Another pipeline spill reported in Peruvian Amazonian as indigenous protests enter eighth week

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Mongabay
October 15th, 2015
By: Barbara Fraser

As a protest by Peruvian Amazonian indigenous communities against oil pollution on their lands entered its eighth week, tensions rose on October 23 after a new pipeline oil spill and a shooting incident in which at least one protester was wounded.

Hundreds of people gathered since September 1 in Saramurillo, an indigenous community on the bank of the Marañón River in Peru’s northeastern Loreto region, have blocked transportation on the river to press for their demands. The protesters are calling for a state of emergency to be declared in two districts of the lower Marañón Valley where a series of oil spills has affected five indigenous communities.

They also seek an independent inspection of the network of pipelines serving the oil fields and replacement of corroded sections; remediation of polluted sites and ecosystem restoration; compensation for damages; an environmental monitoring law; and a “truth commission” to conduct an in-depth study of oil operations and their impact on communities and the environment.

Underlying the protest, however, is a call for a national debate on whether oil drilling should continue in the Peruvian Amazon.

“We want a discussion about the viability of oil production in the Amazon, because the way it’s done now is not viable,” said José Fachín, 35, a Kichwa law student and adviser to the leaders of the indigenous organizations supporting the protest.

The protesters lifted the river blockade — allowing passenger and cargo vessels to pass, but not oil and fuel barges — for about a week before and a week after a two-day meeting with government negotiators in Saramurillo on October 11 and 12.

They resumed the blockade on October 20, saying the government’s initial response to their demands, on October 18, was inadequate. Officials sent a more complete response on October 21. Two days later, people on a passenger boat attempting to pass the blockade fired at protesters, injuring a man in the hand.

The protesters stopped the vessel and posted photographs on social media showing three men whom they identified as employees of the transportation company being held in a community building in Saramurillo until legal investigators arrived.

Also on October 23, Petroperú, the state-owned company that operates the pipeline that carries crude from Amazonian oil fields across the Andes Mountains to the coast, reported that vandals had cut the pipeline in Nueva Alianza, spilling oil into a stream that flows into the Marañón River.

Petroperú communications chief Luis Zapata and community leaders said some oil had reached the river.

Nueva Alianza was the site of two spills reported on August 21 that dumped about 4,000 barrels of oil into a canal built to contain the pipeline. Cleanup of that oil was under way when the new breach was reported. The August spills helped trigger the protest in Saramurillo.

The newest spill is the ninth this year from the pipeline. Petroperú has attributed the last six to vandalism, although Osinergmin, the government agency responsible for overseeing energy infrastructure, has not ruled on them.

Some observers have suggested that contractors hoping to snag cleanup work could be vandalizing the pipeline, while Fachín said the cuts could be an effort to discredit the protest. Two spills — reported in the communities of Monterrico on September 25 and the community of 6 de Julio on October 14 — occurred after the protest began. Both communities are just upstream from Nueva Alianza.

Nueva Alianza, Monterrico, and 6 de Julio were not among the almost 47 communities that Fachín said had sent villagers to participate in the protest.

Saramurillo, where the protest is centered, is a cluster of wood-frame, thatch-roofed buildings on the bank of the Marañón River beside the pumping station that marks the beginning of the 845-kilometer Northern Peruvian Pipeline, which was built in the 1970s.

The capuccino-colored river is fouled by mine tailings, sewage, and solid waste as it flows down the eastern slope of the Andes Mountains and joins the Ucayali River in Peru’s Loreto region to form the Amazon River.

It also receives pollution from Peru’s oldest Amazonian oil fields, now known as Block 192 and Block 8, which began operating in the 1970s. The fields straddle the Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre, and Chambira rivers, are crisscrossed by aging pipelines, and are inhabited mainly by Achuar, Kichwa, Awajún, Urarina, and Kukama-Kukamiria people.

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