On June 19, a barge belonging to the Argentine transnational Pluspetrol spilled 400 barrels of oil into the Maranon River in Peru’s northeastern Loreto department. The day after the spill, the Peruvian government’s Bioactive Substances Laboratory tested the river water—which the Cocama and Achuar peoples depend upon for both water and fish—and found very high levels of oil. “It was practically all petroleum,” said chemical engineer Víctor Sotero, of the government’s Peruvian Amazon Research Institute.1
Even though the extensive contamination had been reported to the central government, Minister of Energy and Mines Pedro Sánchez seemed to suggest that the many lives and the complex environmental systems it had destroyed were not important, when he declared on national television that the Marañon spill involved a “very small amount of oil.” When “compared with what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico,” he concluded, “it should not be a cause for alarm.”2
The Marañon spill was certainly much smaller in absolute terms than the estimated 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of crude oil that British Petroleum dumped each day into the Gulf of Mexico for almost three months.3 But scale is not an issue in environmental disasters that destroy complex ecological and riverine systems, and deprive the humans who depend on those environments for food, water, and a future for their communities. Sánchez’s comparison does, however, speak clearly of the Peruvian government’s attitude that environmental disasters are acceptable collateral damage for the millions of dollars that mining generates for Peru’s elite.
Indeed, the Marañon spill was just the latest example in a long series of environmental disasters that have accompanied Peru’s boom in mining, logging, and oil. Less than one week after the Marañon spill, the Caudalosa Chica company’s zinc and lead mine in the southern region of Huancavelica dumped more than 550 tons of tailings containing cyanide, arsenic, and lead into rivers that provide the sole source of drinking and irrigation water for more than 40,000 Peruvians.4 Again, the government of President Alan García responded with a series of denials, dismissals, and disclaimers.
One of the biggest challenges facing indigenous peoples in Peru, and throughout the Americas, is the unregulated expansion of these industries and the resulting contamination of land and water. The García government has granted oil, lumber, and mining companies territorial concessions and leases to almost 75% of the Peruvian Amazon. Of these, the vast majority (58 out of 64 leases) are located in indigenous territories. García’s government has also refused to implement rights of prior consultation—or any of the many other rights accorded to indigenous peoples in International Labor Organization Convention 169, which Peru ratified in 1993 and signed into law in 1994.
Because natural-resource extraction directly affects both nature itself and those forms of community and social life that seek harmony with the earth, it has served as a catalyst for the emergence of radical indigenous politics grounded in the defense of nature and life. Indigenous Peruvians have taken the lead in denouncing the mining, logging, and oil companies, as well as Peruvian government policies that promote extractive economies while trampling the rights of local communities and populations. In response, indigenous communities have mobilized to resist laws and policies that support the further incursion of mining companies. These include laws that grant the state ownership of subsoil resources in indigenous and peasant communities, laws that give the state the right to grant concessions without compensation, and policies that call for the titling and privatization (“regularization”) of collectively held lands in peasant and indigenous communities.
Indigenous organizations—including the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), the Andean Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), and the National Federation of Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI)—have called for criminal charges to be brought against companies like Caudalosa Chica and Pluspetrol. Faced with continuing protests from indigenous and regional leaders over the Caudalosa Chica disaster, the government finally imposed a symbolic fine on the mining company. The fine comes nowhere close to compensating for the extensive environmental and economic damages—and it will no doubt join the long list of environmental penalties that the García government has levied yet failed to collect. In the three years leading up to these two most recent environmental disasters, Peru has managed to collect only $4.4 million of the $20 million in environmental fines it had imposed on the largest mining companies, which made more than $20 billion in profits from Peruvian mines between 2005 and 2009.5 As a result, mining and petroleum companies continue to operate in a de facto state of impunity in Peru.
This and other serious challenges remain for Peruvian indigenous movements, despite their significant advances over the years. The neoliberal agenda allows no room for negotiating territorial or political rights, and the entrenched racism of Latin America’s dominant criollo or mestizo societies makes it difficult for indigenous perspectives and voices to be heard. The García government has systematically criminalized indigenous organizations, and demonized indigenous peoples in speeches and TV spots that portray Indians who defend the environment and their territorial rights as “manger dogs,” “subversives,” and “savages.”
Indigenous organizations have made common cause with political actors who do not necessarily identify as indigenous but share their concerns. On July 7 and 8, for example, indigenous leaders joined opposition political representatives from Huancavelica to lead a regional strike and a “sacrifice march” to Lima to protest the García government’s refusal to act in the Caudalosa Chica case. Only after a general regional strike, marches, and protests of indigenous and popular organizations, and an increasing critical media, did the government reluctantly agree to temporarily close the mine.6
1. Quoted in Milagros Salazar, “Don’t Minimize Impacts of Amazon Oil Spill,”
Inter Press Service, July 1, 2010.
2. Iván Herrera Gálvez, “Perú: el mito de la petrolera ‘limpia y responsible’ se hunde en la oleosa realidad,” Servicios en Comunicación Intercultural Servindi (servindi.org; Lima, Peru), June 30, 2010.
3. CNN.com, “Oil Estimate Raised to 35,000–60,000 Barrels a Day,” July 16, 2010.
4. Servicios en Comunicación Intercultural Servindi, “Peru: Denuncian atentado criminal a la ecologia de los rios Totora y Opamayo,” June 28, 2010.
5. Milagros Salazar, “La impotente regulación,” IDL-Reporteros.pe, June 3, 2010.
6. La República (Lima), “Ordenan paralizar operaciones de mina Caudalosa Chica,” July 13, 2010.
Deborah Poole is Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. Her recent publications include A Blackwell Companion to Latin American Anthropology (Blackwell, 2008). Gerardo Rénique is Associate Professor of history at City College, City University of New York.