February 16, 2012

Roadless (and Fishless) in Camisea: Insidious impacts of a gas pipeline in Peru

The road to Camisea, so the saying goes, may be paved with good intentions.

In a recent news feature in Nature magazine[1], Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior of the United States and a prominent conservationist, lauds the conservation benefits of the ‘offshore-inland’ model for gas drilling in the sensitive Camisea region of Peru, where a consortium of companies led by PlusPetrol and Hunt Oil is currently pumping natural gas in a pipeline through the Amazon rain forest and across the Andes to refineries on the Pacific coast.

Local people blame gas spills and heavy river traffic for the disappearance of fish, their main source of protein.

The “roadless” model championed by Babbitt, using only air and river transportation to supply the gas wells, prevents much road-induced deforestation. It also aligns hydrocarbon extraction with conservation since forest cover bolsters pipeline security. And yet as César Gamboa of the Law, Environment and Natural Resources Center points out, avoiding direct deforestation is only the first small step.

Moreover, the Camisea pipeline has been beset by controversy, including six spills resulting from corroded pipes. Some have raised questions over the legality of contracts and the long-term sustainability of a project which is forever transforming not only Camisea and its indigenous peoples but also the entire energy matrix of Peru, all for what may prove to be only another decade’s worth of natural gas.

In our response to this Nature news feature, ecologist Douglas Yu and I call attention to the cascading impacts of the hydrocarbon economy on the region’s resources and indigenous peoples.  

During a recent visit to Camisea, every indigenous person we interviewed bemoaned the disappearance of fish, their main protein source. Although they blame boat traffic and gas leaks, we also suspect commercial overexploitation by booming regional markets.

Merchants sell boatloads of beer to small indigenous communities newly flush with cash income  
A more insidious ‘leakage’ from the hydrocarbon economy is the social degradation that indigenous people themselves recognize as a threat to social cohesion and self-governance. Without communal planning and social controls, cash income is being wasted on days-long drinking binges.

Myriad company- and government-financed projects have failed due to lack of oversight: tap-water systems deliver contaminated water or no water at all[2]; flush toilets languish dry and abandoned; fish-culture ponds are washed away by rainy season floods; an expensive hospital boat lies capsized and useless.

Development investments in native communities have had disheartening results: Failed tap-water systems (left), filthy toilets (center), and a deteriorating schoolhouse (right).

About the only consistently successful infrastructure projects being built with the ~1 billion dollars in gas royalties received by the regional government over the past four years are… roads!

The lesson is that nature conservation in the face of petrochemical extraction in the Amazon must solve two challenges: companies must implement best practices, and we need stronger governance and improved health and education, with a focus on indigenous polities.[3]  This is the key.

The social degradation caused by misspent money and squandered projects not only blights lives, it also saps native populations’ capacity to defend 1.3 million ha of indigenous rainforest reserves and titled lands surrounding Camisea. This figure grows to 2 million ha if drilling proceeds in Madre de Dios, where Hunt Oil is currently prospecting.

It will be a tragedy if the hydrocarbon economy overwhelms indigenous cultures and destroys their well-documented ability to protect nature.[4] Without closer scrutiny of such insidious long-term impacts, the roadless utopia envisioned by Babbitt may prove to be a mirage.

"Roadless?":  The lion's share of gas royalties has gone to building... roads! 

Glenn H. Shepard Jr.
Department of Anthropology, Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi
Belém do Pará, Brazil
Douglas W. Yu
School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK and
State Key Laboratory of Genetic Resources and Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming, Yunnan, China

---This article is being published simultaneously with Spanish and Portuguese translation by O Eco Amazonia.

-- For updates on the Camisea situation, see: Camisea Hostage Crisis 

[1]  J. Tollefson. Nov. 30, 2011. Fighting for the Forest: The Roadless Warrior. Nature 480(7375), 22-24.
[2]  For an example of successful water projects in nearby native communities of the Peruvian Amazon, see House of the Children.
[3]  D. Yu, T. Levi & G. Shepard. 2010. Conservation in low-governance environments. Biotropica 42(5): 569-571.
[4]  D. Nepstad et al. 2006. Inhibition of Amazon deforestation and fire by parks and indigenous lands. Conservation Biology 20(1): 65-73.