Amazon: Other spills
May 26 , 2022

In the Peruvian jungle, food security is endangered by frequent oil spills that do not always attract the attention of the capital. Alumni UP Magazine spoke with Angie Higuchi, professor of Business Administration at UP, about this issue and the consequences for the environment.

​The case of the January 15, 2022 spill, when 6,000 barrels of oil were spilled into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ventanilla (in addition to a second spill that occurred days later) and continued to spread northward, has not been the only one in Peru. Little or nothing is said about the oil spills that occur in our Amazon, as well as the consequences on the environment, health and food security of the inhabitants. The Peruvian Amazon has suffered about 500 cases of oil spills in the last 20 years according to EFE Verde (2020). According to this source, two out of every three spills are mostly due to operational failures, corrosion of the infrastructure -not only of the oilfields, but also of the pipeline that crosses the jungle-, or unsafe conditions of the facilities. 

A spill at sea is very different from a spill on land. While at sea oil can affect ports and even other countries, in the jungle the geography contains the spill (RAISG, 2020, taken from Expreso), that is, the oil remains impregnated in the soil. In the Amazon, these spills occur in areas close to the territories of indigenous and native populations, who do not have access to basic services such as drinking water and sewage (Parra Mujica, F., Manrique López, H. y Martínez Z., V., 2017). Locals noticed that the last spill occurred on January 20 in Loreto (PTR, 2022). Let us remember that the inhabitants depend on rivers to obtain clean water for cooking and fishing, as well as agriculture for marketing and self-consumption. 

Little is said about the effects on food safety and health in the face of an oil spill (Floerke, K. y Wolff, R. for Mongabay, 2016). After an ecological disaster, the government and the company generating this negative impact provide, as a first measure to mitigate damages, a food basket to the victims. However, this is insufficient in the medium and long term. Firstly, because the foods in the food basket are processed (they do not contain as many nutrients as fresh products such as fish, fruits and vegetables) and, secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because when a spill occurs, the entire source of protein (fish) and products for self-consumption and sale, such as cocoa, bananas, peanuts, cassava, corn, rice, among others, are affected. According to Floerke and Wolff (2016), small farmers impacted by an oil spill have to wait at least three years to grow their products again. This means that they will have three years in which they will have to depend on another economic activity and seek a different livelihood. Faced with the desperation of not being able to satisfy the basic need to feed themselves, most natives resort to contaminated products from their farms without realizing that the oil contains heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and/or aluminum (Parra Mujica, F., Manrique López, H. and Martínez Z., V., 2017), among others. The oil, in direct contact with the soil and rivers, contaminates the food grown on these lands, as well as the fish. By consuming these resources, which are a determining factor in their diet, the inhabitants end up becoming seriously ill. 

The 2016 report of levels and risk factors of exposure to heavy metals and hydrocarbons in the inhabitants of the communities of the Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes and Marañón river basins in the department of Loreto, prepared by the Ministry of Health (2019) and referred to by Orellana, M. A. and Calí Tzay, F. (2021), revealed that, from a sample of 392 families out of 2,752 from communities in Loreto, it can be inferred that at least 57% of the indigenous people living in the basins of four rivers in the Loreto region have been exposed to high levels of lead, and that almost 46% of the children presented arsenic levels, and about 26% of the sample registered high levels of mercury in their blood. 

Export products also suffer the consequences of spills. For example, cocoa cultivation is rejected because of the presence of cadmium (the oil spill on land could be a direct cause of absorption of this heavy metal in cocoa), which leads to negotiations being paralyzed for exceeding the maximum residue limits imposed by the European Union; this affects the economic activity and welfare of many small cocoa farmers. The Bioversity and CIAT alliance conducted a survey of 200 households in northern Peru and mentioned that 60% of farmers have experienced a loss of income since the EU regulation (488/2014) specifying the acceptable level of cadmium in chocolate and cocoa-based products across Europe came into force (Lubke, C., 2019). 

So far it is evident that both the government and the companies that directly affect the ecosystem do not have either prevention or contingency plans to remedy the disasters that have occurred. Also, further investigation of soil spills and their effects on food and health (Floerke, K. and Wolff, R., 2016) is imperative in order to learn the correct magnitude of the medium- and long-term consequences on nature and on the aggrieved. The government and private enterprise must assume responsibility and take action to internalize the negative effects, not only with respect to the socioeconomic and environmental impacts generated on those directly affected, i.e. the natives of the jungle, but on everyone. The reflections of Peruvians and their active intervention in the face of these events are important to generate the change we all want and need for our country.


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