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Stories of Indigenous communities protesting oil extraction on traditional tribal lands is not a new or surprising occurrence within the global ecological movement. It seems a dark joke on humanity that remote and isolated communities so far removed from the global market and corporate mining enterprises are the first line of defence and the first casualties of oil pollution and mining contamination. Famous cases come to mind such as that of the highly politicised Dakota Access Pipeline. There is, however, a very similar story of resistance against oil extraction further south, almost half a century in age: the fight of the Indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon against oil pollution and oppression.

In the North Peruvian province of Loreto is home to both the Peruvian Amazon and 27 Indigenous tribes that have coexisted with and relied on the rainforest for centuries. However in the seventies, whilst the world was watching the Vietnam war, a small company called Apple was founded, and an ambitious new film series set in a galaxy far away was released, oil extraction moved into the Peruvian Amazon and grew to produce approximately 30% the Peruvian GDP. Since then, several oil corporations have been active in the region, companies such as OXY, Pluspetrol, China National Petroleum Corporation, and Petroperú, all participating in a relay race of dirty legacies.

An oil pipeline through the Peruvian Amazon c. actualidambiental

An oil pipeline through the Peruvian Amazon c. actualidambiental

But where was the Peruvian government? The Peruvian Amazon is estimated to cover approximately 60% of Peru, of this forested land the Peruvian government has allocated, as of 2010, 49% to various corporations under oil and gas concessions. From this 49% more than half comprises land belonging to Indigenous communities and a further 17% from nature reserves. This systematic allocation of communal land to multinationals over the past decades has led to fierce opposition from Amazonian residents.

Indigenous Resistance

The effects of oil mining in the Peruvian amazon have devastated generations of local inhabitants. The vast economic profits made by multinational oil companies and the Peruvian government has arisen at the price of the health of rainforest ecosystems and the people who live in it. Beginning in 1986, oil leaks have been contaminating waterways and land throughout the Peruvian Amazon, often being left untreated and incurring relative media silence and few repercussions for the perpetrating companies. In more recent times, four declarations of environmental and sanitary emergency struck in the Loreto province between 2013 and 2014. In 2016, the North Peruvian Oil Pipeline (NPOPL), which has been in use for over 40 years, suffered over a dozen oil leaks due to poor maintenance. The Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAAP) declared all water from the Tigre River undrinkable due to oil pollution, and numerous accounts exist of children dying from toxic oil poisoning. Due to the high levels of toxicity, fish, a staple of the Amazonian diet, must now be imported from neighbouring Ecuador, with food prices peeking.

Protests at the Amazon town Saramurillo by a congregation of Indigenous communities C. Sophie Pinchetti

Protests at the Amazon town Saramurillo by a congregation of Indigenous communities C. Sophie Pinchetti

In response to the January 2016 oil spills, the largest protest movement thus far was organised by the Kichwa people at the base of the Tigre River, the most polluted river in the area. Hundreds gathered for four months to block the boats of oil companies from accessing the river, and to affirm the seriousness of demands from local communities. “This region has been extremely polluted, people have died because of it, and nothing is being done to contain the problem,” said José Fachín, a community leader that has been instrumental in garnering support for the resistance movement. The protesters have set clear demands to the government, of which the primary requests are:

  • Compensation of the state to Indigenous communities affected by oil pollution,
  • The cleaning of oil spills by the North Peruvian pipeline in highly affected areas,
  • Setting up a Communal Environmental Monitoring Act,
  • The revision of plans for extending the federal contract with the current oil company Pluspetrol Norte,
  • De-criminalisation of protests.
Two Achuar people on their native land in the Peruvian Amazon C. Chaikuni

Two Achuar people on their native land in the Peruvian Amazon C. Chaikuni

The demands presented are slowly gathering momentum and legitimacy through trials and legal procedures. Significantly, the criminalisation of protests has been one of the main methods of silencing the protests. Legal proceedings are being utilised, at present, to respond to and appeal events such as the 2008 imprisonment and torture of community leaders in response to peaceful protests. Nevertheless, affected communities continue to pursue government compensation, cooperation and recognition by insisting consultation with an Indigenous collective before the allocation of new mining concessions, by organising dialogues and multi-sectoral commissions between all parties involved, by the judicialisation of protests, and by raising awareness through new interest from press and mass media.

The situations faced by Indigenous communities pose poignant challenges for the coming years. However, as momentum increases for the implementation of sustainable energy against fossil fuels, and as water scarcity becomes a reality, the significance of the irreparable harm done to communities and ecosystems, as well as the precedent of violence and destruction the oil industry has left on resource acquisition, cannot be understated.

Arthur Wyns

About Arthur Wyns

Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist and science journalist who writes about climate change, environment and migration. He manages Programs and Partnerships for Climate Tracker since 2017. With a group of biologists he founded Lonely Creatures, an organisation that brings under attention the stories of endangered species around the world.