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PERU: Indigenous Community to Take Oil Company to Court

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Aug 17 2006 (IPS) - Arankartuktaram! This Achuar cry sums up what indigenous communities in the heart of Peru’s Amazon jungle region are demanding from the State and multinational oil companies – a little respect.

For thirty years the Achuar people in the Corrientes River basin were unable to stop outsiders from polluting their environment. Now, the indigenous group is about to become the first in Peru to take legal action, as it plans to file suit against the companies it blames for the damages.

Oil drilling on indigenous land began in the 1970s with the arrival of U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation (Oxy). In 1996, Pluspetrol Norte, a local subsidiary of Argentine-based Pluspetrol, began to operate in the upper basins of the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre rivers, and expanded its operational area in 2000.

At the most recent indigenous assembly, held Aug. 5-6, the apus (chiefs) accused oil companies of endangering the Achuar people’s health and environment.

This group comprises 8,000 inhabitants of 31 communities in the northern department (province) of Loreto. Of these, 3,000 to 4,000 are direct victims of oil drilling, says Racimos de Ungurahui, a non-governmental organisation that works on behalf of the Achuar in Peru’s Amazon jungle region.

“The State, in complicity with the oil companies, is systematically violating our rights. The government is incapable of sanctioning those who pollute our rivers and land,” said Robert Guimaraes, vice president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), an umbrella group bringing together 47 indigenous federations and six indigenous regional organisations. “That’s why it is up to us to take action,” he told IPS.

Guimaraes brought the issue up in the Peruvian legislature, when on Aug. 9 he and representatives of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River (FECONACO) participated in events marking the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. AIDESEP leaders believe they have enough evidence to sue the companies. One of the most revealing reports comes from the Ministry of Health itself; it contains the first government warnings about high blood concentrations of cadmium and lead in Achuar people.

The government study of the quality of water and biological testing among communities of the Corrientes River basin was undertaken in response to a FECONACO request. Published in May, it reported the presence of heavy metals in the indigenous community, after analysing samples from 199 people, including 74 children aged 2 to 17.

The report showed that cadmium levels exceeded the acceptable limit of 0.1 mg per litre of blood in 98.6 percent of the children and adolescents examined in the Corrientes river basin area. Cadmium levels in 97.3 percent surpassed even those usually found in smokers – 0.2 mg – even though the people examined were non-smokers.

Furthermore, dangerous concentrations of 0.21 to 0.5 mg per litre were found in 37.8 percent of the children and adolescents, while the biological tolerance value (BAT) of 0.5 mg was exceeded in 59.4 percent of the minors. Similar levels were found in adults.

Testing for lead also yielded disturbing results: 66.2 per cent of the youngsters were found to exceed the limit for lead established for children (up to 10 mg per litre of blood). However, those over 18 had blood levels under the acceptable limit of 20 mg per litre.

According to “La Oroya Cannot Wait”, a report authored by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defence (AIDA) and the Peruvian Environmental Law Society (SPDA), high concentrations of cadmium in the blood can cause lung damage and cancer, kidney disease, weakening of the bones and the immune system, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and heart disease. Lead, in turn, affects the nervous system, endangering the brain and the kidneys.

But Pluspetrol Norte, citing the government report’s finding that lead concentrations in the water were within acceptable limits, denied that the company is responsible for the high metal concentrations in the blood.

However, the study also underscores the fact that it lacks data on other heavy metals in the river, such as cadmium and copper, due to methodological limitations.

In 2004, China’s state-run National Petroleum Corporation, the Asian giant’s main oil producer, acquired a 45 percent share of Pluspetrol Norte, which produced 54 percent of Peru’s oil that year.

“The company adheres closely to the limits set by the law. We believe the ministry’s report was carried out in a serious manner, but we cannot conclude that the levels of contaminants in the blood are due to heavy metals in the rivers. No causal correlation can be made between one and the other,” one of the oil company’s representatives told IPS.

Racimos de Ungurahui said that in order to accurately assess pollution levels in jungle rivers, what is needed is a sediment analysis, because the heavy metals settle in the riverbed.

This, however, is problematic, because – as stated in the Health Ministry report – “Peru has no technical regulations to establish maximum concentration values for heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other elements in sediment.”

The NGO said there is also pollution in lagoons and lakes where the indigenous communities fish, and that animals that they hunted for food have fled the area. A Racimos de Ungurahui report describes a “domino effect” of damages triggered by oil activity, which has “violated one of the communities’ most basic rights: the right to food.”

Following a Jul. 20-24 indigenous congress held in Loreto, the Regional Organisation of AIDESEP in Iquitos (ORAI) demanded the establishment of “permanent health monitoring mechanisms to prevent future negative impacts on the health of indigenous people in oil drilling areas,” and called for an environmental state of emergency to be declared in the Corrientes River basin.

The ORAI statement also demands that the State and the Pluspetrol Norte company clean up Achuar land and implement cutting-edge clean technology for the entire drilling process, throughout the company’s operations.

On behalf of the affected communities, Guimaraes emphasised the urgent need to reinject drilling waste deep into the ground, deal with the environmental damages and prevent new oil companies from establishing a foothold in Achuar territory.

Energy and Mines Minister Juan Valdivia Romero told IPS that officials from his ministry are holding meetings with management at Pluspetrol Norte, to encourage the company to fast-track plans to reinject produced waters into the ground as an environmentally acceptable disposal method.

Commenting on the environmental damage caused by oil companies, Valdivia Romero stated that “we recognise how important it is to the communities that the environmental liabilities be reduced as soon as possible. We, as the supervisory entity, are strictly enforcing the companies’ compliance with regulations.”

For its part, Pluspetrol Norte announced that it is now reinjecting some 210,000 barrels a day of produced water, which exceeds its original plan of 80,000. The company estimates the work will be complete by 2009.

However, Racimos de Ungurahui said the company is moving too slowly, and has criticised the reinjection plan, which according to the NGO addresses a mere 15 percent of Pluspetrol Norte’s total waste waters.

Roberto Ramallo, general manager of Pluspetrol Norte, said in a press release that “we are aware of a history of environmental impacts on the zone; consequently, we are developing mitigation plans to improve the quality of life in these communities.”

The executive pointed out that the company provides free medical care to 18,000 people, and is building and repairing schools for 4,000 of the area’s native students.

But Guimaraes calls this band-aid assistance. “We want to achieve our own level of development in harmony with nature, without losing our identity, language, culture and land. We are pushing for a multicultural and multilingual state,” he told IPS.

The root of the pollution can be traced to the Peruvian State’s vision of development, which is based on a model where natural resources are exploited without respect for affected communities, said José De Echave of Cooperacción, an NGO that works primarily with mining and social issues.

Indigenous communities have also turned to Congress for help. The new chairman of the congressional Amazon and Indigenous Affairs Committee, Carlos Arana, said he began to review the concerns of the communities on Aug. 15.

“We will look into the possibility of presenting bills that help address the demands of these communities and that also enforce the standards set by international treaties relevant to the issue,” Arana told IPS.

In the next few days, indigenous organisations will make an announcement on the measures to be adopted. Although their spokespeople have not clearly revealed what these may entail, the first step is likely to involve legal action, followed by, as so many times before, negotiations with the companies that drill for black gold.

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