An Afternoon with Jefferson Vilchez

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It’s about 1:30 in the afternoon when I meet Jefferson Vilchez, at Jibaro, a hot, muddy oil company port on the Rio Corrientes in Peru. Jefferson has just come back from viewing a nearby oil spill. “It’s a lake of oil,” he says, in Spanish.

Jefferson’s a young, soft-spoken Achuar man. He’s the community environmental monitor from Pampa Hermosa, an indigenous Achuar community on the Rio Corrientes, two days’ ride in a fast boat from the nearest city. It’s my fifth trip to the Corrientes communities, starting nine years ago in 2006. For years I represented these communities in court, in ERI’s lawsuit against Ocidental Petroleum (Oxy)¬†for allegedly contaminating the Achuar people’s rainforest home.

This trip is different, though, because the litigation is over. We’ve just announced the settlement of the litigation¬†at a press conference in Lima, and have come to the communities to celebrate the inauguration of FODAC, the Upper Corrientes Development Fund. Through FODAC, which the Achuar lead and direct, the communities will control the direction of their own development.

But problems with oil contamination persist. Jibaro is now operated by Pluspetrol, the Argentine oil company that took over the oil concession from Oxy in 2001. And spills continue to happen.

When I meet Jefferson, I’m with a film crew who want to document the ongoing spills. Jefferson shows us pictures on his digital camera – a small lake, covered in oil, with blackened vegetation up its banks. The spill had happened on January 25, Jefferson says. It’s now March 9.

 

The spill isn’t far away, just a few miles down the oil company’s roads, but we have no vehicle. We’ve come up the river by boat.

So we ask Pluspetrol if we could go to Jibarito, the main oil camp past where the spill is. Initially, they refuse, saying they could take us the next day. We have a tight schedule, so we keep pressing. We ask if we could take one of the vehicles that belongs to the Achuar community, and they say yes, we’re free to go on the roads. We ask if we can walk there. Seeing that we won’t be dissuaded, they finally agree, but high-level Pluspetrol officials will drive us themselves. We insist that Jefferson comes along with us.

We haven’t yet told them that we want to see the oil spill, but Pluspetrol takes us to the Jibarito base, a sprawling complex of dormitories, a cafeteria, generators, diesel refineries, and holding tanks, crisscrossed by various oil flowlines.

The film crew takes some footage of the oil camp as I chat with Jefferson. “There’s another spill,” he says, “just over there. We can walk there. It’s a small spill, from February 5, but they’re still cleaning it up.”

Jefferson doesn’t need to ask permission; as an environmental monitor, he’s entitled to make site inspections. So he heads down a trail and I follow along, without waiting for our Pluspetrol minders. The oil company official initially tries to discourage the film crew, saying that the flowlines down there are very hot, but they just follow us along the path and no one stops them.

The spill site is only about 100 yards from the oil camp buildings, in a low spot where a stream crosses the flowlines. Jefferson guides us around the site, showing us where an old pipe broke and sent out crude oil. There’s still some crude floating in the stream, and it has soaked into the earth in places. Workers are there, using hand tools – machetes, rakes and shovels – to clean up. They have a pile of plastic bags, and it looks like they’re sort of mopping up the oil with vegetation, and bagging it to take away. I snap a few photos and take some short videos with Jefferson and the film crew gets its footage.

At this point we know that the Pluspetrol officials are under no illusions about our purpose, but we figure we have little to lose. The other spill site is too far to walk to, so we just ask them directly to take us there, saying that Jefferson let us know about it.

They are not happy. They argue with the film crew while Jefferson and I wait. But they probably assume that we’ll come back, and find a way to see it anyway, so they might as well take us themselves – but only for fifteen minutes.

In the truck, the Pluspetrol official is clearly unhappy. He worked for years with Oxy and speaks pretty good English, and talks to us in English so Jefferson can’t understand. “I was pumping oil here before this guy” – Jefferson – “was even born. He doesn’t know anything.” We’re friendly with him since he does happen to be driving us to an oil spill site, but I want to say – how much do you really need to know to recognize a lake of crude oil?

And then we arrive, and Jefferson leads me to the lake. We walk around to get a better vantage point. There is crude oil simply everywhere. The level of oil in the lake must have been higher before, because vegetation all around is coated several feet above the lake. Huge containers are sitting on the road next to the spill, presumably holding oil already removed from the site.

The lake drains into a stream, and water is still flowing through. Pluspetrol has installed pipes and barriers to try to drain the water from the bottom of the lake, under the layer of oil, but there’s no way that the water flowing out is clean in any sense. Where the soil is visible, it’s soaked through with crude.

Pluspetrol has installed pipes and barriers to try to drain the water, but there's no way the water is clean.

The whole site smells of oil, and it’s hard to see how it could ever be cleaned up. It’s already been over a month, and in other areas we know that crude oil can still be found at spill sites years later.

The Jibaro-Jibarito area is only a small portion of Pluspetrol’s oil operation in this concession, and there were two spills here inside of two weeks.

On the ride back, Jefferson stays mostly silent. The rain begins, turning the dirt roads into mud, and the pickup truck fishtails on every hill. The Pluspetrol offical handles it expertly, however; after all, he’s been pumping oil here since before Jefferson was born.

I start to wonder how the new rain will affect the spill site – more water flowing into, and out of, the lake of oil. I’ve never seen a fresh spill in the Amazon before this day. It seems impossible to limit the damage. Water is flowing everywhere, always, so that all kinds of contaminants ultimately end up in the streams and rivers where the Achuar fish, wash, and bathe.

The Pluspetrol official drops us off near our boat, taking care to get us as close as possible so that we don’t get soaked. And then we’re on the river again.

It’s dark by now; night falls fast in the Amazon. Jefferson’s missed his ride home, so we take him a short way down the river to the thatched-roof house where he’s staying. We thank him for his time and for the work that he does, and then he’s off in the dark and the rain.

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