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OXY will compensate for pollution
Cecilia Remón
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An out-of-court settlement establishes a precedent for the conduct of petroleum companies in their dealing with indigenous communities and the environment.

Protests of Amazon indigenous communities against pollution and health damages caused by decades of oil exploitation in their territories, has produced results that will yield benefits for them.

On Mar. 5, Achuar communities announced that they had reached an out-of-court settlement with the US oil company Occidental Petroleum (OXY) which operated in Peru between 1971 and 2000 in the western department of Loreto.

In a press conference, Marco Simons, lawyer for EarthRights International, an organization dedicated to legal action against perpetrators of environmental abuses, confirmed the agreement that five Achuar communities from the Corrientes River basin — Antioquia, José Olaya, Nueva Jerusalén, Pampa Hermosa and Sauki — reached with OXY in which the oil company will deposit funds for development projects to be managed by the Development Fund for the Upper Corrientes.

Simons clarified that the case was settled in a “closed and confidential process.” The lawsuit was filed in 2007 in a US Court in Los Angeles, where the corporate headquarters are located, accusing OXY of “irresponsible practices” that contaminated the waters of the Corrientes River and its tributaries with oil waste and production water that comes up from the well along with the oil at temperatures greater than 90° C (194° F), which is highly salinized and contains heavy metals.

In 1971, OXY obtained the concession of block 1AB (now block 192), an area of 400,000 hectares located between the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre Rivers, near the border with Ecuador, that includes indigenous territories. There it drilled 150 wells and constructed around 500 kilometers of roads and pipelines.  It exploited the block until 2000 when it was ceded to the Argentinian company, Pluspetrol.

In May of 2007, the five Achuar communities, with the support of EarthRights International, presented the lawsuit against OXY highlighting nine offenses categorized according to US laws: unjustified death, injuries and damages, punitive negligence, aggressions, alteration of private property and public order, usurpation, fraud, misrepresentation and violation of business codes.

The case was dismissed in 2008 when the judge determined that it should be resolved in Peru. However, the plaintiffs appealed before a court in San Francisco that overturned the decision and the case continued to develop in the United States. In 2013, OXY petitioned the Supreme Court to return the case to Peru but its demand was rejected.

Simons declared that this case set a “precedent” which he said will be “significant for future cases and [those that] has already been cited by other courts in the United States.”

The responsibility of Pluspetrol
But this is not only a precedent for cases before United States courts, but also for OXY’s successor: Pluspetrol, which also has a long history of bad practices in places where it has operated, particularly block 1AB.

On Feb. 5, indigenous leaders of the Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre and Marañón river basins denounced to the foreign press that “during more than 40 years of oil exploitation, the rights of the indigenous peoples to health, education and territory have been infringed. We are demanding that Pluspetrol assume its responsibility. The company’s practice is that the indigenous peoples do not have the same rights that they have. We communities demand that if the company does not assume its responsibilities, the State must comply with them having granted the permits for exploitation.”

Pluspetrol has always blamed OXY for the environmental liabilities in the area and never has assumed its responsibility for the pollution. Pluspetrol is scheduled to leave the zone on Aug. 31, and so far has not done any restoration of the 92 sites impacted by its operations and has no intention of paying the more than US$13 million for 12 fines for environmental infractions and harm to the health of the population which was imposed by the Environmental Control and Assessment Agency (OEFA).

But it seems the situation is in the process of changing.

On Mar. 2, President Ollanta Humala assured foreign correspondents that Pluspetrol must comply with “the environmental restoration required by its actions and by the contracts that it signed.”

On Mar. 10, the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (PCM) released a statement informing that the government and the native communities of the Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre and Marañón river basins affected by the oil drilling in block 1AB under the control of Pluspetrol reached an agreement that includes creating a 50 million soles ($16.1 million) fund for environmental restoration of the sites impacted by oil. The PCM also made a commitment to invest another 50 million soles in social projects ‘towards the end of guaranteeing life, health and sustainable development of these populations.”

The PCM also announced that “the State will guarantee environmental restoration in block 1AB for which it will demand compliance of a Plan of Withdrawal by the responsible operator that will take into account the polluted sites in block 1AB identified by the OEFA, as well as the findings similarly identified and any others that are pertinent, among others.”

Not enough
In a press conference after signing the agreement, the leaders of the Amazon indigenous communities that participated in the negotiations declared that “it is not enough to cure the damaged, but prevent damage in the future.”

“The government took a first step to restore relations between the indigenous communities of the Amazon and the Peruvian State,” stated Alfonso López, Kukama leader from the Marañon River basin. “Now it is time to make a reality of this agreement. These 50 million soles will be the seed for the restoration that will allow us to receive more funds for epidemiological and toxicological studies and for bringing potable water to a total of 115 communities, who will also benefit from education, health and community development projects.”

Another pending task, said the leaders, is the valuation of their lands.

“We have expressed our vision of what our territories mean as an integral whole, but the technicians of the PCM have not wanted to accept this vision, but rather to separate it; because of this, we have agreed to continue discussing the issue in which we have not reached a consensus,” said López. “It is necessary to maintain vigilance as indigenous peoples because if this agreement is not carried out, the elders, youth, women and children of the communities will rise up to make their voice, muted by abandonment on the part of the governments, heard.”
—Latinamerica Press.


Leaders of Amazon indigenous communities sign an agreement with the government allowing environmental restoration in areas affected by oil drilling. (Photo: PCM)
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