Quechua People Set for Showdown with Oil Company in Peru
Citing oil company abuses and broken government promises, indigenous Quechua people of the Pastaza River basin in Peru’s northern Amazon set a deadline that could soon bring them into direct conflict with Argentinian oil company PlusPetrol and shove another resource-related flashpoint onto the Peruvian government’s already crowded map of social conflicts.
On March 26, the indigenous federation FEDIQUEP—the Spanish acronym for the Quechua Indigenous Federation of the Pastaza—demanded that the Regional Government of Loreto comply with agreements it signed last June in the so-called Acta Pastaza, which the Quechua celebrated as a landmark pact on social and environmental issues in a delicate cultural and ecological zone where PlusPetrol profits and pollutes at the expense of the local indigenous people.
The act included promises ranging from school construction, additional bilingual teachers, doctors and clinic staff for a remote region where the Peruvian state has little presence and indigenous communities are left to haggle with the PlusPetrol for services in a grossly unfair relationship that breeds dependency and sanctions abuse. The regional government also promised a baseline study of the environment and the health of the locals to assess the effects of 40 years of oil activities in the region.
In a letter submitted to Regional President Iván Vásquez Monday, and in a statement published online earlier by AIDESEP, the main Amazonian indigenous federation of Peru, FEDIQUEP gave the government 40 days to comply.
The silent ‘or else’ in this case carries an implied threat of direct action—a chilling echo of a similar standoff in 2008 that left a police officer dead, about two dozen activists in jail and cost PlusPetrol millions of dollars in damage and production stoppages that ultimately led to the Acta Pastaza.
Leaders said the decision to throw down such a public demand to which the government stands little chance of meeting in so short a time at such great distances as the Pastaza region poses, was not taken lightly. The call came only after community leaders experienced the initial elation over the passage of the Acta, then the let down when government officials stood them up on important dates and projects, and then the inevitable insult as PlusPetrol continues spilling oil and using divisionary tactics in the field unabated.
“They (the government) have not completed one thing,” said David Chino Dahua, second in charge of FEDIQUEP. “Solo mas palabras”—just more words, he said.
The decision to thrown down the gauntlet was arrived at earlier this month when more than 150 leaders from FEDIQUEP base communities and other indigenous communities gathered at a rare assembly in the community of Santa Maria de Manchari.
“The attendees of the assembly recognized the value and importance of the Acta as a fundamental achievement in the struggle for their rights and the quest for the development of the Quechua People,” federation leaders said in a statement issued by PDDI, the federation’s legal advocate and legal partner of Alianza Arkana.
In the immediate celebratory wake of the Acta Pastaza in June, a new group was formed by leaders of many of the main river sheds of the region who all share the same problems with the oil companies operating in their region and with the regional and national governments, which they accuse of abandoning them. The group, called PUINAMUDT—has petitioned and testified to Congress, the Peruvian prime minister and many other top government officials and has become a solid voice for the people of Loreto on issues related to oil.
In support of the Quechua demands in the Pastaza region and an ongoing blockade of a stretch of river by villagers in the Corrientes basin, PUINAMUDT has repeated its request for a special on-site investigation by the ministers from Energy and Mines and other agencies charged with environmental regulation known collectively here as the PCM. A delegation of PCM officials was due to meet with PUINAMUDT already on April 9, making the date crucial to averting a crisis of the sort all-too familiar in Peru.
The FEDIQEP leaders have also called for the nullification of contracts and agreements made with company officials under unfair conditions. They reaffirm their basic demands to be fairly compensated for the use of their territories and for accountability by PlusPetrol and Peru’s national oil company PeruPetro for environmental damages and cleanup.
They demand a full investigation and assessment of environmental impacts if PlusPetrol’s concession to operate in the Pastaza region is to be considered for renewal in 2014.
If push comes to shove on the Pastaza, Peru’s government faces one more fight in a mounting list of social-environmental conflicts.
In mid-March the national Ombudsman, known here as the Defensoria del Pueblo, reported 229 active or latent social conflicts in Peru, at least 133 of which were “social-environmental” conflicts over resources. The most recent, in Piura, left a man dead last week as locals fought off a natural gas project planned for a Pacific bay important for small-scale and sustenance fishing.
A crisis on the Pastaza could be a spark that unites a growing movement against the mining industry in the Andes with the battle over hydrocarbon exploitation in the Amazon.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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