Do We Care About Oil Spills?


By: Zach Morgenstern

Oil spills horrify and evoke sympathy from countless people. Yet when they are not being evoked in dish soap commercials, is the public in fact sufficiently concerned about them? Rebecca Wolff, a researcher at MaRS Studio Y, doesn’t believe so, pointing to Peru, where several oil spills have gone largely unnoted in Western media.


In 2016, three oil spills have hit the Peruvian Amazon thus far–one on Jan. 25, one on Feb. 3, and one on Feb. 16. All three came from Peruvian state oil company (Petroperú) pipes. Wolff explains that 22 primarily indigenous communities are in states of emergency, and that many more communities are also at risk but have yet to be acknowledged as such by the government. These leaks are no anomaly— Petroperú has been responsible for 20 oil spills over the past five years.


For these communities, Wolff explains, the leaks are a wide-reaching catastrophe. Many Peruvians live off chakras (personal farm plots), some of which have been damaged by the oil spills. This simultaneously depletes people’s sources of food and supplemental income. Many of the affected communities also lack running water, making them particularly dependent on rivers. In state-of-emergency-communities, the government has agreed to provide water for periods ranging from 60 days to 90 days.


Wolff adds that she “want[s] to raise attention to the oil spills, because I want to focus on this idea of seeing environmental disasters as also ‘human disasters’ with ‘social and cultural effects’ on peoples who have lived on their land for many years.”


While Wolff’s current research is focused on Peru, a country where she spent parts of her undergraduate degree studying indigenous health issues, she ultimately seeks to apply the lesson of her project to Canada, where she notes she has “yet to see the oil spills in Peru covered in a major news outlet.” Canada and Peru are not incomparable, as both are countries in which pollution issues intersect with indigenous land struggles.


A quick follow-up show’s Wolff’s assessment to be correct. If you search “Peru” on The Toronto Star’s website, you’ll find nothing focused on the spills. On The Globe and Mail’s website you’ll find stories on author Mario Vargas Llosa calling Donald Trump a clown and an “ancient surfboard,” but again nothing on the spills. On The National Post’s website the query “peru oil spill” gives readers no new results since 2012 (and the 2012 results are not about Peruvian oil spills either).


The connection between Canada and Peru may run even deeper, however. Devin Waugh, an MSc. Candidate in Geography at Guelph who has studied indigenous issues in both the Arctic and Peru, notes that the spilt Petroperú Oil in fact came from concession Block 192, which is currently operated by the Bay St-based Pacific Exploration & Production corporation.


Interestingly, the Government of Canada’s website boasts of a strong relationship between the two countries. It notes that trade between them has been on the rise since the Canada-Peru Free Trade, Labour Cooperation, and Environment Agreements came into action in 2009, and that “Canada works with Peru on responsible resource management.”

Waugh says there is reason to hope that Canada’s Liberal government may begin to address the issue of foreign oil spills, noting Liberal MP John McKay’s two unsuccessful attempts during the Harper years to introduce bills regulating the activity of Canadian extractive industries operating like the one above.


Nonetheless, activists like Wolff may still have a lot of work cut out for themselves. Justin Trudeau has recently argued that pipelines can be used to pay for Canada’s transition to green energy. In the short term, the same corporate interests that made discussing oil spills taboo during the Harper years may remain entrenched.

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