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Déjà vu in Peru: The UN sounds the alarm again on extreme pollution in Peru

This post was co-authored by Miguel Levano, Land Rights and Extractive Industries Officer at Oxfam Peru.

The UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes Baskut Tuncat sounded the alarm after observing oil pollution on his recent visit to block 192 (formerly block 1 A-B) of the northern Peruvian Amazon. Block 192 is an area inhabited by indigenous peoples that has been plagued by severe pollution from more than 40 years of oil activities. Tuncat described the situation as “very urgent” and called for “immediate remediation actions” in the block. After visiting Ushpayacu, an area within the block that supposedly had been remediated, he stated: “What the company [Pluspetrol] did was to drain and fill the sand. What I saw was by no means a rehabilitated area. You could see all of the oil on the surface of the water. You could smell the oil kilometers before you arrived at the site.”

Does Tuncat’s description of the disturbing situation in block 192 sound familiar? That may be because this is not the first time that the UN and even the Peruvian government itself have attested to the extreme levels of pollution in the block. When the former UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples James Anaya visited the Peruvian Amazon two years ago, he described the impacts of extractive industry projects there as “devastating”. On his visit to block 192 he observed “junk heap cemeteries” of discarded materials left from oil company activities many years past and noted the serious health impacts of oil production on indigenous communities.

Anaya called on the Peruvian government to ensure adequate environmental remediation and compensation to indigenous communities for the degradation in block 192 and in other areas of Peru where “environmental conditions have endangered the health and wellbeing of indigenous peoples.” Anaya also asked the government to recognize the right of indigenous peoples to their traditional lands and natural resources, and to align its community consultation processes with international standards and the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Yet two years later communities remain frustrated in the face of more than 2,000 polluted points within the block. The government created an environmental remediation fund in March 2015, but more than a year later remediation efforts have yet to begin. In fact, the government has not even developed a plan for how it will conduct the remediation.

In the meantime, indigenous peoples continue to live on polluted lands, feeding their families the fish from and drinking polluted water. Aurelio Chino, President of one of the local indigenous federations in the block, said recently: “We no longer have a healthy life. How many years have we drunk this polluted water? And during these years no leader has taken the trouble to conduct a study of the water, of our blood.” Indigenous leaders from block 192 have asked the government to produce a comprehensive and precise study to document pollution in the oil block.

Block 192 represents just one case among many of communities struggling to defend their rights in the face of oil, gas, and mining investment in Peru. Recently a Peruvian news outlet reported twenty-one oil spills occurring in the last five years under the supervision of Petroperu, the national oil company. In some instances the government has failed to conduct prior consultation with indigenous communities for mining projects, as required by law in Peru.

Yet rather than working to strengthen environmental and social protections for communities, the government has lowered these standards through new policies which it claims will improve the economy. Unfortunately these new policies weaken requirements for environmental impact assessment, fail to recognize indigenous property rights, reduce taxes to large companies, and reduce the ability of the government to implement environmental monitoring and sanctions.

Now is a pivotal moment for the country, with Peru’s presidential election just a few weeks away. Peru can continue to backslide on its institutional achievements on environmental issues and indigenous rights in recent years, or it can reverse course. Last week indigenous leaders from block 192 presented the Peruvian Congress with a petition signed by 8,000 citizens from 74 countries asking the government to guarantee and strengthen environmental institutions and prior consultation processes in Peru. Peru’s next President should take heed of this important call.

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