The View from the Field: Another Spill in the Marañón Basin  

Ricardo Segovia - August 13, 2014, Lima, Peru

We didn’t expect to be travelling this far up the Marañon River. The original plan was to enter the Pacaya Samiria reserve for an evaluation of oil spills on a very limited budget. The budget had to be stretched even further when at least two-thousand barrels of oil burst from the Ducto Norperuano in June of 2014 and the president of the indigenous Cocama federation asked us to make an emergency visit to the site. The huge 24 inch crude-oil pipeline takes most of Peru’s oil from the region of Loreto to the Peruvian coast for export and is operated by the state oil company, Petroperu. The spill took place in the dredged waterway that follows the pipeline and flows into the Cuninico River, which soon ends up in the Marañón, one of the largest rivers in the Amazon basin.

The community of Cuninico sits at the confluence of the Cuninico River with the Marañón. The entire food supply and economy of the village depends on fish. The variety is impressive and it is not unusual to sit down at a meal and have five or six different species of fish at the table. Many of these fish are destined for surrounding towns and the city of Iquitos, several days away by boat. The spill was not noticed right away by the company. They only became aware of the spill when locals started to see dead fish coming down the Cuninico, a few at first, then several thousand when they investigated further upstream. The locals have been told by the government not to fish until further notice and have supplied them with meager rations of rice, cooking oil, and sardines. Cuninico is purchasing fish from outside to supplement their diet for the first time ever, an option that most locals can’t afford.

We sat down with the Apu (president or chief) of the village to talk about the events and about the type of technical support that E-Tech could provide. To look at this man was to see someone who was been hollowed out by the tragedy of the spill. During the conversation he often stares across the room at nothing, realizing deep down that his birthplace will never be the same again. We emphasize the importance of independent monitoring of the cleanup and the health of the fish, something that could be carried out by E-Tech-trained locals if sufficient resources can be found. Some fishermen catch a few live fish for us from the Marañón so our fish biologist, Dr. Diana Papoulias, can have a look. There are definite indicators of exposure to chemicals. The locals then boil the fish for us to verify claims that they can taste the crude when they are cooking. The result is the unmistakable smell and taste of hydrocarbons. 

Petroperu is in a frantic state of cleanup. There is talk of privatization plans, and the company knows that any bad press will be used to justify those measures. The cleanup is intense but haphazard and most of the work consists of collecting oil in buckets by hand and exposing temporary workers (more than 300 men) to the toxic soup within the crude as it comes into contact with their skin and their lungs. When the spill occurred, the water level was about two meters higher than during our visit (evidenced by oil-stained trees). This allowed the impact to reach other lagoons and streams that then affected other communities. The company thinks it can clean up the mess in a matter of weeks, but proper remediation after initial emergency measures is a process of monitoring and cleanup that should take years. 

There are a thousand stories of social and environmental impacts of oil production and oil spills, but one that struck me was the interaction of dolphin and human in Cuninico. For an outsider, seeing dolphins at sunset on the Marañón is an eco-tourism dream-come-true. We all ran down to the river bank for photos and videos. For the locals it’s a daily routine and the dolphins are just part of the family. The kids splash around on the shore and the fishermen calmly lower their nets while the dolphins swim in circles and put on a show for the curious outsiders. They all wait for the same thing: The fish coming down the Cuninico into the Marañón. I get the sense that this routine has been played out thousands of times: Sunset fishing, dolphin and human, waiting for the gift that flows naturally from upstream. Now they share this tragedy intimately. They wait in terrible solidarity (because they know no other way of sustaining themselves) for the day’s catch that might make them sick or eventually kill them. The humans are aware and have to make that terrible choice while the dolphins may not be aware of the consequences at all. 

Those are the moments when I most question the life I live that depends so heavily on cheap energy. More than any climate change conference or article, statistics on glacier melt and sea-level rise; it’s the fisherman and the dolphin carrying out such a simple act that shakes the foundation of my attachment to this way of life. The people of Cuninico and the entire region of Loreto are paying a heavy price for this way of life, in most cases, with no local benefits. They make this sacrifice for industrialized life through no choice of their own. How much “sacrifice” are we willing to make so this story can never be repeated in the name of cheap fuel?