21 Nov 2017 Story Extractives

Neighbourhood watch: detecting oil spills in the Amazon

Camilla Capasso of the Forest Peoples Programme explains how indigenous communities in Peru have taken the lead in making polluters pay for contamination in their ancestral lands.

When they heard there had been another oil spill, people from the Wampis community of Mayuriaga, in the Peruvian Amazon, quickly converged on the bank of the Cashacaño river and looked at the water. It was completely covered by a dense, pitch-black layer of petroleum.

Since the country opened up to oil exploration in the 1970s, over 80 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon has been covered by oil and gas concessions. Indigenous peoples have been the most affected by the oil boom, with concessions overlapping 66 per cent of indigenous territories.

Once extracted, the oil is transported through pipelines, but with most installations being antiquated, oil spills are frequent, with irreparable consequences for the environment and well-being of local communities.

With the oil companies and authorities denying responsibility for the 2016 spill, indigenous communities, including the Wampis, took the matter into their own hands. With support from human rights organizations, they established a series of community-based monitoring programmes aimed at documenting the impact of oil pollution on their territory and health by applying a mix of traditional knowledge and innovative technologies.

With the oil companies and authorities denying responsibility for the 2016 spill, indigenous communities, including the Wampis, took the matter into their own hands.

Community-based monitoring is a new term, but it has been carried out by generations of indigenous peoples and local communities as part of the custodianship of their land. “The historic and cultural origin of the Wampis nation is tightly linked to nature, to the trees and the territory,” explains Shapiom Noningo, a delegate of the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis. “The Wampis learn from nature and from nature get their nourishment; this is how, over time, we have developed our way of living, our culture and knowledge.”

© Jacob Loov

For pollution monitoring, communities are using soil and water test kits, often in conjunction with laboratory facilities, to obtain independently verified results. Hand-held Global Positioning System devices, smartphones and Geographic Information System platforms have made it possible for communities to generate their own digital, spatial representations of their territories and of the threats to their resources, and to embed these maps in websites and field reports. These can be backed up with georeferenced photo, video and audio evidence captured on smartphones or even from community-operated drones. The information gathered is particularly effective in cases of environmental pollution and land degradation to hold authorities and companies to account and seek remediation. “The aim of the monitoring programmes,” explains Shapiom, “is to report destructive agents and notify their presence to local and national authorities, so that the relevant actions can be taken.”

In March 2016, the Wampis, in coordination with other communities and indigenous organizations, sent a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asking for precautionary measures to be declared as a result of human rights violations. This step requires the state to move immediately to protect rights seen as under threat. The letter summarized data collected through community-based monitoring activities over three years, with details on all the oil spills associated with the Norperuano pipeline.

Three months later, a delegation of leaders from the affected communities was invited to the 158th session of the Commission for a hearing on the impacts of the oil spills. PetroPeru’s representative at the hearing acknowledged the company’s responsibility and invited the Commission to visit the affected areas where, he claimed, clean-up work was being carried out. During their visit, in July 2017, the Commission received information on the impact of oil spills on the health and diet of community residents, who reported that the number of fish living in the river had decreased after the spills, with the fish that had survived unfit for consumption.

Despite the hardship of the situation, the visit of the Commission is seen as a step forward by the indigenous communities living in the area. The next step is to seek remediation. While the Commission has urged the state to provide water, food and health services to the communities, greater commitment is needed if the damage is to be repaired.

An example of remediation obtained thanks to the work of community-based monitoring programmes is the Acta de Dorissa, an agreement signed by the Peruvian government and oil company PlusPetrol in 2006, with the oversight of the Federation of Indigenous Communities of the Corrientes basin.

As a result of the dumping, the Achuar indigenous people had registered unsafe and illegal levels of toxins in their bodies.

The Acta de Dorissa includes commitments regarding the dumping of oil waste, which had been injected until then into the Corrientes river. As a result of the dumping, the Achuar indigenous people had registered unsafe and illegal levels of toxins in their bodies. After monitoring the level of contamination and the effects on their health, the Achuar decided to demand the full remediation of the damages caused by the company. After a weekend of intense negotiations, both the government and the oil company gave in to nearly all the Achuar demands, including the development of the Federation’s monitoring programme with funding from PlusPetrol.

The Acta de Dorissa, which came after years of community mobilization, demonstrates that monitoring can complement advocacy work against further pollution. However, communities often lack the financial support to develop and run these programmes. States must help contribute to these activities while ensuring their ability to provide independent information if the Amazon rainforest is to be protected from pollution and if the human rights of those inhabiting it are to be fully respected.

A longer version of this article appears in a recent issue of Perspectives.

Pollution is the theme of the UN Environment Assembly, which is meeting in Nairobi from 4-6 December. Sign the pledge and help us #BeatPollution in all its forms. A side event on pollution in the extractives industry will take place on Monday, 4 December from 6:00-7:30pm. For more information, please email Oli Brown (oli.brown[at]unenvironment.org).