Who’s watching multinational companies operating in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest?

Environmental monitor from Kukama Kukamiria indigenous people (Northern Peru). ©PUINAMUDT,
Environmental monitor from Kukama Kukamiria indigenous people (Northern Peru). Photo: PUINAMUDT

Who knows better the Amazon forest than the indigenous communities that occupy and own its spaces? In the northern Amazon in Peru, in the region of Loreto, it’s been now years that indigenous leaders are patrolling, watching, monitoring, taking pictures and filming any environmental incident that might have been caused by multinational oil companies operating in their ancestral territories.

Last week, Peruvian Congresswoman Verónika Mendoza Frisch, presented a draft law to promote the official and legal recognition, by the Peruvian State, of the environmental and social monitoring carried out by indigenous and members of civil society.

In Peru, it is the Environmental Evaluation and Control Organisation (OEFA), officially competent in environmental matters, that monitors, supervises and imposes administrative penalties or corrective measures if required. Its competences apply to all economic activity carried out in the national territory, by the private sector – national and international. From oil to mining companies, from energy to fisheries sectors, among others.

The present draft law falls in a very specific context, in view of the Climate Change Conference “COP20” which will take place in Lima next month. And could be approved by National Congress before the COP20 to begin.

Indigenous and civil society members environmental monitoring is essential to reduce deforestation.

Congresswoman Mendoza Frisch says “watching and monitoring is a right, and the State has to ensure it and understand that the involvement of citizens is not a threat but an opportunity that will allow improvements and also working hand-in-hand with the population, for their own development“.

Who knows better the Amazon forest than the indigenous communities that occupy and own its spaces?

Members of indigenous federation FEDIQUEP monitoring water sample. ©Digital Democracy
Members of indigenous federation FEDIQUEP monitoring water sample. Photo: Digital Democracy

According to the article 13 of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of the International Labour Organisation, the “governments shall respect the special importance for the cultures and spiritual values of the peoples concerned of their relationship with the lands or territories, or both as applicable, which they occupy or otherwise use, and in particular the collective aspects of this relationship“.

Territory is essential to the indigenous peoples.

Over the past decades, Peru has been offering granting many concessions over indigenous territories (oil concessions, mining concessions, gas concessions etc.). Often, without any consultation or any land planning (“ordenamiento territorial“).

In the northern Amazon of Peru, in the region of Loreto, indigenous peoples themselves are patrolling, watching, monitoring, taking pictures and filming any environmental incident that might have been caused by PLUSPETROL Norte S.A., current operator in blocks 1-AB and 8. Indeed, it’s been more than 40 years that oil companies have been extracting oil in their ancestral territories, causing severe social and environmental damages.

This is what’s better known as “monitoreo ambiental comunitario” (community environmental monitoring).

For example, in the Pastaza River Basin, indigenous communities from the Quechua people, created the “Programa de Vigilancia Territorial Indígena” in 2007 (Indigenous Land Monitoring Programme).

Ene River. Photo: Camille Cordasco

David Chino Dahua, Vice-President of indigenous organisation FEDIQUEP, explains: “There was no accurate evaluation, there was no official reports coming from PLUSPETROL [oil company], some information was given but there was never precise answers: to what extent the river was contaminated, how many oil spills. This has led to cause mistrust within the indigenous communities” (1).

Indigenous communities decided to assume this task to ensure that any environmental infringement will not be left unknown, ignored and therefore, unpunished. It is a way to guarantee that their communities members are kept informed of what’s happening in their traditional lands.

It’s about protecting indigenous peoples’ own rights: to health, to development, to a healthy environment, to lands and territory, to natural resources etc.

The problem is that there is currently no legal obligation for public authorities to take into account the evidences presented by the indigenous monitors, for the opening of an investigation and/or administrative proceeding.

However, it must be pointed out that there is, to some extent, a certain willingness on the part of the environmental national authority (OEFA) to work hand-in-hand with the environmental indigenous monitors (2).

Indigenous environmental monitoring: towards more transparency

In this context, indigenous environmental monitoring is presented as complementary to the current State-led system. The main objective of the draft law previously mentioned is precisely to articulate these two system.

Also, it allows indigenous and citizens to enjoy full independence in their monitoring activities. Indeed, in order to comply with their corporate social and environmental responsibility, companies usually set up a participatory monitoring programme, which they also finance. The problem with those programmes is that they are generally strictly controlled by the same companies.

Moreover, indigenous monitors generally know better than governmental authorities when it comes to explore remote parts of the Amazon Rainforest. As key informants, they are most likely to expose severe damages that may have been caused to the environment and natural resources.

By recognizing its existence as legal and official, it guarantees their participation in relevant public spaces, their autonomy, the official status of their reports and also that, any complaint will have to be proceeded by the competent authorities, whether it leads or not to a sanction (3).

(1) See article “Una experiencia propia de vigilancia territorial en la cuenca del Pastaza
(2) See article “Severe Oil Contamination Found in the Largest National Reserve in Peru
(3) Note that the draft law before mentioned covers several types of indigenous and citizen environmental monitoring system (draft law No. 3937/2014-CR). This article focuses however mainly on independent indigenous monitoring