The life of Nehemías Pando and his family changed after the oil spills in their indigenous communities affected hundreds of people in Peru’s northern Amazonian jungle in 2014. One of his sons swallowed water contaminated with crude oil, while fishing in the area where the PetroPerú state oil pipeline flood occurred. His 17-year-old daughter also has digestive problems after the toxic inundation. None has received the specialised medical care they require.
“When the health brigades came to gave us the results of our analytical tests, my son came out with a blood level for lead of 11. He has anemia, he is sleepy, since October we’ve been waiting that the health center (from the town of Maypuco) refers us to Iquitos [hospital] again, but they would not answer me,” says Pando. They are far from being the only ones suffering the consequences of the tragedy.
In this Peruvian wild and rural region oil wealth has become a nightmare for its inhabitants. The main pipeline that crosses four departments (Loreto, Amazonas, Cajamarca and Piura) is more than 850 kilometres long and was inaugurated in 1977. A report prepared by a parliamentary commission recorded 36 spills between 2008 and 2016, which affected some 1,410,000 m2 of communal land plots.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the country’s former minister of environment, said in 2016 that the spills were due to “lack of maintenance and infrastructure corrosion”.
A parliamentary investigation finished in November 2017 found PetroPerú and various third-party suppliers responsible — among other charges — of guaranteeing the pipeline’s health and safety as well as the cleanliness of the areas they contaminated. But the Peruvian Parliament’s plenary session took 18 months to table the report and on Wednesday, 15th May, 2019 they ruled the whole case out, arguing the commission did not identify a “direct responsibility” despite the fact that the last chapter of the 360-page document mentions dozens of officers as responsible, by action or by omission.
“The spills, as well as the response of the Peruvian State and PetroPerú to the subsequent social, environmental and economic problems, constitute new evidence of the state of marginalisation and lack of protection Amazonian citizens are in”, the multi-party report reads.
San Pedro’s indigenous comuneros [community land owners] have been hit hard by the disaster: they have suffered several oil spills — most recently in February 2018 — just as PetroPerú announced the end of the cleaning works on river Marañón and the surrounding soil and vegetation.
A group of human rights organizations went to the spill area in early May and found that, to this day, there is oil in the canals near the community. When residents of San Pedro stir the waters with a stick, one metre deep, remains of oil emerge. In the 3-day visit, the words that are most repeated are “hydrocarbon” and “contaminated fish”.
“Here, anemia is very common in children because there are no fish anymore. If one goes to the cochas (lagoons) to fish, it is unsafe to eat that fish; now it is too skinny. In the community minutes logbook you can see the company pledged to leave [everything] clean. They say they have finished, but the water still has hydrocarbons,” says San Pedro’s apu (chief) Humberto Iñapi.
“Before you could bring fish home for three or four days, and sell the excess for about 300 soles ($90). Now if we want our children and grandchildren to eat healthy we have to grow ducks, chickens, pigs, and that food costs. You do not have to grow fish,” added the leader of over 170 people.
Nehemías Pando, and his tragedy, are among them.
The man said his son was finally referred to Iquitos after waiting for seven months. “If I had the money I would have taken him there before. I just want him to be able to study, to make his life easier,” added the father of six.
In San Pedro, the Ministry of Housing has installed a water filtration plant that supplies the liquid by buckets. From the age of nine, girls carry those buckets to their homes. There is no electricity, drainage or sewers.
At the local school, pupils have painted drawings on the walls. One of them, by little Belinson, shows a boy fishing while sitting in a boat, and at the end of the rod there is a fish that is bigger than the boat. He says he likes to swim in the river Marañón, connected to canals that are still contaminated.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in December 2017 to those affected by the spills in San Pedro and Cuninico — a nearby indigenous community — and asked the Peruvian government to provide them with appropriate medical care, “clean drinking water free of pollutants, and adequate nourishment within nutritional and cultural terms,” among others.
In addition to that, the Superior Court of the region of Loreto confirmed in January 2018 a sentence that orders the Ministry of Health to design and develop a public health plan in Cuninico, and an epidemiological surveillance system that includes — among other factors — the monitoring of the water health indexes. “The ministry has not yet executed the ruling,” says lawyer Juan Carlos Ruiz, who filed the lawsuit.
Cuninico is located some 6 hours from San Pedro upon river Marañón. It has more than 720 inhabitants and in 2014 it was flooded by a 2,560 crude oil barrel leak. Citizens depend on rainwater to cook and bathe, because the town’s 14 public water fountains — placed by the Ministry of Housing on Cuninico’s main street last year — only work for about 40 minutes a day.
“They hardly work for 30 really⁸,” says Elva Vásquez, a resident of Cuninico. And, to make matters even worse, the hoses that carry the liquid are pierced with holes.