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Blog: When priorities collide: Negotiating water sustainability alongside oil extraction in Peru

Blog post from The Baines Report: Policy in Perspective blog, from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

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Blog post from The Baines Report: Policy in Perspective blog, from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

This piece is part one of a two-part series on conflict between oil company and indigenous community water interests in the Peruvian province of Loreto.

As policy students, we at the Lyndon B. Johnson School are a proactive group of young professionals hoping to generate effective solutions to big problems: inequality, health care, diplomatic relations and economic development, to name a few. All of us have entertained conversations about the differences between top-down and bottom-up policy making and the merits of program evaluation strategies. But the bottom line in policy making is the efficient implementation of effective policy.

This piece is a deeply personal story of three Peruvian indigenous communities who suffer the effects of insufficient, poorly implemented environmental policy and political marginalization on a daily basis. It tells the tale of a foreign company whose exploitation of oil resources allows Americans to continue to consume large quantities of oil each day. It describes the disconnect between policymakers’ understandings of natural resources and environmental health and the reality of daily life for many indigenous peoples. And most importantly for student readers, it is a testimony to the absolute necessity of culturally appropriate, efficiently implemented policies with functioning accountability mechanisms that enforce their provisions.

In a previous professional life, I spent a lot of time thinking about water. At the time, I was living in Guayaquil, Ecuador, delving into the applications of the human right to water in an urban setting, exercising daily in swimming pools only the wealthy could enter, wading home at night through rainy-season streets flooded to my knees, and routinely suffering the health consequences of unsanitary drinking water in the barrio where I lived. My circumstances branded me with a healthy respect for the primacy of water in the daily life of any community.

Nonetheless, the urban-ness of my experience prevented the full incorporation of water into my personal concept of land and property. Regardless of my physical address and employment, drinking water has always found its way to me through urban pipelines. Physical water resources were never an attribute of my home or my livelihood. In this sense, I have found myself disconcertingly comparable to your average businessman or policymaker: Water is not a resource provided by my land, but rather it is a service that I have always been able to purchase on a market.

Over the summer, my perception of water as a public service and my understanding of displacement as an eviction phenomenon changed. Interning with International Accountability Project (IAP), I ventured into the Peruvian province of Loreto, an Amazonian province characterized by its expansive river system. My guide and I flew from Lima to the Amazonian city of Pucallpa, and then upriver in a five-seater plane to the tiny town of Contamana. The flight shoots straight over the winding Ucayali river system, and looking down made me wonder how many times the region’s map has changed with the gradual migrations of the river and its estuaries through this territory. The land is green, with tall trees embedded in a red clay soil that reminds this Texan of the banks of the Red River. Water, it seems, is one of the most abundant resources available in the region. Unfortunately for locals, the oil and timber industries also thrive here.

My assignment was to investigate the land acquisition and resettlement practices of Maple Gas Corporation del Peru. As recipients of a $10 million U.S. loan from the International Finance Corporation for the renewal of oil exploration activities in this region of the Peruvian Amazon, they are subject to the IFC’s Social and Environmental Performance Standards. My research in the region was designed to determine two things with regards to Maple’s operations. First, I hoped to understand whether Maple Gas fully implements the performance standards. And secondly, I needed to analyze whether the standards are effectively mitigating environmental impacts from oil exploitation or adequately compensating communities for any damages.

Oil exploration began here in 1954, when Shell began operations at the behest of the Peruvian government. In 1956 PetroPeru, a nationalized Peruvian oil company, took over the oil fields. PetroPeru was notorious during its operational period for extremely high contamination levels. Community elders report skimming oil off the top of the river in order to fish, bathe or even drink. Yet in spite of the pollution, the Shipibo people’s culture is so profoundly tied to the river ecosystem that they find it more difficult to settle elsewhere than to continue life in this region. Their ancestors lived along the banks of the river for dozens of generations before the incursion of the oil companies, and migration off of the traditional Shipibo lands has been exceedingly slow even where water contamination with oil is linked to disease and food scarcity. The contradictions between the Shipibo’s need for the river ecosystem and the oil industry’s constant contamination of the river play out every day along the Ucayali in dramatic changes to the people’s health, environment and livelihoods.

The current operational oil company, Maple Gas, has conducted operations in this region since 1996. In relative terms, the company is a newcomer to the region. However, this new exploratory project is just one more incursion into a region whose indigenous communities describe their relationship with the companies as a convivencia, or “cohabitation.” But this cohabitation is no equal partnership. The oil companies do little to reimburse the indigenous communities for the pollution of the river that sustains them, and the compensation is worthless when the resource contaminated cannot be bought and sold on a market.

In this way, the situation faced by the Shipibo communities I met this summer is indicative of a much larger problem: The social and environmental policies corporations use to “mitigate” damages caused by extractive industry projects that frequently break their promises to increase local standards of living. The policy problems here broach issues of cultural appropriateness, implementation and accountability mechanisms — critiques of policy that are most eloquently understood from the ground up.

Read part two of the series.