Indigenous Peruvians accuse company of creating tension for access to jungle
It’s the beginning of May and Gregor MacLennan is leading another of what is becoming Amazon Watch’s annual delegation to Calgary-based Talisman Energy’s annual general meeting. The lanky Englishman shuffles through media and supporters in a small crowded room for a media conference. He stands at the mic ready to interpret for the four Peruvian natives who flank him.
“My name is Peas Peas Ayui the Achuar leader of 44 communities” he says on behalf of the elected leader of the Federation of Achuar Nations of Peru (FENAP) one of the oldest federations representing the indigenous Achuar people of northwest Peru.
“This is the fourth time a commission of Achuar leaders are coming here to Calgary to speak about the same thing. The Achuar people affiliated with FENAP are reclaiming their territorial rights. There is no space for Talisman Energy to enter. Our population is growing and our aim is to ensure that future generations inherit a healthy territory. Our promise as leaders is to defend the rights of future generations because if Talisman Energy entered it could destroy everything that we depend on to survive. This fight is for our children and our grandchildren. We’ve seen what happened in other areas where oil companies were; not just the environmental impact but the way it destroys people’s lives and leaves them without autonomies living under the mandate of the companies that operate in their land. This is not our vision for the Achuar people. Our vision is that we live freely and in peace in our territory.”
The argument is over whether Talisman Energy has consent from the Achuar to drill in Oil Concession Block 64 a huge chunk of land that along with the company’s other Peruvian concession covers 4 million acres of remote rainforest and the majority of the Achuar’s ancestral territory.
Peru’s oil concessions were created without input from its many indigenous groups in great part due to the efforts of former president Alan Garcia to open the country to resource exploitation. Today 74 per cent of Peru is divided into oil and gas licence areas. Garcia was never sympathetic to the resistance of indigenous groups. In 2007 he published an article in Lima’s daily newspaper dismissing those who opposed his policies as dogs in the manger.
Not long after that Amazon Watch a non-profit organization based in San Fransisco became involved in the Achuar’s disputes with Talisman. Amazon Watch works in Brazil Colombia Ecuador and Peru to help Amazonian natives “build local capacity and advance the long-term protection of their lands.” MacLennan is Amazon Watch’s Peru co-ordinator.
The Achuar in Block 64 have reason to worry about the consequences of resource extraction in their territory. For starters their territory borders the country’s oldest oil block which is also the traditional land of a related Achuar tribe.
MacLennan says that over the course of four decades in that neighbouring oil concession Occidental Petroleum and Argentina’s Pluspetrol “dumped production water straight into the river; millions of barrels every day. There were numerous oil spills and a lot of the spills and the toxic waste from the drilling fluids and the oil that would leak out of the wells continues to be in toxic waste pits throughout the territory. And there continues to be oil spills every month or couple of months just due to the aging and rusting infrastructure and the challenges of operating an oil plant in the Amazon rainforest. It’s a humid challenging environment where every piece of equipment you bring there breaks.”
Studies conducted there in 2005 by the Peruvian Ministry of Health and in 2006 by Amazon Watch confirmed contamination is taking a toll. Both studies discovered elevated concentrations of lead in the blood of a majority of Achuar people sampled within the block.
Talisman’s Peru operations manager Alan Murray says the company is prepared for the dangers associated with petroleum contamination.
“We really go to extreme lengths to make sure we minimize any harm and then we do a bloody good job of cleaning up after ourselves” says Murray. He says unlike the bare-minimum methods employed by oil companies of the past Talisman exceeds Peru’s environmental protection standards.
“A thick polythene geomembrane covers the [well] site over five acres. And that prevents any oils or contamination leaking into the soil” he explains. “All of the waters produced are collected and injected 2000 feet back into the reservoirs well below any leak…. At strategic points along the river we have emergency response equipment… anti-spill skimmers… spill kits and emergency response equipment… helicopters at the base camps which are situated at the side of the river which can also tend to any issues should they occur.”
The Achuar are not convinced that Talisman can guarantee no spills will destroy their forest. If one does occur it will be exceptionally difficult to restore the area to its pristine state.
MacLennan says the Achuar’s territory covers what is essentially densely forested swampland. A flood plain packed with trees and countless watercourses over a shallow water table is relatively impossible to clean he says.
Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa an engineer and an associate dean of the faculty of science at the University of Alberta who specializes in monitoring tropical forests agrees a spill in this type of environment could be a disaster.
“I don’t think that the people in those communities especially the ones that are very remote will have the capacity to actually respond to an oil spill fast enough to prevent negative environmental damage especially if it reaches a stream” says Sanchez-Azofeifa. “The remoteness of the region fixing this stuff can take months. Even just for the people to know there’s an oil spill.”
In addition to the havoc a spill could wreak especially if pollutants reach a river Sanchez-Azofeifa says the environmental impact of traffic on Talisman’s access routes could be just as serious.
“You have to build the roads you have deforestation and after this one of the main elements is who follows the roads?” he says. All of this makes drilling for oil in a jungle exceptionally risky.
As part of their visit to Canada to confront Talisman board members and investors over issues in Block 64 the Achuar delegation and Amazon Watch ventured to First Nations communities in northern Alberta affected by petroleum extraction.
Months before in an interview with Fast Forward Weekly MacLennan expressed hope that meetings with First Nations Albertans may give the Achuar new strategies to negotiate with Talisman.
At the end of April delegation member Ampush Ayui Chayat and his associates toured the oilsands in Fort McMurray and met Cree leaders there and in Fort McKay. The message they came away with was less than hopeful.
“Here the life of indigenous people is very sad because the lands are invaded by oil companies and they don’t have a territory where they can hunt they don’t have a farm where they can grow things they don’t even have a river where they can bathe because all the rivers are contaminated” says Chayat following the press conference. The group expressed surprise over the severity of change oilsands development has had on the land and to hear of the inevitable social ills it brought to aboriginal communities.
“The only hope that’s left for them is the oil company” says Chayat. “I’m going to be sharing these experiences with my people so that they can have a strong firm position against oil development in our land.”
Opposition to the presence of oil companies in Achuar territory has become the main source of trouble for several years in the region.
Under its own business policies Talisman Energy must obtain “free prior and informed” consent from at least two-thirds of the communities within a concession area it wishes to drill. The company has long maintained it has the consent of the Achuar who are directly affected by its activities. Furthermore it steadfastly claims it will never operate in the territory of those Achuar communities that have not given consent.
However the Achuar represented by FENAP accuse Talisman of approaching a people already divided by support for or opposition to the oil industry further pitting groups against one another and of gaining the consent of only a select few who in reality do not represent the whole. This disagreement is at the heart of current tensions and the reason for the FENAP Achuar’s numerous meetings with Talisman CEO John Manzoni in Calgary.
Murray the oil company’s man in Lima says obtaining legal consent to drill is a “sophisticated” process which Talisman takes care to do properly in Peru.
“FENAP represents a group of confederations to the east of our operations. And the land that we operate on is traditionally used and owned by federations that we do have agreements with” says Murray.
“FENAP is claiming that the people who have given us authority to work on their land do not have the authority. Basically it’s like a collection of a couple of houses who are opposed to the work. That community that is opposed actually formed recently in response to an agreement that was signed after a previous issue at one of our well sites in 2009. So we have the very high level of support and the broad support of over six-and-a-half thousand people in the area in which we work and there are one or two people who have strategically placed themselves in the middle of our operations.”
The facts of the event in 2009 are unclear. Talisman and Amazon Watch say Achuar opponents gathered at a Talisman well site for a peaceful protest against the company’s presence. There they were confronted by Achuar who supported Talisman. Amazon Watch alleges that not only were these supporters armed with rifles but that they were transported to the protest site on Talisman helicopters.
Though the confrontation ended without violence representatives of FENAP have filed a charge of “attempted genocide” against Talisman Energy for its role. The case is currently before the courts in Lima though it is not listed in Talisman’s annual report despite a section devoted to court actions the company is currently involved in.
“We’re confident that this case will just be thrown out because there are no grounds. This ‘attempted genocide’ is just nonsense” says Murray.
Attacks on indigenous people is another subject the Achuar have reason to be wary of. One of the largest protest movements in Amazon native history occurred in 2009.
Indigenous groups in Peru began their protest against a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Peru and subsequent proposed legislation that would dole out native lands for resource extraction. The protestors convinced the Peruvian government to acknowledge the legislation was unconstitutional but not before over 600 police officers attacked a protest site outside the northern city of Bagua killing at least 25.
Despite Talisman’s assertions of above average social responsibility the Ottawa-based North-South Institute released a study in 2011 backing up FENAP’s claim that it is the legitimate representative of Bock 64’s Achuar.
“The impression we gathered from the fieldwork is that the processes Talisman followed especially in blocks 64 and 101 are based on a consultation scheme that continues to be weak and sporadic and that can be summarized as follows: specific one-shot events and static visions [that] confuse while at the same time spur agreement-making” says the report.
While outright violence has not occurred Amazon Watch and FENAP say they fear it’s only a matter of time. The parties are at an impasse.
“We’re convinced that we will not allow oil exploration on our land and we’re going to continue coming here and fighting to the end until Talisman leaves” FENAP president Ayui told media in Calgary.
Meanwhile in Peru Talisman is playing the waiting game with FENAP.
“All we’re asking is that FENAP respect the rights of these people who do choose to work with Talisman. And that’s where the discussion point is is between the two groups who agree and the groups who disagree and can we come to some mutual agreement where everyone’s happy?” asks Murray.