While our current national attention is fixed on the BP oil spill and the impacts on the Gulf Coast, the appalling truth is that oil spills are a regular occurrence, threatening critical habitats and people’s safety and livelihoods wherever oil is extracted. In February I visited two indigenous Shipibo communities living along the Ucayali River in the Peruvian Amazon that are living with widespread sickness, environmental contamination and loss of access to fish and other food, due to numerous oil spills from a project financed by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Check out the following 3-minute video to learn more about this work:
My visit followed up on a visit the International Accountability Project’s Research Fellow, Emily Joiner, conducted in 2009 to several communities in Peru impacted by IFC-financed projects. The IFC committed $40 million in financing in 2007 to the oil company, Maple Energy, in spite of Maple’s abysmal environmental and human rights record in the Ucayali region. When Emily visited the two communities of Nuevo Sucre and Canaán de Cachiyacu along the Ucayali River in the Northern Peruvian Amazon, she learned some startling facts: Since the IFC investment, there had been five major spills, the worst of which occurred in April 2009, when Maple used forced labor from Nuevo Sucre to clean up the spill.
Upon exposure to toxic drinking and bathing water, community members have experienced severe stomach and back pains, fever and diarrhea; and some have died. All three tributaries Nuevo Sucre members depend upon for drinking water and fish have been systematically contaminated by Maple’s operations since 2007. Collateral impacts from oil extraction in the region―both from Maple and from companies operating prior to Maple―include permanently contaminated tributaries and fish, contaminated agricultural land leading to low yields, and both acute and chronic illnesses, ranging from stomach illnesses to cancer.
In February I went back to Nuevo Sucre and Canaán de Cachiyacu to hear more stories from community members and share information with them about the use of the IFC’s accountability mechanism, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO). I traveled with lawyer Natalie Bridgeman of Accountability Counsel and leaders of the regional indigenous federations. I was moved and saddened by their tales of lost loved ones over so many years of oil pollution, and humbled by their spirit of hope and their generosity. Villagers in Nuevo Sucre traveled three hours round trip to a lake to be able to offer us uncontaminated fish. Even though the fish was clean, they had cooked it in water from a nearby tributary, and I tasted the distinct flavor of oil. That one meal upset my stomach severely, and I was ill for a couple days afterward. But this is what people in Canaan and Nuevo Sucre eat everyday, this is a reality they cannot escape.
Community members from Nuevo Sucre and Canaan de Cachiyacu resoundingly decided to file a claim with the CAO, in the hope that it will hold Maple Energy accountable to its commitments―under legal contract with the IFC―to prevent and mitigate all environmental and social impacts. The communities hope that through the CAO process and resulting negotiations, they will secure access to a clean water supply, and that Maple will follow through on its promises to conduct comprehensive medical diagnoses and provide real medical care for each community member. IAP is committed to helping them achieve justice for these impacts. While some irreversible harm has occurred to the health and well-being of the people of these two Shipibo communities, and their land and rivers, there is still so much to save and protect. Communities filed their claim to the CAO on April 6, 2010. Read more about this campaign here.
The events in Ucayali and the communities’ complaint happens in a broader context of mounting protests throughout the Peruvian Amazon regarding unconstitutional decrees President Alan Garcia’s administration has been pushing through. Last year protests reached fever pitch and were brutally squelched by Peruvian police and paramilitaries in the town of Bagua. The rights of indigenous communities’ control over extractive activities in their ancestral territories is a hot issue right now in Peru, and the Peruvian parliament just passed a law on the rights of indigenous communities to adequate consultation prior to any activities that may affect their territory. While the national indigenous federation of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP) has expressed some satisfaction with this new legislation, it remains to be seen if this law, in practice, will indeed protect communities’ rights.