Interview with Kichwa leader José Fachín on oil contamination, social struggle and the future of Peru’s biggest region
By David Hill
September 28, 2016.- Indigenous peoples are part blockading one of the main tributaries of the River Amazon and demanding that Peru’s 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 Peru’s 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 Peru’s 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 Peru’s 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 José Fachín, currently at the protest. Here, in an interview on 24 September with the Guardian in Loreto’s capital, Iquitos, Fachín gives his take on what is happening there and in Loreto in general:
DH: Where exactly is the protest taking place?
JF: It’s on the River Maranon at the oil pumping station at Saramuro [the start of the North Peruvian Pipeline running from Loreto to Peru’s Pacific coast].
DH: How many people, more or less?
JF: We’re talking about more than 2000 indigenous people [As of 27 September Fachín 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: It’s an indefinite protest. It’s been going on 24 days now [as of 24 September] and it will continue until their demands are met. And they’re asking, to resolve those demands, that the country’s 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. They’re also requesting Loreto’s four congressmen, the regional governor, the president of Perupetro, the president of Petroperu, and Pluspetrol’s general manager. That’s what they’re requesting - to discuss, at a political level, the viability of oil activity in that region. That’s what’s on the table. That’s why they want those people.
DH: What are the main problems? That’s 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 can’t take any more. So they’re 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 Pluspetrol’s contract [for Lot 8], given that it’s been working for many years there with total impunity. Another issue is fixing, or replacing, the North Peruvian Pipeline [run by Petroperu].
DH: It’s not only the North Peruvian Pipeline where there are spills or leaks, right? There are other pipelines.
JF: There’s 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]. They’re looking into how much was spilt.
DH: When was that?
JF: Lot 192. It’s 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 we’ve held have come to nothing. We don’t know when they’re going to do the clean-up. That’s why now there’s an indefinite protest. We’re tired of discussing it with state functionaries who don’t have the capacity to solve the problem. That’s why we want the ministers to come - and the companies.
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 didn’t listen closely. As a result, they sent a commission [to Iquitos] - more functionaries - but the protesters won’t speak with them. They want to speak to the ministers and the companies.
DH: Who’s 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 don’t accept that. It isn’t the state institution responsible. Another is a presidential advisor. We’re 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 they’re caused by “cuts” - a type of sabotage. What would you say to that?
JF: We’ve responded to this before. It’s not that it isn’t 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 you’ll see no one has the knowledge or technical capacity to do it. What we’ve learnt is that these are overseen by the companies themselves to cover up their own responsibility. It’s a strategy they’re using.
DH: Wait. You’re saying sometimes there are cuts but that it’s the company, or someone connected to the company, that’s 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 you’d see they have no equipment to do this kind of thing. Where would they get it? You can’t 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? It’s impossible. We’ve responded to this idea and we don’t accept it - but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. It could happen. Someone could do it, but it’s not part of indigenous people’s 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, it’s 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. . . We’re in a country where there is no strict protection. What would happen today if indigenous peoples said, “We don’t want oil operations in this area” and they closed it down? It wouldn’t take much for the state to send in the army or navy. That’s the type of country we’re 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 Organization’s] 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 region’s future?
JF: Loreto’s oil future, right now, is bleak because of the international context, although the national government’s policy, for more than 30 years, has been oriented towards oil. But that is no longer Loreto’s 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 it’s 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. What’s the future of oil? That’s 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 hasn’t 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. That’s 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, José.
JF: Thank you.
Petroperu did not provide comment in response to Fachín’s claims about pipeline sabotage.