On July 1 the Peruvian government notified Father Paul Mc Auley, an environmental activist in the Loreto Department of the northern Peruvian Amazon, that the Ministry of the Interior was rescinding his residency, which he has held since 2006, in a country he has called home for the past 20 years. The order to expel the British priest comes on the heels of his efforts to ensure accountability for the massive June 19 oil spill of PlusPetrol, an Argentine oil company with a safety record equal to that of British Petroleum. This company is a political powerhouse with allies at the regional and national governmental levels. PlusPetrol has been the target of many of Mc Auley’s activist efforts since he began his work in the region 10 years ago.
This is not the first time that Mc Auley has faced expulsion. His work has resulted in repeated threats to his person, as well as prior efforts from the García administration to kick him out of the country. Such efforts indicate the existence of an unofficial governmental policy to stifle voices that highlight the social and environmental costs of the country’s resource development agenda by criminalizing and/or expelling the agenda’s principal critics. The resolution against Mc Auley was based on a 2009 police report that cited his participation in “different activities of a political character, like protest marches . . . and other acts that constitute an alteration of the public order.”
In 2005 Mc Auley founded the Red Ambiental Loretana (RAL), an all-volunteer, non-governmental organization that was established in response to the growing environmental damage caused by the many extractive and timber companies operating in Loreto. One of RAL’s first works was to organize against former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo’s decision to auction off sections of the Amazon forest to foreign timber companies for a meager 30 cents per hectare without the necessary environmental impact studies or an understanding of the forest inventory. The organization was also outraged at the ability of oil and gas companies operating in the region to pollute the environment with seeming impunity. One of the worst offenders was PlusPetrol, whose daily discharges into the Corrientes, Tigre, and Pastanza rivers consisted — and still consist — of approximately 1,200,000 barrels of water contaminated with residue from chemicals used during its oil drilling processes. The company’s oil production activities have also resulted in 78 spills between 2006 and 2009, 57 of which were considered major.
The impact of the contamination on the surrounding 34 indigenous communities that rely on the rivers for drinking water, cooking, and fishing has been devastating. According to a 2006 report of the Ministry of Health, 98% of the communities’ minors register levels of cadmium beyond the permitted limits while 21% of adults and 66% of minors have levels of lead beyond the allowed limits. While the local communities have assumed all the risks, they have received limited economic benefits from the resource development in their region with most of the residents continuing to live in conditions of poverty. Moreover, past community efforts to protest PlusPetrol’s activities have often met with swift repression.
On June 19, a PlusPetrol oil rig leaked 400 barrels of crude that contaminated 100 kilometers of the Marañón River. Neither the government nor the company informed the communities that relied on the Marañón for water about the ecological disaster. Their residents only realized the danger after more than 60 individuals ended up at the local health center with illnesses related to contact with the oil.
During the days before receiving his order to leave the country, Mc Auley was responding to the oil spill at the request of a private investment oversight body of the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM), to inspect the operations of PlusPetrol. Apparently, his calls for a thorough investigation were not well received by the García administration whose initial response to the disaster was an attempt to minimize its importance. Echoing BP’s CEO, MEM Minister Pedro Sánchez Gamarra argued that the 400 barrels of oil “was a very small amount compared to what occurred in the Gulf of Mexico.” He added, “a very small thing should not be the cause for alarm.”
However, the success of the Peruvian government’s most recent attempt to silence vocal critics is far from clear. After Mc Auley was notified of his expulsion the response from indigenous communities, members of civil society, and religious organizations was swift and aggressive. His supporters have publicly decried the government’s actions, and have mobilized on-the-ground protests.
The substance of the resolution has also come under legal scrutiny. Although it was issued on June 11, the government waited several weeks before notifying Mc Auley that he had seven days to leave the country for his alleged violation of Peru’s immigration law. National human rights groups argue that the late notice of expulsion violates constitutional norms protecting due process and that governmental efforts to criminalize lawful protest breach fundamental rights like the right to assembly and the right to freedom of expression. These organizations also state that the resolution failed to articulate exactly what activity violated the “public order,” especially in light of the fact that Mc Auley has had no criminal proceeding initiated against him.
At least one local court has agreed with the human rights groups. On July 7, a Loreto provincial judge ordered a stay of his expulsion order on constitutional grounds and Peru’s Ombudsman has stated that her office will monitor his case. As a result, it appears that at least for the time being, Mc Auley will be allowed to remain in Peru to fight his expulsion.
The García administration has defended its actions with generalized arguments that provided little clarity into why they had ordered the priest deported. The Prime Minister of Peru, Javier Velásquez, questioned whether or not “the United States or Italy would permit a Peruvian to protest against a democratic government legitimately elected.” Likewise, Defense Minister Víctor García Toma stated that no political persecution existed against the religious actor who had decided to “directly or indirectly involve himself in acts of agitation and social disorder.” He also argued that “the right of freedom of conscience, opinion, or expression” was not a concern in this case.
This latest public attack on Father Mc Auley is only the most visible of a growing number of political persecutions leveled at individuals or groups who oppose the García administration’s development polices. The efforts to remove him are also symbolic of increasing attacks on religious figures, in particular those who have committed themselves to support indigenous communities in defense of their lands and resources. Monsignor Alberto Campos, the Bishop of San José of Amazonas captured the broader meaning of the expulsion order when he told the press, “It concerns me that they consider crime . . . the work that some missionaries are developing at the request of communities and institutions to teach them about their national and international rights,” whereas they “don’t consider crimes the contamination of rivers, the deforestation of woodlands, . . . [or] concessions given for the unjust enrichment of some persons or companies to the detriment of the inhabitants of the Amazon . . .”
Kristina Aiello is a NACLA Research Associate.
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