difficult, amplifying thus the effects of the incident.
This situation along, with the heavy rains and El Nino’s impact, has aggravated the spills by breaking the oil containment barriers put up by Petroperu. Fish, plants, and rivers have been covered in black spots. Besides, the oil spill has caused damage to the nearby cocoa crops.
The biggest hazards of the incident, however, concern the peoples that live along the contaminated waterways, on which depend most of their water reserves. The pollution of the rivers Marañon and Manona has affected at least 8,000 people. Following Petroperu’s offer to pay the residents two US dollars for every bucket of recovered oil, the company was later criticized because this could easily lead to the employment of minors to collect oil.
Whereas Petroperu explains the first 0breach in the pipeline with a landslide and does not provide any explanations on the second one, we need to look for the actual causes in the Peruvian legislation, which encourages extraction, but not environmental protection. In 2008, 75% of the Peruvian rainforest was made available to oil companies.
In June 2014, the highest fine for environmental crimes in the country has been halved. The desire to expand the Peruvian oil industry, perhaps hoping to replicate the success Venezuela had in this sector, caused two major consequences: on the one hand, the arrival of French, Spanish, and Canadian companies in the last few years. The airstrips, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructures that where built had a huge impact on the ecosystem. Besides, it has discouraged the companies that were already operating in the maintenance of the existing pipelines. As a consequence – Colantoni explains – happened the two spills from a pipeline of the 70’s, and the dozens of causes due to environmental crimes in the Peruvian courts against Petroperu and other companies, such as Argentinian Pluspetrol. Since 2001, the latter has been working in the biggest Peruvian oilfield, on the border with Ecuador. Yet, the high soil contamination with barium, lead, chromium, and other compounds resulting from oil was caused by the indiscriminate extraction carried out by its predecessor Occidental Petroleum in the 70’s.
What has kept, and still keeps the environmental impact of these activities hidden is the low population density in the affected areas, which are often inhabited only by indigenous communities, and the fact that they happen in the remotest parts of the country. This situation allows the indiscriminate exploitation of resources, and grants a certain degree of inconsistency to the Peruvian institutions. In 2013, the country’s government promised higher fines to those responsible for the spills. At the same time, it guaranteed 29 new concessions without securing the state of the already existing infrastructure. In 2014, exactly when Lima had hosted the Climate Conference that preceded the one in Paris, the north of the Peruvian Amazonia was suffering from five oil spills. There is so much distance between the chatter of the powerful and the real situation…