Hunching his shoulders against a driving rain Pastor Dahua scrambled down a muddy bank and stepped across a pool of blackened water to a makeshift shelter that marked the place where crude oil had spilled from an oil pipeline.
The spill in Monterrico, the community of Kukama and Urarina people of which Dahua is president, is one of 10 that have occurred since January along the pipeline that runs from oil fields in the Peruvian Amazon across the Andes Mountains to a port and refinery on the Pacific coast.
The rain worried Dahua. Between November and May, water levels in Amazonian rivers rise by 30 feet or more, flooding villages and forests. If the spill was not cleaned up by the time the flooding began in earnest, Monterrico’s only water supply—a stream that crossed the pipeline near the end of the oil spill—could be contaminated.
Monterrico is one of dozens of communities affected by recent spills. Even more people are exposed to contamination from 40 years of oil operations that dumped oil and salty, metals-laden water into rivers, streams and lakes in Peru’s oldest Amazonian oil fields.
Government agencies have identified more than 1,000 sites needing cleanup, but have a budget of only about $15 million for testing and remediation. Experts say that is just a fraction of the amount that will be needed.
Anger over the sluggish pace of efforts to address decades of pollution and neglect have come to a head in Saramurillo, on the bank of the Marañón River, a few hours by boat downstream from Monterrico.
Hundreds of people from more than 40 indigenous communities converged there on September 1, blocking boat traffic on the Marañón River, a key transportation route in the northeastern Peruvian region of Loreto, where there are virtually no roads.
Despite an initial meeting with government officials in October, the protest dragged on into December, amid tensions among both the protesters and the travelers and merchants trapped by the blockade.
The protesters are calling for a thorough study of the damage done by four decades of oil operations, much of which occurred when environmental regulations were lax or non-existent. They also seek repair or replacement of the pipeline, remediation of damage and compensation for the affected communities.
“The way oil operations are done now is not viable,” said José Fachín, 35, a lanky Kichwa law student who serves as an adviser to the indigenous leaders heading the protest.
Saramurillo, the community at the epicenter of the river blockade, and the neighboring community of Saramuro are flanked by the pumping station that marks the beginning of the pipeline, which is operated by Petroperú, the state-run oil company. Another pipeline, which carries oil from wells upstream, connects to the main line there.
In some ways, the protest echoes the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.
“The contexts are different, but some issues are shared,” says Andrew Miller, advocacy director at Amazon Watch, a Washington-based indigenous rights advocacy organization.
Both the Standing Rock protesters and those in Saramurillo are defending the water on which their communities depend, Miller says. Indigenous leaders from Ecuador and Panama have traveled to Standing Rock to highlight links between Indigenous People’s struggles there and those in Latin America.
In North Dakota, however, the pipeline is still under construction, while the communities in Peru are protesting decades of negligence in oil fields and along the poorly maintained pipeline.
The conflict in Peru also underscores tensions among indigenous organizations. For more than a decade, four federations have staged demonstrations and negotiated with government officials over oil pollution in communities along the Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre and Marañón rivers.
“We’re tired of endless talks,” said Fachín, 35, a lanky Kichwa law student who grew up amid the pollution along the Tigre River and is an adviser to the leaders of the protest in Saramurillo.
The leaders of the organizations represented – in Saramurillo – complain that the four federations involved in past talks do not represent all of the affected communities. They want negotiations with the government to include 15 organizations in five watersheds.
Nearly six weeks into the river blockade, a team of government officials led by Rolando Luque, who heads a department in the Cabinet chief’s office that deals with social conflicts, arrived in Saramurillo for initial talks.
Government officials had asked the protest leaders to meet in Iquitos, the capital of Loreto, which is more than six hours away by river and road, but the leaders insisted on meeting in the village, where everyone involved in the protest could attend.
When the government representatives arrived by helicopter on October 11, they were greeted by more than 400 men, women and children, many in traditional dress, with their faces painted and carrying spears.
After a sometimes tense two-day meeting, the protesters agreed to partially lift the river blockade temporarily—allowing passenger and cargo vessels to pass, but not oil or fuel barges—while the government promised to respond within a week to the indigenous groups’ initial demands.
When they received a response they considered inadequate, the protesters resumed the blockade and repeated their demand that President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who took office on July 28, or some of his Cabinet ministers travel to Saramurillo to continue the talks.
But on November 12, the government reached an agreement with the protesters for more than 80 of the leaders at the protest to travel to Lima to meet with several government ministers, including the Cabinet chief.
That deal, brokered by the Defense Ministry, appeared to be a way of ensuring that the river blockade would be lifted during the week of November 14, while Peru was hosting an international gathering of Asia-Pacific business leaders and heads of state in Lima.
A meeting with the ministers of defense, justice and culture on the night of November 19 paved the way for talks that began December 6 in the village of Saramurillo, and which have continued off and on since then, with the ministers of justice and energy and mines.
Another round of talks is slated for December 14-16, with the minister of production. Both protest leaders and government officials say that round should end with an agreement to be signed by the Cabinet chief, Fernando Zavala, who would travel to Saramurillo for the occasion.
The river blockade is suspended and Petroperú has resumed loading oil barges at the pumping station, in return for restoring electricity and running water to Saramuro and water to Saramurillo. The communities depend on the company for those services.
Meanwhile, five more oil spills have occurred along the pipeline, which is operated by Petroperú, the state-run oil company. Petroperú officials attribute those spills, plus four others, to vandalism.
In a region where jobs are scarce and a day laborer might only earn a few dollars harvesting crops, oil spill cleanup jobs—which have paid between $20 and $50 a day—create a perverse incentive for vandalism, company officials say.
Community leaders—including Gilter Yuyarima, president of the Kukama community of Nueva Alianza, where three spills have occurred—say the company blaming them unfairly, and without evidence, for harming the land and water on which their livelihoods depend.
Villages along the rivers have no water or sewer service, so rivers, streams and lakes are the only source of water for drinking, cooking, washing and bathing. Studies have found that most communities’ drinking water is unfit for human consumption. There are no systematic studies of the effect of pollution on the village.
In late October, Petroperú changed its tone slightly in a press release that blamed “political and economic interests” that “use the communities to purposely break the pipeline.” Company spokespersons say the vandals could be local contractors who hope to profit from cleanup work.
Meanwhile, the rainy season has started, and workers—most of them members of the affected communities—are racing the calendar to scoop up the oil and contaminated soil and vegetation before seasonal floodwaters spread the pollution more widely.
In Monterrico, Dahua recalled the day more than two years ago when he and other leaders hiked to a spill site in the Kukama community of Cuninico, where about 2,000 barrels of oil had killed fish and blackened the canal in which the pipeline was built in the Amazon lowlands.
“I never thought it could happen here,” he said.