Five Months On, the Oil Spill’s Effects Linger
Out of work and short on cash and food, a fishing community in Peru is simultaneously paralyzed by exhaustion and ready to boil over.
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The port in Ancón, just north of Lima, Peru, should be bustling. It’s a cold and gray Friday morning, around the time when fishers should be returning to port and unloading their catch. But ever since January, when the Spanish oil company Repsol spilled 11,900 barrels of crude oil just off the coast—a spill the United Nations calls the worst environmental disaster in Peru’s recent history—the port has come to an almost complete standstill.
On January 15, the oil tanker Mare Doricum released oil that, over the course of the month, spread over approximately 100 square kilometers—an area almost twice the size of Manhattan that includes two protected areas. Additionally, the oil contaminated an estimated 37,000 tonnes of sand.
Despite initial outrage, the spill has been all but pushed out of the media cycle in a country that is undergoing a prolonged political crisis. Yet now, five months later, affected communities are still reeling. Though the Peruvian government is pursuing civil and criminal action against Repsol and other parties, fishers still can’t go out to sea, and most of the traditional seafood eateries in Ancón are closed. Across the region, the oil spill continues to be responsible for a slew of lingering effects.
One group that is still suffering are the fishers Repsol hired to help clean up the spill. Juan Carlos Riveros, scientific director in Peru for the international advocacy organization Oceana, says Repsol paid out-of-work fishers 50 soles (US $13) per day to clean up the soiled beaches. The company “gave them nothing but a cotton suit, a surgical mask, and a garbage shovel,” Riveros says. Some fishers claim to be experiencing symptoms of prolonged oil exposure, including rashes, headaches, and arthritis-like symptoms. “What [Repsol] did was nothing short of criminal,” says Riveros. (There is no official documentation on the aftereffects of the spill on the health of the hired fishers, as the Ministry of Health says that it has not conducted any medical assessment.)
The spill has also disrupted local food security. Though Peru is home to one of the richest fishing grounds on the planet, second only to China, much of the country’s catch goes to producing fish meal for global livestock and aquaculture. Peruvians still largely rely on artisanal fishers. But in the wake of the spill, the government issued a ban on fishing that has been extended indefinitely, leaving coastal communities struggling to obtain affordable protein.
Héctor Samillán, a shellfish fisher and president of the association of shellfish fishers in Ancón, says he used to bring crabs or sea snails home every day. “My kids only had to boil some rice for us to have a great meal. Now that’s gone,” Samillán says.
The fishing ban has put fishers like Samillán out of work for months. Though thousands have turned to temporary jobs as construction workers, delivery drivers, or security guards, there are only so many jobs to go around. Fishing elsewhere is also not easy. “I can’t just move to another town and start fishing there,” Samillán says. “They already have quotas and permits in place; there’s no room for us there.”
Fishers grounded by the spill are supposed to be receiving compensation from Repsol, which pledged a provisional US $750 monthly to each affected fisher, according to Peru’s prime minister Aníbal Torres. Yet the compensation effort has been sporadic and incomplete.
That effort is made all the more difficult by the fact that even establishing the number of affected fishers is not easy. While Peru’s artisanal fishery is responsible for up to 20 percent of the country’s total catch, the number of artisanal fishers is unknown to the government, and approximately 60 percent of artisanal fishing vessels are “informal,” meaning they lack a fishing permit. Both Repsol and the Peruvian government have repeatedly argued that this has made it impossible to calculate the true extent of the damage.
But the gulf between official statistics and the reality they are supposed to represent appears to be massive. This might be in part because, unlike other countries, Peru has no agency in charge of coordinating the actions surrounding the spill. While the Peruvian Ministry of Production decided around 5,000 people warranted economic compensation, a different state agency, the National Consumer Protection Authority, calculated the number to be closer to 700,000.
Yet even the fishers who are receiving compensation have only seen two rounds of payments in the five months since the spill, and there is no confirmation on when or whether a third one is coming. Many fishers and sellers say they have been left out of the compensation register. The National Institute of Civil Defense in Peru, the agency in charge of keeping the register, stated it would publish an updated list in early June but didn’t.
The disjointed compensation effort and lack of transparency from both the government and Repsol have caused a rift in this once-cooperative community.
Since 2012, Ancón fishers have been implementing self-imposed quotas and fishing seasons to ensure the sustainability of the fish and shellfish populations in the area. But with experts warning it might take years before there are viable populations to fish in the region again, Samillán fears that sacrifice might have been in vain.
“For over 10 years, I made the decision to bring home less money and convinced others to do the same,” he says. “I knew the future was in sustainability, but it’s all gone down the drain.”
The opacity and confusion surrounding compensation is pushing people to the brink. Some are angry at being left out of negotiation packages. Others, like a fish vendor who argued with fishers at the port for “giving the bay up for a bag of lentils” right before being chased off, are accusing beneficiaries of selling out to Repsol.
Jesús Huber, a 60-year-old artisanal fisher, says he is tired of waiting. Disappointed and overwhelmed by debt, he wonders whether more extreme measures are needed.
“I think it is time to block major highways because peaceful protesting is not working anymore. I’m done,” he says, to the approving nods of his fellow fishers.
Repsol was contacted for comment, but did not reply in time for publication.