A large group of indigenous Peruvian community members took control of an airport in the Andoas region of the Amazon on Monday to protest Argentine energy company Pluspetrol, which they say is polluting the land and exploiting resources in the region to build their oil drilling operations.
Indigenous rights group Aidesep told the Latin American Herald Tribune on Wednesday that the occupation had grown to 2,000 people, a significant increase from the days before.
On Tuesday, Nuevo Andoas community chief Tedy Guerra told Reuters, "Right now there are about 500 of us at the airport ... flights have stopped."
Nuevos Andoas residents occupied the airport along with other community leaders, including those from Alianza Capaguari.
Community members are calling for the government to overturn new laws regulating access to water and forest resources—laws which they say favor Pluspetrol at the expense of vulnerable land. Both Nuevos Andoas and Alianza Capaguari are in a region that was declared to be in a state of environmental emergency in recent years due to pollution, but leaders say the emergency declarations have done nothing to mitigate the effects of the oil drilling and reserves.
Among the demands are legal titling of the lands, a clean-up of water and territory to end the ongoing health threats from pollution, compensation for the lands on which the oil blocks—large swaths of land awarded to energy companies—are set up, and a fair share of 40 years of oil revenues.
"Otherwise humble indigenous communities are exasperated by the evident lack of political will to effectively address long-standing local grievances."
— Andrew Miller, Amazon WatchThe occupation is "the latest in a series of recent indigenous protests provoked by the intransigence of Pluspetrol and the Peruvian government," Amazon Watch advocacy director Andrew Miller told Common Dreams. "Otherwise humble indigenous communities are exasperated by the evident lack of political will to effectively address long-standing local grievances."
Pluspetrol said it signed an agreement with the people of Nuevo Andoas in September for use of a quarry. But as Miller explained, "Water and soil samples have repeatedly been shown to contain dangerous levels of heavy metals…. Pluspetrol demonstrates a tremendous cynicism by trying to assign blame elsewhere and avoid their responsibly."
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The company’s transgressions are enabled by the Peruvian government, Miller said. The Ministry of Environment and People's Defender office are "politically weak" against corporate interests and the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which has led to a "virtual conspiracy of obstruction between Pluspetrol and the government, designed to allow ongoing oil operations without taking the steps to address ongoing harms of local communities."
"Neither the government nor the company are cleaning up the spills," Aurelio Chino, president of an indigenous federation covering the Pastaza River basin, told Reuters. "All of these problems are building up."
The airport is a central base in the communities’ fight against Pluspetrol, as it is primarily used by the company’s private jets and sits close to one of its oil blocks, 1AB.
Aidesep told the Tribune that the occupation aims to stop Pluspetrol employees from "[reaching] their camps set up inside Indian territory."
"Pluspetrol and the government have a proven track record of only taking substantive action when their bottom-line is at risk. Stopping company flights in and out of the airport could paralyze local operations, which represent about a 4th of Peru's current oil output," Miller said.
The move is only a first step. "Without a satisfactory response to the interests of the Amazon Indians, the measures [of force] will get more radical," community leader Hugo Perez Petza told the Tribune.
Guerra and Chino confirmed to Reuters that activists are considering seizing oil wells if the government refuses to negotiate with community leaders.
In April, several indigenous activists took control of 1AB for roughly a week, putting a dent in the company’s output. That action was followed with another protest in August, which saw thousands of indigenous activists blocking highways and seizing electrical utilities.