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The Achuar nation celebrated a historic indigenous triumph yesterday over the oil industry after blockading Peru’s largest oil facility in protest over the devastating toxic contamination of their Amazonian rainforest homeland.  More than 800 Achuar elders, women, and children joined the peaceful blockade, which lasted nearly two weeks, shutting down power to most of the region’s oil production facilities and blocking airport, river, and road access to the region. The protest came after two years of failed talks with Peruvian government officials over the daily discharge of more than one million barrels of “formation waters,” an untreated toxic by-product of the oil drilling process, directly into the rainforest.

The dumping has been going on for three decades and the Achuar have unsafe and illegal levels of a range of toxins in their bodies, including lead and cadmium, as a result.  It has also poisoned local waterways to the point where the fish and game populations on which the Achuar depend for survival are no longer fit for human consumption.

Initially, the Peruvian government sent in more than 200 members of the national police with orders to disperse the peaceful demonstrators and restore oil production.  However, the Achuar convinced the police to refrain from using force and respect their picket.  After a weekend of intense negotiations, the government and Pluspetrol, the Argentine oil company currently running the concession, gave in to virtually all of the Achuar’s demands. The written agreement they signed yesterday includes promises to:

  • Re-inject 100% of the formation waters back into the ground within 12 months in concession “1AB.”  [Pluspetrol had originally committed to re-injecting only 15% by 2010].

  • 50% re-injection of formation waters in the neighboring block “8” by December 2007 and the rest by December 2008.

  • Construction of a new hospital and the provision of a multi-million dollar health budget for the Achuar’s medical/health needs.

  • Five percent of all oil royalties for the Peruvian state of Loreto will be dedicated to Achuar community development, including food production, health, and education.

  • One year of emergency food supply for affected communities given the river fish and game are highly contaminated.

  • The acknowledgement of a unilateral declaration by the Achuar that they oppose new oil concessions in their territories and request cancellation of contracts for blocks 104 and 106.

“We have achieved 98% of our demands, and won recognition of our rights,” said Andrés Sandi, president of FECONACO, the representative organization of the Achuar people of the Corrientes River basin.  “This victory is the result of the strength of our people who came together and pressured hard and would not abandon our demands.”

The Achuar have now called off the blockade, which had closed down the rainforest oil facility and shut down 50% of Peru’s oil production.  However, Achuar communities continue to be threatened by the oil industry.  There are vast areas of the rainforest that require major clean-up after 35 years of negligent oil extraction.  Additionally, in neighboring areas, ConocoPhillips, Occidental Petroleum (Oxy), and Petrolifera currently own drilling rights to a vast, intact area of tropical rainforest also inhabited by the Achuar, who adamantly oppose any drilling on their territories. Unless both ConocoPhillips and Oxy commit to respecting the Achuar’s stated desires, there are likely to be more confrontations.

“This is a major victory and a glorious day for indigenous peoples’ rights, not only in Peru but around the world,” said Lily la Torre López, of the Lima-based NGO Racimos de Ugurahui who acts as attorney to the Achuar, speaking to Amazon Watch from a satellite phone from the Achuar territory. “This victory represents the work of a proud and determined people who decided to risk all to rescue the future of their children.”

Sandi continued: “. . . [W]e have been waiting for so long and the State has not listened to us, and this is the only defense we have against not having been listened to [by the State].  Today has made history because the [indigenous] people have hardened themselves and gotten for themselves what the Achuar communities have wanted [for so long].  Well, the Achuar people are content for having succeeded in getting all that they have.  They have achieved all that they have wanted to achieve and what they have hoped to achieve.  They have defeated the State. . . .

“[F]or the first time the Achuar communities of the Corrientes River have been recognized, their demands have been recognized, and [the fact that] indigenous people live there. . . . For the first time in history, we are acting on a national and international level.  We have advanced considerably.  It is a triumph for the first time in history that we have put a [large] company in its place. . . 

“The Achuar communities continue to state that they do not want any more petroleum companies [to begin exploration or exploitation in their area], because they see now the history of what has happened to them and they do not want to have that to happen again through the granting of new petroleum concessions, because what the Achuar has lived through for the last 35 or 36 years they do not want to see repeated.  They already have a history [of being harmed], which is why the only thing they hope for is that no more petroleum concessions will be given and the Achuar are saying to the government that regardless what it does, the Achuar has spoken, and so we have made the demand and the denunciation many times to the government, but we do so again: we do not want more petroleum concessions given.”

Echoing these sentiments, Petronila Chumpi, an informal Achuar woman leader, was visibly moved by what the recent struggle and success of her community:  “We, as indigenous women, played a very important role, the very first time we have done so – accompanying the men and walking together with them. . . . [W]e [the women] were the ones who confronted the police, we were the ones who took the police officers’ weapons from them while the men carried on heated discussions with the police.  So that was extraordinary for a woman, for a lady, to take on that kind of role . . .  Many times we have acted; also [at other times] we have kept silent due to our lack of understanding as to how to confront all of those problems of intoxication [illnesses/health issues resulting from the contaminated water].  We are here, we are going to [continue to] be there walking with our brothers, with our children. . . .

“This mobilization, this strength, is not only composed of women, but rather children also, and the parents, young people as well, and I say that to emphasize that for us it is very, very historic [the mobilization and successful result].  Our children will see that, [as will] our grandchildren, the children of their children, and so for us this is very important, a success demonstrating how we were able to put the brakes on the State itself and on the company [Pluspetrol] permitting them to hear our voice and in that way we can develop as an indigenous community.”

In the U.S. and other industrialized countries, the standard industry procedure for more than 50 years has been to re-inject all formation waters deep into the ground precisely to prevent the kind of environmental and public health crisis currently taking place among the Achuar communities.  Oil companies operating in the Amazon and other areas of developing nations have, however, often chosen to save money by dumping the formation waters.

In the Achuar lands, the dumping began in the 1970s when the concession was designed, constructed and run by Oxy, which eventually handed its facilities to Pluspetrol which in turn continues to operate in the same outdated manner.

Click here to download the signed agreeement (Spanish version.)