Peru Stands up to Big Oil. Will U.S. and Ecuador?

The Inca city of Machu Picchu
Last year my husband and I honeymooned in Machu Picchu, Peru. In Quechua — the language spoken by the Inca who built the city — Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain.”

Many human hands have touched this architectural and spiritual marvel, and the wildlife impacts are apparent. The once-wild Alpaca are now domesticated. The Andean condors revered by the Inca and signified in the ruins are rarely spotted crossing the valley dividing Machu Picchu from its neighboring peak Huayna Picchu.

Yet the natural beauty endures.

The city sits almost at the summit of the mountain and is surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River. The Quechua word for water is “Yaku.” Civilization has often flourished near rivers because they serve as a source of necessary freshwater, abundant fish, and aqueous superhighways for commerce and transportation. For the Inca and indigenous people who still inhabit the region, Yaku is life.

On the 24th anniversary of the Exxon-Valdez oil disaster, it’s disheartening that 11,500 square miles of the Amazon rainforest beneath these peaks will be auctioned off for oil production. Indigenous groups in the region rely on one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world to provide food, water, shelter, and medicines. The Achua and Quechua people reside in the river basins straddling Ecuador and Peru beneath the Andes Mountains that form the headwaters of the Amazon River.

These people shoulder the most acute cost of inherently dangerous oil exploration in this pristine setting — and they don’t feel the Ecuadorean government is taking their concerns seriously. According to Narcisa Machienta, a leader in the Achua community, “they have not consulted us…they don’t have our permission to exploit our land.”

Unfortunately, the Achua and Quechua know this from experience. Occidental Petroleum began production in the Pastaza River basin in the 1970s. Since that time, Sixto Shapiama of the Quechua community says there have been “constant spills…[T]he sediment at the bottom of the river is completely contaminated.”

Most recently, Argentine oil giant Pluspetrol has fouled the land and waters of the Quechua and Achua.

Urubamba River with hydroelectric generation.
That’s the thing about oil production: the environmental toll is paid by the public at large while a few industry players profit. The Quechua and the Achua don’t receive a cut of the royalties, but they do suffer the consequences of contamination.

Likewise, BP shareholders received dividend checks even as Gulf fishermen struggled to sell their catch.

In the United States, environmental laws attempt to shift some of the actual impact of oil production to the industry. As a result, BP is liable for response costs, all quantifiable damages, and civil and criminal penalties for its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Department of Justice is pursuing claims against BP in federal court. U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier has an opportunity to ensure an oil company accounts for the real cost of its business.

The Peruvian government does too. The good news is that the Environment Ministry is finally taking that opportunity: In January, Pluspetrol was issued $11 million in fines for contamination at Peru’s largest crude oil field. Just this week, the Ministry declared the region an environmental state of emergency, ordered Pluspetrol and Occidental to clean up their mess, and set standards to limit soil contamination.

Let’s hope for the sake of the Quechua, the Achua, the Amazon, the condor, clean water, and future generations of honeymooners that the Ecuadorean government follows suit. And for the sake of Floridians, Louisianans, Americans, the Gulf of Mexico, sea turtles, and our children, let’s hope Judge Barbier does too.