Indigenous Prior Consultation At Risk In The Peruvian Amazon’s Most Prolific Oil Block
Text by Sophie Pinchetti
Photos by Sophie Pinchetti & Contributors
The right to free, prior and informed consent is one of indigenous peoples’ fundamental collective rights. Yet in the northern Peruvian Amazon rainforest, on indigenous lands in an area known as Block 192 – the country’s largest and most important oil field, this right is now at risk once again.
“In Block 192, violations of our collective rights and the right to life and subsistence are not a possibility, they are a certainty”, tells us Fernando Chuje, indigenous Kichwa leader from the Tiger river and President of indigenous organization FECONAT. Like many other indigenous peoples from river basins across the Loreto region, Chuje has spent his lifetime fighting for his rights and people and enduring nearly half a century of irresponsible oil exploitation.
Back in 2011, Peru vowed its commitment to honour indigenous peoples’ right to prior consent and adopted it as part of its constitution. The law requires governments to seek consent from indigenous people before approving any development plans that might affect them. But what happens when the context is an environment in which so-called development projects have already been abusing indigenous peoples for decades? “The situation in Block 192 is one of accumulated impacts, not just possible impacts”, states Chuje.
Putting the law into practice has been a thorny issue to say the least, with foreign investors and high level interests often being placed above the law and getting the last say. Block 192, which harbours 13 billion dollars of proven reserves of crude oil, is one of the many oil and gas concessions created on ancestral indigenous lands since the Seventies. These concessions cover over 80% of the Peruvian Amazon and most were never consulted with indigenous communities. The alarming environmental and social situation warranted the attention of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteurs on hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak, and on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who both called the government’s efforts to remedy oil spills to be “grossly inadequate”. “Peru must protect and respect the rights of indigenous peoples to their land, territories and resources, as well as to consultation in accordance with relevant international standards,” the experts said, emphasising that the government “has an obligation […] to hold companies accountable for any failure to respect human rights, before re-licensing the land.”
The stakes are now higher than ever. Block 192 was recently swept by a new series of peaceful protests by Achuar and Kichwa people in the face of a lack of transparency about the current 2-year concession and the inevitable future concession for 30 years or more, for which the right to prior consultation should be respected. Another 3 decades of oil exploitation? Not another drop of oil without our say, was the resounding cry from indigenous peoples and their organizations who took direct-actions between the months of August and October 2017 seizing oil facilities and shutting down oil wells, effectively paralyzing oil production. “People have a firm position”, says Wilmer Chavez, indigenous Kichwa leader and President of ORIAP. “In the event that there is no prior consultation, we will definitely shut down oil activity. There will be no oil.”
Currently operating on Block 192 is Canadian oil company Frontera Energy Corporation (formerly known as Pacific Exploration & Production), which was granted a 2-year contract following an 2015 emblematic prior consent process between indigenous organizations of Block 192 and the state. The contract, which was due to expire end of August 2017 was extended to February 2019. The state cited “force majeure”, arguing that the company was unable to use the Northern Peruvian pipeline for 18 months as initially expected, as the pipeline was shut down by order of the Supervisory Agency for Investment in Energy and Mining of Peru (OSINERGMIN) after suffering repeated spills that dumped thousands of oil barrels into Amazonian rivers.
“The state must consult with indigenous peoples with due anticipation, as there is just over a year left until the current operator Frontera concludes the extension of its contract”, emphasizes Jose Fachin, indigenous Kichwa leader and advisor to FECONAT. “We at FECONAT question the state’s argument that due to force majeure the pipeline didn’t operate correctly. Although proper maintenance of the pipeline was recommended by OSINERGMIN, it was never done adequately. So we are faced with a situation of irresponsibility on the part of the company, the ruptures in the pipeline were caused by corrosion and were therefore predictable”, says Jose.
With so much contamination still to be cleaned up, leaking and poorly maintained pipelines in oil lot 192 itself, and too many unfulfilled pledges by the state to provide basic services such as education and health, patience is running out. “We are not opposed to oil drilling, but the state must take into account everything that has happened,” says indigenous Kichwa leader Fernando Chuje. “In over four decades of oil exploitation, there is a state of total abandon – nothing can be seen from the part of the state, let alone from the company.” In the past two years alone of Frontera Energy Corporation’s operating time in Block 192, about 40 oil spills have been documented by the OEFA Supervision Department.
Indigenous organizations from five river basins, allied with both FECONAT and ORIAP from Lot 192 as part of a coalition formed during the landmark Saramurillo protest on the Maranon river last year, express their solidarity with the struggle. “We support the organizations of oil lot 192 and their demand of respect to their prior consent right in lot 192. We declare ourselves indefinitely mobilized, we will not permit more abuses to our collective rights”, states the coalition.
The government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski initially stated that the 2015 prior consultation process was still valid for a new contract. In late October 2017, due to the ongoing protests, the government affirmed its commitment to respect the prior consultation when there is a Supreme Decree to be adopted for a new long term oil drilling contract. The question is if other mechanisms could be pushed forward to find a new operator to try to bypass the prior consultation legislation and commitment. Indigenous peoples will have to be on the watch.
Racism and Discrimination against the Indigenous Movement in Loreto
Despite being an environmental and social disaster, Block 192 has been hugely profitable for the national economy, and the one of the main drivers of the Loreto region’s economy. The dependence set the scene for a crisis, and in 2015 the oil price dropped, taking with it the infamous oil royalties the region relied upon, and sending unemployment rates skyrocketing. Amidst the worsening poverty over the past two years, racist public discourses against indigenous peoples have alarmingly intensified, and have been all the more aggravated by negative portrayals of indigenous peoples in national and regional media, which regularly blame indigenous peoples of being “extortionists”. Although the contaminated waters of rivers in Block 192 drain into the waters of Iquitos, few members of urban society regard the issue of the corroded pipeline to be their problem or concern.
On social media, comments on a Facebook post about protests in Block 192 published by a page dedicated to Iquitos testify to the racist and hateful attitudes of most local people: “Those shitty natives don’t protest because they care for or love their forests, but because they want money. Those shitty bums want everything for free”, says one Facebook user. “They like to make easy money,” says another, “That’s why they cut the pipelines. They don’t realise they’re contaminating our environment, our rivers. These natives are sons of bitches, it’s been years that I want to exterminate them”.
Amazonian indigenous organizations from five river basins and indigenous student organization Oepiap Pueblo mobilized last month outside a local radio station to denounce discriminatory broadcasts insulting indigenous peoples. “This is a clear strategy to discredit the indigenous movement”, say the organizations. In the Loreto region, indigenous peoples are on the frontline protecting the water, rivers and forests, and demanding respect of their rights after over 40 years of oil contamination on their ancestral territories. “Justice is necessary for the systematic violations of individual and collective rights of the rainforest’s peoples and nature itself”, declare the organizations.
Consultation, Yes! Abuses, NO! FECONAT’s New Publication
With the aim to inform indigenous communities in the Tiger River and the Peruvian public on the current situation in Block 192, we recently launched with our indigenous ally and partner FECONAT a publication entitled “Consultation, Yes! Abuses, NO!”, featuring photographs by The Guardian’s David Hill. The publication notably highlights a list of numerous commitments made to Kichwa communities between 2015 and 2017 by various government entities which have not been fulfilled. The publication has been distributed to 26 communities along the Tiger river and is also available to read online (in Spanish).