Peru: Amazon indigenous warn Oxy over toxins

Members of the indigenous Achuar communities in the Amazon basin in the Peru-Ecuador border region have notified US Oil Company Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) that they will bring a lawsuit against the company in the US if it will not clean up toxic waste from drilling. [IPS, May 4]

Achuar children in the area are suffering from high blood levels of cadmium and lead, both of which are thought to create grave developmental problems. Recent environmental reports by EarthRights International (ERI), Amazon Watch, and Peruvian legal non-profit Racimos de Ungurahui support previous conclusions reached by the Peruvian government in linking Oxy to the toxins. The report is “based on information gathered by a team of experts in May 2006 – including a doctor, nurse, lawyers, soil scientist, agronomist, environmental engineer, and chemist.” [ERI press release, May 3] About 8,600 people in five separate communities are blaming Oxy for high blood toxin levels. [Reuters, May 3]

The report says that Oxy used cost-cutting, out of date practices to boost profits. These included the use of “earthen pits to store drilling fluids, crude oil and crude byproducts.” The report says that the toxic chemicals overflowed and leached through their soil containers and into the surrounding ground and water. (IPS, May 4)

The company is also accused of dumping a daily average of 850,000 barrels of toxic oil byproducts into rivers and streams on Achuar land, causing repeated oil spills and dumping a total of 9 billion barrels of untreated toxic and carcinogenic processing water into rainforest land.

Oxy has been operating in the region since 1971. Production started in 1975 in the area known to Oxy as “Block 1AB.” This became Peru’s largest onshore oil field, producing up to “42 % of the country’s total oil output, about 115,000 barrels of crude per day.” (The Independent, May 4)

A spokesperson for the company says that Oxy stopped operating in the area since late 1999 and is unaware of health damages. Oxy sold its holdings to Argentine Pluspetrol in 2000 but still owns drilling rights to 6.3 million acres in Peru. It has tried to sell these blocks, but deals collapsed last year. A 13 day Achuar blockade of fields over pollution last November lead Pluspetrol to promise $200 million to be spent mainly on environmental projects in the Amazon basin. Currently Pluspetrol isn’t included in the threat to sue Oxy. [LAT, May 5]

“We have told Oxy this week that they must talk with us in good faith about how they are going to clean up the toxic waste they left in our rainforest,” said Achuar spiritual elder Tomas Maynas Carijano to IPS News. “If Oxy doesn’t respond satisfactorily and soon, I, along with other Achuar, am prepared to sue them for the damages they have caused us.”

The Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River is a group representing some of the 12,500 Achuar people in Peru. Leader Andrés Sandi Mucushua told IPS that “people are sick and dying because of Oxy. The water in our streams is not fit to drink and we can no longer eat the fish in our rivers or the animals in our forests.”

If precedents are indicative, Achuar communities may have a good chance of making Oxy act on repairable damages. In 2005, EarthRights International sued the Unocal Company for human rights abuses in Burma, and won a settlement for the indigenous peoples in US federal court. Currently, Amazon Watch is supporting a lawsuit in Ecuador in which indigenous peoples are suing Texaco (part of Chevron) for failing to dispose of waste materials safely, “poisoning groundwater and causing debilitating skin conditions, respiratory illnesses and cancers in the local population.” [The Independent, op cit] Last year, the Ecuadorian government seized indigenous lands where Oxy was drilling for oil. [Council on Hemispheric Affairs, May 19, 2006]

April Howard for Upside Down World, May 9

See our last posts on Peru and Ecuador.