PERU: ‘Environmental regulations were relaxed, when they should have been strengthened’

Juan Carlos SueiroCIVICUS discusses the recent oil spill off the coast of Lima, Peru, with Juan Carlos Sueiro, Director of Fisheries at Oceana, the world’s largest international organisation dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans. Founded in 2001, Oceana focuses its work on restoring fisheries, promoting clean energy and establishing protected marine areas.

Has anyone been held responsible for the oil spill off the coast of Lima?

The oil spill, caused by the Spanish oil company Repsol, happened on 15 January 2022. Due to its magnitude and visibility, it was the worst ecological disaster in Peru’s recent history. It occurred in an artisanal fishing zone, with protected areas and important seasonal economic activity. It is the largest spill we have ever had.

The spill happened because of the high tides caused by the eruption of the Tonga submarine volcano, which affected the process of unloading oil from a Repsol oil tanker to the La Pampilla refinery. The question is: how is it possible that the company only became aware of the magnitude of the spill the next day? The company’s negligence magnified the consequences of this spill.

Unfortunately, we have seen little progress in terms of Repsol taking responsibility for recovering the ecosystem. Even the exact volume of oil spilled is not known with any certainty. The company’s reaction was very slow, which is worrying because the first 24 hours following this kind of accident are key, as the oil film becomes very thin and expands a lot. It was only almost 20 days later that more sophisticated equipment was brought in to address the problem.

Overall there is not enough transparency. In this case, the contingency plan was not implemented. The activities currently underway are supposed to be the product of a plan, but neither the company’s commitments nor the contents of that plan have been made public. The area between Ancón and Chancay was heavily impacted on by the spill, and there is no bay there, only cliffs and water. It is visible how little has been done in the way of recovery.

There is also little transparency in the investigation. It is still not clear whether Repsol has handed over the equipment that was underwater in order to investigate and determine what happened on the day of the spill.

This lack of transparency is symptomatic of the way the Peruvian state operates. This is similar to what happened when the pandemic broke out and we ‘discovered’ that we had an absolutely precarious health system, which was clearly not up to the task. In this case, we have environmental structures, legislation and procedures on paper, but not in reality. The opacity of information is intended to hide this discrepancy.

For us it is very clear: Repsol must publicly assume clearly defined responsibilities.

What have been the environmental and economic impacts of the spill?

There has been great environmental damage. The area affected by the spill includes several protected natural areas: the Ancón Reserved Zone, the Guaneras Islands and the Punta Salinas Reserved Zone. The spill has impacted on marine fauna, affecting animals such as sea lions, otters, penguins and birds. Many have been stained with oil and their lives are at risk. Oceana is currently surveying this damage, as well as the additional damage caused by the company’s delayed reaction.

For communities in the area, the greatest concern is economic. These are mostly low-income people engaged in artisanal fishing. Beyond individual and immediate impacts – for example, for those who had invested in a seasonal business just before the spill – the consequences are collective and long-term. It is now impossible to fish in Ancón or Chancay, and it is difficult to know when it will be possible to do so, because oil has a much longer degradation time when it settles on the seabed. The fishermen and all the workers involved in processing and distribution logistics are also concerned about the variation in fish prices and the drop in demand.

We have run a calculation of the economic worth of coastal fisheries in these places to give us an idea of the economic loss. We also believe that there is an important impact on tourist activity: for the nine million inhabitants of the capital, Lima, and the three million living a little further north, these beaches are the closest place to spend the summer, and the spill has cut short the summer season, which runs from January to April. We have already warned the local municipalities that they must estimate the damage caused to tourism.

How has civil society responded?

We have all reacted with concern and a great interest in helping others. We have seen many volunteers helping to clean up the beaches, as well as experts and academics contributing within their areas of expertise.

However, volunteer work has limitations because in order to rescue marine wildlife from the damage caused by oil, certain procedures and products must be used to properly remove oil from an animal’s plumage or skin. Because of this, interest in helping usually does not translate into 100 per cent successful results.

Moreover, as this is the first time we have faced a disaster of this magnitude, Peru does not have all the expertise it needs. There is post-disaster expertise and experience elsewhere; it is necessary to bring it in. It would also be important to deepen the discussion about the energy mix we have and how to change it by turning towards the renewable resources that are available to us.

How can private companies be called to account and contribute to preventing future disasters?

Lack of accountability is a longstanding concern for the communities in these areas, and the fact that their demands have been systematically ignored is a symptom of Peru’s strong centralism. Artisanal fishermen in the north have been warning about this situation for several years and there has been no meaningful response. Oil extraction in Peru dates back to the 19th century; Peru had the first oilwell in South America. In the 1950s and 1960s, offshore platforms were installed, which are at the root of the spills and leaks that fishers complain about. There are also complaints about what happens in the transportation process, which has much greater implications.

This situation has encouraged civil society to prioritise the search for solutions. For almost a decade, environmental requirements have been reduced in Peru; it is necessary to walk back that path. Peru is engaged in fishing, mining and other activities for which regulations have been relaxed, when they should have been strengthened. The very low environmental capacity of the state and the poor response of companies to disasters clearly shows their inadequacy. Peru suffers from a major crisis of governance and respect for the rule of law. 

The possibility of another spill is always present. It is necessary to minimise the likelihood of it happening, and to ensure that when it does, it has the least possible impact in terms of magnitude, frequency and consequences. To do this we have to start by not losing sight of who is responsible for this disaster and the consequences of their irresponsible action.

Civic space in Peru is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
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