Peruvian Amazon: Wounds remain after 50 years of oil spills on Achuar land

  • Achuar Indigenous people from the community of José Olaya live near sites impacted by oil-related activity in and around their territory. According to reports by Peru’s environmental authority, toxic metals like cadmium, arsenic and lead have been detected in the area.
  • Journalists from Mongabay Latam traveled to four areas — Shiviyacu, Forestal, Huayuri and Teniente López — where there were pipelines, puddles of oil, barrels with potential contaminants and oil-covered creeks and plants.
  • According to the environmental authority, José Olaya is the location of eight of the 171 “impacted sites” that the Peruvian government has registered so far. There are 3,170 environmental liabilities caused by oil in the rest of the country.

The Achuar Indigenous people in the Peruvian community of José Olaya grew tired of seeing oil traveling through their creeks as they awaited the arrival of authorities. This is why they decided to clean up the crude oil spills in their territory by themselves. Our team of journalists arrived in their community after traveling along the Corrientes River in the Loreto region in the northern Peruvian Amazon. One of the first times the community members cleaned up the area, they recalled clearly, they did so without any protective equipment. They shoveled oil-covered dirt into polyethylene bags that they had found abandoned in Frontera Energy’s oil fields. Just when they thought their work was coming to an end, they suffered a setback. An intense rain, typical of tropical rainforests, broke the bags and created an apocalyptic landscape, with black puddles scattered all around the oil wells.

There are three particularly damaged sites today; they are a product of five decades of oil industry activity in the area. These three sites are only 20 minutes from the community, near the Huayuri Creek, in places where wild animals consumed by the Achuar people come to drink water.

“I want a better life for my children. We want to live peacefully, without contamination, like anyone else. We want the government to change those pipelines, because the oil always falls [from them] and builds up,” said José Chuje, an Achuar community member from José Olaya.

Bags of dirt and oil have accumulated at the “Forestal” oil field about 20 minutes from the community. Image by Patrick Wesember.

According to Aurelio Pignola, head of the Indigenous community of José Olaya in Peru, more than 600 Indigenous community members who live along the Corrientes River in the district of Trompeteros never thought the abundance of oil on their land would become a curse. Although crude oil is no longer extracted from this area — and Block 192 (formerly Block 1AB) is once again property of the state-owned company Petroperú, which has signed a contract with Altamesa Energy Canada S.A.C. — the residents of José Olaya say the problems have continued and are present in six additional communities in the basin.

The Occidental Petroleum Corporation, or Oxy, began drilling in the oil field in 1971. Pluspetrol Norte was in charge of the field from 1999 to 2015, and Frontera Energy took over operations between 2016 and 2021. What problems have been reported during all those years?

According to a list provided by Peru’s Environmental Evaluation and Enforcement Agency (OEFA), the territory of the José Olaya community includes eight places affected by oil operations, which the Peruvian government calls “impacted sites.” How much money will the remediation of each of these sites cost? According to Flor Blanco, environmental liabilities program manager at the board of administration for the Contingency Fund for Environmental Remediation (now known as Profonanpe), it will require an investment of approximately 10 million Peruvian soles (about $2.6 million), depending on the size of the affected area.

In fact, the database prepared for this series — based on official information requested from OEFA, the Ministry of Energy and Mines and Profonanpe — has allowed Mongabay Latam to establish that the Amazonian region of Loreto, where Block 192 is located, has accumulated 14 environmental liabilities and 171 “impacted sites” in the past 50 years. There are an additional 3,170 environmental liabilities caused by oil in the rest of the country. The government, however, has not yet determined who is responsible for this damage.

Indigenous territories. Protected natural areas. Oil pipelines. Other oil-related impacts. Environmental liabilities,

In José Olaya, the wounds left by oil are visible almost everywhere. “All of the operators have abandoned the area. Frontera Energy was the last operator of Block 192 and finally left the concession in 2020. Since there is no company responsible for the lot, there is now no one to take over the remediation of the areas affected by oil spills,” said Aymara León, a specialist from the Northern Amazon Oil Observatory (PUINAMUDT).

How do people live surrounded by puddles of oil, afraid of being contaminated by fishing or drinking water from the rivers? What is the government’s response to this lack of remediation?

Life on land stained by oil

“It is not good for us to be in an oil zone because the company benefits, the government benefits, and we get the contamination. At times, the company has supported us; it has not been in good faith. It has always been due to pressure from the community: striking [and] making demands,” said Pignola.

The community of José Olaya is made up of Achuar Indigenous people and some foreign groups. Image by Patrick Wesember.

There are only two ways to reach José Olaya: by boat and by airplane. Most of the food consumed by the members of this community — which is very close to the border between Peru and Ecuador — needs to be transported in these ways, causing the cost of living to be very high. A bottle of water can cost up to 5 Peruvian soles (about $1.34), and 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of chicken costs about 18 Peruvian soles (about $4.77). Residents had electricity in the past, but ever since the oil company left the area, they must use generators powered by gasoline or oil. The community said that Petroperú, a state-owned company in charge of the oil lot, decided to stop its service a year ago when the company ceased operations, and that it resumed the service later, although only intermittently.

Without electricity and with scarce supplies — in addition to a health care facility in poor condition, where Mongabay Latam reporters noted a lack of basic medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen — the Achuar people often feel as though they are drifting through life. To earn an income, they offer services like lodging or food to the few engineers and government officials who visit Block 192. The water they drink comes from the Corrientes Creek, located five minutes from the community, and they must purify it using a filter, which breaks down every so often. It is as though their health depends on luck.

Public faucets at a broken-down water treatment plant. Image by Patrick Wesember.

“There are children who come in with skin infections, with headaches [and] bone pain, even though they are young. Before, we did not see as many illnesses as now, and I believe it is due to the contamination caused by the oil spills,” said Guilmara Chuje Salas, a nurse who has worked in the health care facility in José Olaya for several years.

Although the effects of contamination from the continuous oil spills cannot be seen at first, there is a “before” and an “after” in terms of companies’ arriving to the Achuar community. José Chuje said that 50 years ago, his grandparents were able to hunt near the community and drink water from the river without risking their health. Now, in the places where the Achuar people used to gather food and hunt for animals, there are oil wells, oil residue and barrels of toxic waste.

Yaizha Campanario, a specialist from the nongovernmental organization Peru EQUIDAD, said that what has happened in Block 192 is a transformation in the Achuar community’s lifestyle and economy. The Indigenous people have been losing their knowledge of how to build farms and cultivate plants like cassava or moriche palm trees.

Pignola said that in 2022, when the last operator of the lot administered by Frontera Energy left the area, the Indigenous community members’ economic incomes dropped drastically. They were no longer hired for the cleanup of Block 192, and families lost the income they had been earning by providing food and lodging for the engineers. Due to their lack of employment, many people resumed hunting and fishing this year. According to Pignola, the problem is that the animals now eat contaminated plants and walk around the oil wells.

Pignola added that there is a strong presence of toxic metals on many of the farms that have reopened. A study by the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health — conducted in 2016 and provided to the communities in the area around the Corrientes River in 2018 — found lead and arsenic in the soil and water. The study also warned of contaminated fish.

“It is not just José Olaya; it is the other communities that are in the area, like Doce de Octubre or Nuevo Porvenir. They are contaminated. This is why we have been asking the government about remediation; we have been complaining for years, and there is no response,” said Federico Díaz Sandi, the president of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River Basin.

Contamination that remains unsolved

The community of José Olaya is filled with colorful homes surrounded by leafy trees. The Achuar people have opened stores with products like pasta and rice, which are now some of the foods they eat most frequently. They live in apparent normality, and children walk through the streets to the Corrientes River to swim or look for fish. In the background of these daily activities, oil was being extracted fewer than 100 meters (328 feet) away until just one year ago. In the distance, one can see storage tanks, pipeline systems and trucks. There is a gate that blocks access to this area, but from afar, all the machinery used to extract crude oil is visible.

“The spills that have happened have caused environmental damage [and] affected our consumption of water from the creek. When it became contaminated, it affected the fish and the animals that drank the water. We’ve been harmed because we consumed all of that,” said Pignola.

Natanael Sandi, the Indigenous environmental monitor of José Olaya, is committed to inspecting the impacted sites regularly because he is very familiar with the path that leads to them. Sandi’s native language is Achuar, but he has learned Spanish very well and can inform OEFA of the continuous crude oil spills in his community. In his rubber boots that protect him from oil and debris, he moved through the forest quickly, pushing aside the undergrowth. Only his tan vest, which says “environmental monitor” on the back, distinguishes him as an authority. Sandi led our team of journalists to what appeared to be a tributary, where members of the community often hunt. There, he stirred the water with a long stick and several drops of black liquid emerged. Sandi told the journalists that the oil is still hidden within the leaves, water and trees. He aimed to show that what Pignola had said was true.

Environmental monitor Natanael Sandi shows that the soil and plants in Block 192 are covered with oil. Image by Patrick Wesember.

On the walk through the forest, Sandi mentioned that he had noticed an oil spill that occurred on Sept. 21, 2022, in an area close to the Shiviyacu Creek. That same month, crude oil spilled in three additional places. He took photos and informed the authorities.

The young monitor explained that crude oil emerges every so often in the area and that a black stain has been spreading over the ground. The pipelines, which are exposed to the sun, appear corroded, and the smell of oil makes the air seem heavy before one even arrives at the site. The impacted site at Shiviyacu, where Sandi brought the team of journalists, was considered a place that may cause health risks in the S0112 Rehabilitation Plan by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. This report said the water sample that had been taken from the Shiviyacu Creek contained lead and cadmium. A soil analysis also showed the existence of oil residue and cadmium, a metal that the World Health Organization considers highly toxic. The rehabilitation plan also stated that between 2004 and 2011, in the same area, there were up to seven environmental emergencies, including leaked diesel fuel and crude oil spills. Two of these emergencies were attributed to corroded pipelines.

The Forestal oil field, operated by Frontera Energy until 2021, is about 10 minutes away by truck from the community. This area contains exposed oil wells, from which Sandi said small amounts of oil overflow and accumulate almost constantly. This concerns Pignola because some people have farms nearby. There are insects trapped in some of the small puddles of oil on the ground, and hidden among the trees nearby, there is an oil stain that measures about 20 meters wide. “The problem is that the pipelines were never fixed, never repaired, and then we have those spills every so often. In Forestal [oil field], the oil has been accumulating for two years,” Sandi said.

The Forestal base, which is included in the Ministry of Energy and Mines’ rehabilitation plan, is cataloged as “Site S0118 (Olaya Community Dump Site)” and is a site whose remediation has been prioritized. The report added that highly toxic metals —including arsenic, barium and lead— are present in the area.

An abandoned oil well that was discovered at Shiviyacu. Image by Patrick Wesember.
An abandoned and exposed oil well at the Huayuri base. Image by Patrick Wesember.

Another place recognized as an “impacted site” by the government is Huayuri. Reporters from Mongabay Latam traveled to an abandoned well in this area, which is near José Olaya. Many bags of dirt mixed with crude oil — the same ones that were being washed away by the rain — have accumulated as silent witnesses of this environmental hazard.

“At times, we have covered the spills with dirt; we’ve gathered the dirt using hoes, so that it does not continue, and it has stayed that way,” said Sandi. The S0109 Rehabilitation Plan by the Ministry of Energy and Mines said that oil residue, pipelines and industrial waste were found during the field visit to the impacted site. Selenium and barium were also detected at levels higher than international standards. One only needs to approach the Huayuri Creek, which today is dark brown, to see how the oil has coated what was once a tributary and home to hundreds of fish.

The Huayuri Creek is located only 15 minutes from the Peruvian community of José Olaya. Image by Patrick Wesember.

“When they destroy the forest and the water, they are also destroying our medicinal plants with which we cure ourselves. If we do not complain, nothing happens,” said Sandi. The communities’ constant demands are what caused the Ministry of Energy and Mines to create a list of the impacted sites. A commission was created in 2015 to manage the funds allocated for the remediation of these and other environmental liabilities. This commission is made up of Indigenous federations, the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the Ministry of Environment and Profonanpe. This group of institutions aims to organize public tenders to identify the companies that do this work. The problem is that, so far, not even one liability has been remedied, according to León from PUINAMUDT. León said she believes this is due to a lack of will on the part of the government itself.

“The children are suffering; we have seen that spots are appearing on their bodies. We do see that the contamination is affecting us,” said Sandi. He added that they know the environmental impact is present and that it is silently spreading in the vegetation and the streams.

In the middle of the rainforest, there is an old abandoned camp called Teniente López. It is the size of a stadium and has a sheltered area that holds hundreds of sealed barrels with tags that warn of danger. Sandi said he was very surprised when several Indigenous people came to the area and found toxic materials: oil-covered dirt, industrial waste, heavy metals and plastic bags of contaminated soil. Sandi commented that technicians from Perupetro sometimes come to check on the area while wearing protective suits, but there is no one to protect the area itself. “Once again, the big problem is that they do not do anything to remedy [it], as if it does not matter to them,” said Pignola.

Hundreds of these barrels were found at the site known as Teniente López. Image by Patrick Wesember.

A large amount of work is required to remedy an “impacted site.” Blanco, from Profonanpe, explained that the first step is for OEFA to identify a site. Next, Profonanpe, a private-public entity, decides which impacted sites will be prioritized. A consultant is then hired to create a rehabilitation plan. Next, the detailed engineering is completed; this involves an on-site review of the oil-damaged places. Meanwhile, OEFA must determine who is responsible — a company or the government — for these impacted sites. The final step is remediation, during which a specialized company with the correct technology is hired.

The information that Profonanpe provided to Mongabay Latam confirmed that Shiviyacu, Forestal and Huayuri — almost all of the sites the journalists visited with Sandi — are sites whose remediation processes are being prioritized. According to the deadlines established by the government, this means work should be done to recover these sites’ flora and fauna within one year. However, these deadlines, according to Profonanpe, depend heavily on the avoidance of another oil spill in those areas. If an oil spill did occur, the investigation would need to be restarted from scratch. The site, and its possible contaminants, would need to be re-characterized.

If these sites were identified in reports from 2019, why haven’t they been remedied by now? The report “The shadow of oil in Peru” — written in Spanish by Oxfam and PUINAMUDT — suggests the problem is that “the current laws and regulations do not allow [anyone] to sufficiently attend to the magnitude of the contaminated sites and the environmental liabilities where the contamination has historically been located (areas in operation for more than 50 years). The government continues to establish budgets and resources [that are] not in line with the urgency or the needs.”

Mongabay Latam consulted with the Ministry of Energy and Mines about the remediation process in José Olaya. The institution said that “[the Ministry of Energy and Mines] transferred more than 380 million soles [about $100.8 million] to Profonanpe in the past four years, including in 2022, with 12 million [soles, about $3.2 million]. Those financial resources, so far have not been used in the execution of environmental remediation actions, which is in a trust fund under the responsibility of Profonanpe . This is why, for 2023, there is no budget estimate.”

Blanco, from Profonanpe, said that in 2015, when the fund was created, the government transferred 50 million Peruvian soles (about $13.3 million) as seed capital. The money does not return to the treasury if it is not spent, which is why about 400 million Peruvian soles (about $106 million) were transferred in 2020. By 2022, more than 32 million Peruvian soles (about $8.5 million) had been spent and the remainder was under the administration of Profonanpe, Blanco told Mongabay Latam. Regarding the delays in the execution of studies on the impacted sites and the lack of remediation, Blanco said, “It is the first time that the Peruvian government has been responsible for making plans for rehabilitation and remediation. There are no specific regulations for this case. The ministries have begun to establish their regulations; it is tedious in itself, and political will influences it very much.” Blanco added that there was not always support from the decision-making entities, like the ministries, to complete the remediation.

According to Vladimir Pinto, Peru field coordinator at Amazon Watch, it is a tragedy. He said he believes the oil companies have created this unending situation: “They have left, and they do not take environmental responsibility [for remediation]. Oxy did not cover costs, Pluspetrol decided to do very little [and] Frontera, which operated for a few years, has not taken any [responsibility]. What is being done is burdening an area of the country with more harm, which we later have to remedy with our taxes.” Pinto added that when the companies avoid fines from OEFA and do not take responsibility for the remediation, it is the Peruvian government that must bear the cost of more than 600 million Peruvian soles (about $160 million), just to begin the remediation processes in Loreto.

In an email, Oxy said, “The legal issue was resolved in 2000, when Oxy transferred its involvement in Block 1-AB to the Argentinian oil company Pluspetrol with the approval of the Peruvian government. As part of that transfer, Pluspetrol took over all of the obligations of Block 1-AB.” In the email, Occidental Petroleum Corporation also indicated that it didn’t have “knowledge of credible data that indicate negative impacts on the health of the community as a result of Oxy’s operations.”

The Mongabay series “Stained by Oil,” which addressed the fines and sanctions imposed upon oil companies by environmental authorities, reported that Frontera Energy received five fines —totaling $516,049 — from OEFA for the company’s operations in Block 192.

Tons of contaminated dirt in the Teniente López area. Image by Patrick Wesember.

“It should be the [Ministry of Energy and Mines] that gives us answers about the remediation and the contamination that we are experiencing in our communities,” said Aurelio Chino Dahua, president of the Quechua Indigenous Federation of the Pastaza. Pignola, the head of José Olaya, said he believes that 50 years of contamination have done irreparable harm to the community. “We have demanded that the last company, Frontera Energy, comply; that it would clean up spills [and] that it would avoid any more contamination, but it has left, like the previous [companies]. It has not even presented its abandonment plan,” said Pignola.

Regarding the most recent 26 spills in the past two years in José Olaya, León from PUINAMUDT said that because there is no company being held responsible for the remediation of the incidents, the impacted sites will need to be attended to by the government. During a consultation about the remediation of the sites, the Ministry of Energy and Mines said that Perupetro should take over. However, OEFA said this state-owned company was not responsible for remedying the liabilities. It is still unclear what will happen to the sites that have recently been contaminated by crude oil.

Mongabay Latam contacted Perupetro, whose communications office said that “according to the Hydrocarbon Exploitation License Contract for Block 192, Petroperú recently took over on Feb. 28, 2023.” They added that “the previous activities and their consequences are the responsibility of the prior private operators.”

Meanwhile, Pignola —showing his outrage at a situation that has overwhelmed the Achuar people for years— clearly stated his community’s expectations: “What they have to do is clean up the oil, avoid any more contamination, [and] fulfill their functions as a company, as a government; that is the minimum that we are demanding.”

Banner image: An abandoned oil well in the Huayuri base at Block 192, where there was a spill in 2021 caused by an overflow of water due to intense winter rains in the Amazon. Image by Patrick Wesember.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on June 27, 2023.