Peru: Indigenous protesters occupy Amazonian airport over oil dispute

Hundreds of protesters from indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon have occupied a local airport, calling for greater responsibility and more comprehensive compensation from the foreign oil company operating there.

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Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon blockaded a local airport this week, in protest at the environmental harm they claim has been done to their region by foreign company-controlled oil wells. The incident played out in the district of Nuevo Andoas, in the northern state of Loreto.

The protest was aimed both at the national government and at the activities of Argentinean oil company PlusPetrol, which controls Peru’s largest oil block, Lote 1-AB, the source of around a quarter of the country’s relatively modest petroleum output. The protesters, who numbered 150 according to PlusPetrol sources but as many as 3,000 according to indigenous leaders, have long complained about the company’s operations inside indigenous territory in the Amazonian region.

Speaking after the occupation began late on Monday October 27th, local indigenous leader Tedy Guerra claimed: “Right now there are about 500 of us at the airport… Flights have stopped”. He said that PlusPetrol has been using indigenous lands illegally, without proper consultation with communities or offering them fair compensation, according to a report by Reuters.

Another local leader, Aurelio Chino Dahua, claimed that local water resources have been contaminated by the oil activities, which have been going on in the locality for more than 45 years, with PlusPetrol in control since the late 1990s. The protesters and other local inhabitants also allege that the Argentinean company has often been slow and ineffective in clearing up oil spills, and that it has also attempted to divide communities through media campaigns designed to prevent locals from understanding their full rights with respect to oil operations in their community.

At one point, the protesters were threatening to blockade the oil wells themselves if PlusPetrol continued to fail to respond to their demands. Leaders insisted that it would remain a peaceful protest, although some of the occupiers were armed with traditional bows and arrows, and members of a national police taskforce were sent to the airport to try and resolve the situation.

Lote 1-AB, the oil block operated by PlusPetrol in Peru’s northern Loreto region. Daily production is around 15,000 barrels. Photo courtesy of La República.

The protest garnered significant support among the district’s inhabitants, and even received the backing of the Public Ombudsman’s representative in Loreto state, Diego Reátegui, who stated that the demands of the indigenous groups were legitimate.

PlusPetrol, meanwhile, insisted that it had complied with legal requirements during its operations in the area, claiming that it had even signed agreements with local communities in September. Throughout the duration of the blockade, they claimed that they were doing everything they could to resume talks with the residents of Nuevo Andoas.

Finally, the protesters withdrew from the airport on the afternoon of Thursday October 30th, satisfied with the promise of more constructive talks with PlusPetrol and the presence of an independent third-party mediator. Officials have stated that no structural damage was done to the airport during the three-day blockade, although disruption to local areas had been caused due to the cancellation of flights throughout the occupation of the airport.

The incident follows a similar episode in April, when another group of local and indigenous communities took control of the Lote 1-AB oil block for an entire week, leading to a 70% drop in oil production from the area. The repeat of such a course of action by locals betrays the long-term lack of progress being made on the ground when it comes to the responsibilities of oil companies operating in the area.

Loreto is one of several regions in Peru to have been officially declared in a state of ‘environmental emergency’ for several years, following the spread of oil industry-related pollution and hazards. However, locals complain that this has not helped to actually alleviate the problem, and talks between them and national authorities have borne little fruit since they began in 2011.

Disputes over oil and other extractive industries are becoming more and more common across rural parts of Peru, as the government continues to pursue an economic model based on the exploitation and export of natural resources such as hydrocarbons and minerals. According to local organisation Indigenous Amazonian Peoples United In Defence Of Their Territories (PUINAMUDT, by its Spanish initials), the occupation of the airport in Nuevo Andoas is simply the latest episode of historic anger felt by indigenous communities affected by oil exploitation over more than 40 years (link in Spanish).

In spite of warnings that an increase in social instability caused by socio-environmental clashes could have a significant impact on the economy, the government of President Ollanta Humala has shown little appetite for scaling back this economic model, pressing ahead with plans to attract foreign investment in extractive industries, at the cost of the country’s environment – which contains some of the most extraordinary levels of biodiversity in the world.

The blockade of Nuevo Andoas airport attracted widespread support among local, largely indigenous, communities. It can be argued that the incident is just the latest outward expression of long-standing anger felt by indigenous Amazonian communities towards oil companies operating in their territories. Photo courtesy of PUINAMUDT.