Compared to some of the world’s most infamous oil spills, like the Exxon Valdez in the United States or the Prestige off the coast of Spain, the one upstream from the Kukama Indigenous village of Cuninico was small — some 2,300 barrels of oil leaked into the canal that’s meant to keep spills contained. But in this part of the world, where most villagers rely on surface water for drinking, cooking and bathing and have no way of removing industrial contaminants, even a small spill is disastrous.
In Cuninico, the oil spill triggered a series of impacts, some of which were evident immediately — like the oil-soaked fish, birds and vegetation — and others that crept in over the subsequent weeks and months.
Although they lived near what had been some of the area’s richest fishing grounds, overnight the villagers lost both their main source of protein and their livelihood, as traders shunned their fish. People were afraid to draw water from the river, which had been their primary source, and mothers worried about their families’ health. Eight years later, those fears persist.
In the government, the events marked a change in the way the state-owned oil company Petroperú, which operates the pipeline, handled spills. Immediately after the oil slick was discovered, the company hired men from the community to find the rupture in the pipeline, which by then was under more than three feet of water and thick oil. The men immersed themselves in the oily water as they sought the break, wearing ordinary clothes as they were given no protective gear.
A report broadcast by Channel 5, a Lima-based television channel with a nationwide reach, which also revealed that several minors were among the laborers, forced the replacement of Petroperú’s entire board of directors. The company also began working with contractors who were required to provide protective equipment to workers.
The cleanup created jobs that paid the equivalent of around $25 a day, more than seven times the usual local rate for day labor. The pay, which was a magnet for outsiders seeking work, also set off a round of inflation. Flor de María Parana, Cuninico’s “Indigenous mother,” or women’s representative, said the price of eggs rose from five for one Peruvian sol, equivalent to about 30 cents, to two for a sol, and then a sol a piece. Even after the cleanup work ended and the jobs went away, prices never quite returned to their pre-spill levels.
Leaders of Cuninico and three other communities that had fished in the same area filed lawsuits demanding health care and indemnification for lost livelihoods and environmental damage. They argued their case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where Parana brandished a bottle filled with oily water at representatives of the Peruvian government and state-owned Petroperú. So far, however, promises of aid have gone largely unfulfilled.
Despite the cleanup, oil remains in the sediment under the pipeline. The same is true in other communities in the Marañón River watershed that have suffered spills from the Northern Peruvian Pipeline, which runs through Cuninico and dozens of other communities along its route to the coast, or from pipelines in Lots 192 and 8, the oldest and largest oil fields in Peru’s Loreto region.
Oil remains in sediment
Heavy seasonal rains cause rivers to overflow their banks for months at a time, depositing crucial nutrient-bearing sediments in the forests, but also washing contaminants through Loreto’s vast, biodiverse and hydrologically complex wetlands, where villagers depend on the rivers and forests for sustenance.
The rainy season in Loreto runs roughly from November through May, and by early April this year water had risen past the first floor of the several dozen wood frame houses in Nueva Unión, an Urarina village on the Chambira River, a tributary of the Marañón. As the river rose, families had gathered their possessions and moved to the second floors of their tin-roofed homes.
At the back of each house, the kitchen platform, with a square, sand-filled pit for the traditional three-log fire, remained above the water level, as ducks paddled beneath the floorboards and chickens roosted in coops built on stilts.
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