Amazonian Oil Spills: Corporate Neglect and Social Responsibility

0330a-cuninico-3_900A break in Peru’s main oil pipeline has been spilling oil into a river in the Peruvian Amazon since late January. A second break occurred in the same pipeline following on February 3. The operator of the pipeline, Petroperu, says a landslide caused the first breech, but the cause of the second breech remains unknown. Since the first breech, oil has been leaking into a creek that feeds into a tributary of the Amazon River. Estimates suggest at least 2000 barrels of oil have leaked from the pipeline, affecting an area that is home to 8000 people, many of whom depend on fishing and agriculture to make a living. Indigenous groups are claiming that their waterways have been polluted and their crops affected, despite the company’s denial. They also say that the breeches have not been caused solely by nature; the pipeline is nearly 60 years old and the company should have foreseen issues like this. If tests prove that the spill has affected the lives of locals, Petroperu may face up to $17 million in fines.

The oil spill and resulting contamination resulted in the government declaring a public health emergency on February 17. However, the process was slow moving, and locals, including children, stepped in to clean the rivers before more professionals could arrive. Reports claim that locals were offered the equivalent of $8 per bucket of crude oil collected, without being warned of the dangers involved or given any protective gear, while children were offered even less money. The company denies hiring children, but has started investigating four officials who may have paid children to assist with the cleanup. Full cleanup of the region, including the flora and fauna, could take up to a year.

This is by no means the first time the extraction of oil has caused problems for indigenous communities in the Amazon. A particularly remarkable case of this is the Texaco (now Chevron) catastrophe in Ecuador in the 1960’s. While drilling for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the company deliberately disposed of 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in rivers and streams, leaked crude oil, and abandoned open-air pits full of hazardous waste throughout the region. Not only did this destroy a large portion of the Amazonian ecosystem, but it led to severe health consequences for the local indigenous communities, including cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages. In 1993, the victims of Chevron’s complete disregard for public health and the environment filed a class action lawsuit against the company. The unprecedented case continues to this day. A ruling in favor of those affected by the disaster would set a precedent that large companies can and will be held accountable for human rights and environmental abuses.

Although Petroperu is a state-owned company, both cases bring up the important question of who should be responsible for preventing disasters resulting from oil extraction. Although the current situation in Peru has temporarily prevented Petroperu from transporting 6000 barrels of oil a day, they will soon be able to continue operations as normal. On the other hand, full cleanup will take a year, during which time the indigenous communities in the area will have limited safe fishing areas, while having to deal with damage to their crops and negative health effects. Although Petroperu may have to pay a large fine if effects on the local communities are proven, Chevron presents a frightening image of large companies avoiding these sorts of responsibilities. Corruption throughout the region oftentimes prevents oil companies from being help properly accountable. The recurring issues with oil companies and the use of indigenous lands led to a bloody conflict in 2009 between indigenous communities and Peruvian police, demonstrating the ongoing nature of the issue.

The fact that Petroperu makes roughly $33 million a year while children in the area were willing to pick up crude oil for 2 sols per bucket (0.56 USD) should shed some light on who is more capable of preventing and repairing these disasters. The responsibility to clean up mistakes made by the oil industry should not be forced upon the indigenous local groups simply because they are the ones most hurt by these accidents. The Amazon is not only the source of food, water, and income for its residents, but it also provides roughly 20% of the world’s oxygen supply, leaving all of us with a motivation to protect this valuable ecosystem. Oil profits should never overshadow the importance of protecting the environment and less privileged groups. It is in the best interest of everyone to pressure oil companies to adopt safe practices and ensure that they properly prevent and repair accidents like the current disaster in Peru.

Maggie O'Connor

Author: Maggie O'Connor

Maggie O'Connor is currently in her third year at The George Washington University, She is studying International Affairs, with a concentration in International Development and a minor in Economics.