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Perus new president summoned to Amazon by indigenous protestors

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David Hill: Interview with Kichwa leader Jos Fachn on oil contamination, social struggle and the future of Perus biggest region

Indigenous peoples are part blockading one of the main tributaries of the River Amazon and demanding that Perus new president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski visit them – with no positive response to date. The protest is one of the latest instances of social unrest across Peru and in Loreto in particular, which, at 50% larger than the UK, is Perus biggest and most difficult-to-access region – as well as one of the poorest.

This poverty, together with poor infrastructure and a weak or non-existent state, is particularly outrageous given that some of Perus historically most productive oil fields are in Loreto. True, more than 40 years of operations, mostly by foreign companies, have transformed the region to the extent that the economy is now largely dependent on oil, generating wealth through tax revenues and casual employment for many people. But how have such revenues been spent? And what of the fact that the location of the oil fields has meant the systematic invasion and exploitation of huge swathes of indigenous peoples territories – allegedly contaminating rivers and local inhabitants, blocking efforts by communities to obtain land title, creating economic dependency, dominating local politics, buying off leaders, misleading community members, dumping trash, wasting staggering amounts of energy and resources, and, in general, leaving precious little behind in terms of infrastructure, basic services, education, beneficial projects and skilled, sustainable employment?

The problems caused by operations in this region tend to only make Peruvian or international media when there is some kind of spill – oil painting black the forest, fish, fauna. None has been recently reported where the protestors are, but not far upriver approximately 4,000 barrels were spilled, by the North Peruvian Pipeline, in mid-August at a community called Nuevo Alianza. Then another spill was reported on 24 September along the River Pastaza near the border with Ecuador, and then yet another was reported the following day upriver from Nuevo Alianza. As of 12 August 2016 Perus government agency regulating energy and mining, OSINERGMIN, had registered 190 pipeline spills across the country since 1997 – although it attributes 67 of them to vandalism.

One indigenous leader involved in this struggle is Kichwa man Jos Fachn, currently at the protest. Here, in an interview on 24 September with the Guardian in Loretos capital, Iquitos, Fachn gives his take on what is happening there and in Loreto in general:

DH: Where exactly is the protest taking place?

JF: Its on the River Maranon at the oil pumping station at Saramuro [the start of the North Peruvian Pipeline running from Loreto to Perus Pacific coast].

DH: How many people, more or less?

JF: Were talking about more than 2000 indigenous people [As of 27 September Fachn and other sources at the protest say the number has risen to roughly 3000]. And more keep arriving, gathering there.

DH: How long have the protesters been there for?

JF: Its an indefinite protest. Its been going on 24 days now [as of 24 September] and it will continue until their demands are met. And theyre asking, to resolve those demands, that the countrys leading authorities visit: the president or prime minister and relevant ministers, such as the Minister of Energy and Mining, Health, Education, Agriculture and Economy and Finance. Theyre also requesting Loretos four congressmen, the regional governor, the president of Perupetro, the president of Petroperu, and Pluspetrols general manager. Thats what theyre requesting – to discuss, at a political level, the viability of oil activity in that region. Thats whats on the table. Thats why they want those people.

DH: What are the main problems? Thats to say, why are people there protesting? What are the complaints?

JF: Well, this is the result of all the oil spills over the last few years. People cant take any more. So theyre protesting. The main reason is the contamination over the last 40 years – and the issue of doing remediation in Lot 8 [a concession held by state-owned company Petroperu until 1996 and then Pluspetrol since then], Lot 192 [held by US-based company Occidental before 2000, by Pluspetrol from 2000 to August 2015, and now by Canadian-headquartered Pacific Exploration and Production], and along all the pipelines. Another issue is the proposed Law on Environmental Vigilance and Monitoring – for that to be discussed. Another issue is the revision of Pluspetrols contract [for Lot 8], given that its been working for many years there with total impunity. Another issue is fixing, or replacing, the North Peruvian Pipeline [run by Petroperu].

DH: Its not only the North Peruvian Pipeline where there are spills or leaks, right? There are other pipelines.

JF: Theres an entire network. We want to discuss this and have a technical study done to see what has happened to this infrastructure after 40 years.

DH: The companies have worked there for 40 years?

JF: More than 40 years. 45 years, there or thereabouts. More than four decades. The pipelines are leaking now. Just today there was a leak, in Andoas [on the River Pastaza]. Theyre looking into how much was spilt.

DH: When was that?

JF: Lot 192. Its just been made public. There are spills in the oil concessions themselves as well as along the transport routes.

DH: Is the contamination the result of the spills only, or other oil operations?

JF: No. The contamination is the result of many things. One is that for more than 35 years companies have been dumping their production waters into the rivers, directly, into tributaries, lakes, pools. Across the four rivers [Corrientes, Maranon, Pastaza, Tigre]. That stopped in 2009. In addition, there has also been contamination caused by the chemical waste in the oil installations. The other cause has been the spills. So there are many factors. And after 40 years things are the same. People are tired of it. The round-tables weve held have come to nothing. We dont know when theyre going to do the clean-up. Thats why now theres an indefinite protest. Were tired of discussing it with state functionaries who dont have the capacity to solve the problem. Thats why we want the ministers to come – and the companies.

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Jos Fachn at a protest on the River Tigre in the Peruvian Amazon in 2015. Photograph: David Hill

DH: Has anyone from the state or government turned up yet?

JF: The regional governor [Fernando Melendez]. He agreed that he would transmit our message, our demands, to the national government. But he misunderstood. He didnt listen closely. As a result, they sent a commission [to Iquitos] – more functionaries – but the protesters wont speak with them. They want to speak to the ministers and the companies.

DH: Whos on the commission [which has since been reported to have returned to Lima]?

JF: A Vice-Minister from the Ministry of Culture, which, according to them, is the state institution responsible for this issue. We dont accept that. It isnt the state institution responsible. Another is a presidential advisor. Were fed up of talking to advisers. We continue insisting on wanting to talk to the ministers.

DH: About the pipeline spills. . . Sometimes the government, state or Petroperu say theyre caused by cuts – a type of sabotage. What would you say to that?

JF: Weve responded to this before. Its not that it isnt impossible that sometimes there is sabotage. Sabotage is possible. But linking it to indigenous peoples is a real stretch. You go to an indigenous community and youll see no one has the knowledge or technical capacity to do it. What weve learnt is that these are overseen by the companies themselves to cover up their own responsibility. Its a strategy theyre using.

DH: Wait. Youre saying sometimes there are cuts but that its the company, or someone connected to the company, thats doing it?

JF: There are interests in doing that. Strategically it suits their purposes to blame indigenous peoples and say the spills are caused by them. We have sources, who want to remain anonymous, and they know that this is effectively overseen by the company – and it suits them. You go to a community and youd see they have no equipment to do this kind of thing. Where would they get it? You cant use just any piece of equipment to sabotage a pipeline.

DH: Sometimes the pipeline is underwater too.

JF: Underwater. So how do you think an indigenous man is going to be able to cause a spill? Its impossible. Weve responded to this idea and we dont accept it – but it doesnt mean that it doesnt happen. It could happen. Someone could do it, but its not part of indigenous peoples culture to do this sort of thing.

DH: What are the impacts of the contamination?

JF: The impacts are very visible. A week ago we went to [an installation in Lot 8] and nearby found dead fish. In a lake across which a Pluspetrol pipeline crosses. With Petroperu, its exactly the same: the fish are dying where there are spills. And the impacts are worse when the rivers swell.

DH: Who are the indigenous peoples participating in the protest?

JF: There are the Achuar people, Urarina people, Cocamas, Kichwas. . . And the others are joining. . . Were in a country where there is no strict protection. What would happen today if indigenous peoples said, We dont want oil operations in this area and they closed it down? It wouldnt take much for the state to send in the army or navy. Thats the type of country were living in.

DH: Are there other things the protestors want? E.g. better services in their communities, health posts, schools, electricity, jobs?

JF: Compensation from the state for use of indigenous territories, which would take the form of an investment plan for health, education and alternative projects. Other requests are that land is titled according to [the International Labour Organizations] Convention 169, that prior consultation is done for Lot 192, and that a truth commission is set up to investigate the impunity with which oil activities have taken place over the last four decades.

DH: Last question. Obviously oil is very important for Loreto. Many people work in the industry. How do you see, therefore, the regions future?

JF: Loretos oil future, right now, is bleak because of the international context, although the national governments policy, for more than 30 years, has been oriented towards oil. But that is no longer Loretos future. Loreto, strategically, has been made dependent on oil by past governments. As a result of activity declining, Loreto is now in total crisis because the economy depends on oil, and for indigenous peoples its even worse because their territories have been impoverished and there have been serious environmental impacts. How can one talk about oil having a future when it has such a past? But to suddenly stop an extractive operation is very difficult – very difficult – because there are many poor people who depend on it for work. Whats the future of oil? Thats now the largest issue being discussed. Diversification of the economy, tourism, the forestry sector – but with very clear laws – environmental services, biodiversity, other alternative activities. . . There are many potential options to explore, but there hasnt been any interest in doing so because policy is designed from the top – and what the top wants for Loreto is to divide it up into oil concessions so the entire Amazon can be explored and exploited and companies continue operating and contaminating. Thats the strategy for Loreto. For people in Lima, for the rest of the country, Loreto is just a place where you exploit oil. Nothing else.

DH: Thank you, Jos.

JF: Thank you.

Petroperu did not provide comment in response to Fachns claims about pipeline sabotage.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/andes-to-the-amazon/2016/sep/27/perus-president-amazon-indigenous-protestors

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