Peru’s ‘worst ecological disaster’ destroys artisanal fishing

CIUDAD PACHACUTEC, Peru – Walter de la Cruz raced down a large sand dune in the fog to reach a rock overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where he fished for three decades. He threw a hook several times in the waters off the coast of Peru, without success. One attempt yielded a piece of oil-stained plastic.

De la Cruz, 60, is one of more than 2,500 fishermen whose livelihoods have been thrown into doubt following a major crude oil spill at Spain’s Repsol oil refinery on January 15.

“We are desperate,” he says, counting his debts on his fingers, including a bank loan, bills for water, electricity, gas and school supplies for his two grandchildren.

Peru called the spill of 11,900 barrels in front of a Repsol refinery the “worst ecological disaster”. A United Nations expert report estimates it was around 2,100 tonnes of crude, well above the 700 tonnes that the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation Limited considers the threshold for a major spill – and an unprecedented amount for the type of crude that leaked. The oil was extracted from Buzios, the largest deepwater oil field in the world and the most productive in Brazil.

The spill happened as the Mare Doricum, an Italian-flagged tanker, was unloading oil at the La Pampilla refinery, just off the coast of Peru, north of the capital. The ship’s captain told the South American country’s Congress that oil spilled into the ocean for at least eight minutes.

Peru – which has a large informal economy – does not have exact data on the number of fishermen affected, or the people at the docks and ports who depend on the fishing industry, including restaurants, vendors of food and those who rent umbrellas or boats.

One thing is certain: the artisanal fishermen affected are among the most economically vulnerable in Peru, harvesting small quantities of fish very close to the coast, sometimes from small boats and sometimes from the shore, said Juan Carlos Sueiro, a economics expert. fishing with the international conservation group Oceana.

“They are on the poverty line. Their income varies from day to day,” he said.

De la Cruz said he knew immediately that the oil stretching over more than 106 square kilometers (41 square miles) – an area larger than the city of Paris – would halt activity in centuries for the first time. on the Pacific coast of Peru.

“I saw the fruits of my livelihood destroyed,” he said. “It’s like you have a store and someone comes and sets it on fire.”

Shortly after the spill, the government announced that it was considering providing financial assistance to those affected. The authorities took three weeks to draw up a list of 2,500 fishermen they would help. Two weeks later, the government said it would now be Repsol giving up to $799 to each of the 5,600 people affected to compensate them for income they lost from the spill. The cabinet presidency did not respond to a question from The Associated Press about the validity of the aid pledge.

Many fishermen here do not have certificates or papers proving that it is their livelihood. De la Cruz no. But he knows he’s been coming here with a basket to fill on his back for 30 years. He normally sells or barters the fish with restaurant owners or local housewives, and brings some back to his wife to prepare dishes that can be sold to neighbours.

De la Cruz said he felt “shattered” when he saw his workspace invaded by reporters reporting on the oil spill. He wanted to tell them and the authorities how he felt, so he took out a blue ink marker and wrote on a piece of cardboard: “Fishermen, we need help, please “.

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo traveled to the area, passed by De la Cruz and promised to help. After looking at the oil puddles, he shook his head and said, “That can’t be.”

On another beach, Castillo had picked up some oil-soaked sand and recognized the impact of the spill. “What’s the use of giving away nets if there’s no more room for them to fish? he said.

But those presidential words, which inflamed De la Cruz’s hopes, did not bear fruit. More than a month after this visit, state aid no longer exists.

“Days go by and we don’t get anything,” he says.

Fishermen protested with their empty nets outside the Repsol refinery and blocked roads, but they still have no answers to key questions such as: Who caused the oil spill? And how long before they can go back to fishing?

Repsol, a Spanish company, said huge waves created by a volcanic eruption in Tonga were the cause of the spill and blamed the oil tanker Mare Doricum. In response, the company that owns the tanker asked Repsol not to release “incorrect or misleading” information while the investigation continues.

Edward Málaga, a microbiologist and lawmaker for the centrist Morado party who visited the polluted area and spoke with Peruvian government and Repsol officials, said the political instability was causing paralysis and disorder in Castillo’s government. and hindered a response.

Since the environmental disaster in mid-January, there have been three cabinet reshuffles and three different environment ministers. One was an inexperienced ruling party teacher who barely lasted a week.

“You talk to one official and the next week there’s another one who starts all over again,” Málaga said. He said the four ministries and more than 30 associated agencies involved are not working in a coordinated manner.

“There is no web page where you can go to see the work of each sector, day by day, how many animals have been rescued, how many animals have been reported dead, how many have been cleaned up,” a- he declared.

So far, Repsol has handed out one or two cards – worth $135 each – to those affected to redeem food in a supermarket. This is not enough to feed them, so the fishermen have organized community lunches with food donated by the Catholic Church and other organizations. In these meetings, the lack of financial aid is the recurring theme.

Ady Chinchay, a lawyer and environmental law researcher, said fishermen can seek compensation for lost profits in civil court, but there would be challenges.

“The judge is going to award compensation based on the evidence” the fishermen present about their income, Chinchay said. For many of those affected by the spill, this will be nearly impossible to do as they do not issue receipts when selling their seafood.

This is the case of De la Cruz, who has never issued a bill of sale in 30 years.

“Imagine the desperation in my house,” he said. His wife is selling empanadas to try to pay off her debts but she’s no longer buying the arthritis painkillers she has in her hands.

“Yesterday we could barely afford natural gas,” he said.