Peru’s President Ollanta Humala has declared an environmental emergency in part of the country’s Amazon jungle region, after years of oil pollution there.
It’s the most significant environmental policy change since Humala was elected in 2011 on a promise to step up environmental protection.
It’s only a few hundred miles from the edge of Peru’s Amazon rainforest to the capital Lima, but for many here, it might as well be the other side of the planet.
Wendy Pineda of the indigenous rights group, Alianza Arkana, says if you ask people here if they know that most of Peru is in the Amazon, they’ll have no idea.
“Here we’re very centered on what happens on the coast and in the capital,” she said.
Pineda says that helps explain why oil pollution in the Pastaza River basin in Peru’s Amazon went largely unchecked for nearly 40 years, even though she says the pollution is impossible for residents and visitors to avoid.
It’s not just that the landscape has changed, she says.
“It’s the sick feeling you get when you’re there. Gases from the oil make your eyes burn, it bothers your skin. It’s clear life cannot develop there. There are no fish nearby, no animals,” she said.
But Lima is finally starting to pay attention. President Humala's promise to fix the environment especially resonated with voters in far-flung provinces where big mining and oil projects can drastically alter lives.
Recently, Humala’s administration made its most dramatic move yet on the environment. It declared a state of emergency in the Pastaza basin, and gave an Argentinian oil company operating there three months to clean up.
It was a big step for a country where oil and mining companies have been at work for decades, but where the environment ministry is barely five years old. Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal says he's under orders from the president to make sure the company complies.
“There should be no impunity in cases like this,” Pulgar-Vidal said. “We can no longer allow companies to flout the rules and hurt the population.”
The company, Pluspetrol, declined to be interviewed, but said in a statement it's not responsible for the pollution, which it says it inherited from another company operating in the same area before it arrived 12 years ago. But Pluspetrol says it will clean up the pollution anyway.
Some indigenous leaders remain skeptical.
Aurelio Chino lives in the Pastaza River basin.
"We always hear the same thing when an oil company wants to drill for more oil,” he said. “They say, ‘don’t worry, there is nothing to fear. ’Our technology is cutting-edge.’ They have said that so much that I challenge them: bring out your cutting-edge technology, put it to use and clean up our forest, make it like it was before!”
Chino says tribes in the area rely on the rainforest for everything — food, water, medicine — making it hard for them to avoid exposure to the pollution. And he says illnesses unknown to older generations are now common.
Chino hopes the government will follow through on its order, but says it is too early to tell.
The Humala administration has taken other important steps on the environment. Among other things, it moved the approval process for environmental impact studies from the mining and energy ministry to the environment ministry. It also imposed tougher fines for polluting and passed a law giving some indigenous groups more say in projects that affect them — including possible new oil leases in the Pastaza basin, which is Peru’s biggest oil field.
But some say Humala has not been as aggressive as needed, or promised, on the environment, especially when it comes to mining, which is the traditional engine of Peru’s economy.
“This administration has swung back and forth on the environment,” said Jose de Echave, who runs an environmental group in Lima. “Doing it right requires a lot of political will and that means upsetting some very important interests.”
De Echave was a top official in the environment ministry at the start of Humala’s term, but resigned after a crackdown on protesters trying to stop the expansion of a big gold mine with a spotty environmental record.
That project would have been the biggest mining investment ever in Peru, but ultimately, the government put the plan on hold — a move that makes De Echave hopeful Humala will stick to his promise to put the environment and communities before business.