Manchados por el petróleo / Stained by oil
Entry type: Single project
Publishing organisation: Manchados por el petróleo is a collaborative investigation by Mongabay Latam in alliance with Rutas del Conflicto and Cuestión Pública from Colombia, La Barra Espaciadora from Ecuador and El Deber from Bolivia.
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-04-19
Authors: Alexa Vélez; María Isabel Torres; Antonio Paz; Vanessa Romo; Gabriela Quevedo; Gloria Alvitres; Enrique Vera; Cristina Fernández; Yvette Sierra; David Tarazona; Angie Garay; Valeria Báez; Andrea Rincón; Nicolás Sánchez; Pilar Puentes, Catalina Sanabria; Diego Cazar Baquero; Ana Cristina Alvarado; Iván Paredes; Nelfi Fernández; Juan Julca; Rocío Arias; Daniel Gómez; Carlos Mazabanda; Eduardo Mota; Estudio Androide; Christian Ugarte; Kipu Visual; Dalia Medina y Richard Romero.
Mongabay Latam is a media outlet that covers the most relevant environmental stories in Latin America. Since Mongabay Latam began its coverage, it has won the Premio Rey de España with El Deber newspaper (2019), received three honorable mentions from the Inter American Press Association (2017, 2020 and 2022), has been a finalist three times for the prestigious Premio Gabo (2016, 2020 and 2022) and once for the Fetisov Awards (2022). Three investigations have been chosen among the 10 most important investigations in Latin America by the GIJN (2018, 2020 and 2022).
The cross-border investigation “Manchados por el petróleo” revealed the serious social conflicts and enormous environmental impacts of the oil industry in the Amazon of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. What we found, after six months of work, is alarming: 282 sanctioning processes for environmental infractions against 72 oil companies and 169 millionaire fines against companies operating in the Peruvian Amazon and Colombian Orinoquia in the last ten years. The governments of Ecuador and Bolivia did not share official data. We also detected that, in the four countries, oil blocks overlap with 1647 indigenous territories and 52 protected areas.
We were invited to present the findings at an event attended by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Toxic Wastes and Human Rights, Marcos Orellana, and the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, Soledad García. We were also the only media outlet invited to the V Cumbre Amazónica of the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA, for its acronym in Spanish) to present the investigation to indigenous leaders from the nine countries of the Amazon biome, government officials, scientists and environmental organizations. Also, José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, president of COICA, spoke publicly about the research and shared some of the figures at a press conference during the first COP of the Escazú Agreement. Díaz Mirabal said later in a conversation with Mongabay Latam that “Stained by oil [Manchados por el petróleo] was an investigative journalistic report, supported by science and technology, which has helped us to confront the speeches and actions from governments, from oil companies that always say that nothing is happening”.
In addition, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and the Investigative Reporters and Editors published a step-by-step interview on the methodology, and recently GIJN included the work in the list of the best investigations in Latin America in 2022. Also Manchados por el petróleo has just been shortlisted for the Fetisov Journalism Award 2022 in the Excellence on Environmental Journalism category. Furthermore, four media outlets in the region interviewed us to present the work: IMER Noticias in Mexico; Radio from the Universidad del Rosario in Colombia; Radio Nacional in Peru and Radio Cultura in Argentina. Finally, after requesting the version of the Ministry of Environment of Ecuador for the report “Sinchiurco is covered with oil”, the communications department informed that it had initiated “legal administrative actions for the spill”.
One goal we set from the beginning was that all requests would be made to official institutions. What we were looking for was for the States to be accountable and to show the complete record of sanctions and fines imposed on private and state oil companies operating in the Amazon of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. We made a total of ten requests for information to eight state offices in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. In some cases, the information was incomplete, so we insisted and made a second round of requests.
For the overlapping database, we worked with the information about the location of oil blocks held by Red Amazónica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG), which gathers information from the nine countries of the Amazon region, and based on this data, we cross-referenced the information and analyzed the territory of 2,652 communities and 305 protected areas. What we were looking for was to build a tool that would allow us to observe the percentage of overlapping and how this affects indigenous territories and key ecosystems. What we found is that oil blocks overlap with 1647 indigenous territories and 52 protected areas.
In addition, with the sensitive information gathered in the databases, the journalists were able to work on specific cases linked to the most fined companies, such as the stories of Perenco and Pluspetrol, or communities and protected areas affected by overlapping, such as the cases of the Inga people in Colombia or the Amazonian protected areas in Bolivia. In total, 16 stories were published throughout the project, which took us about six months to complete. The testimonies collected for each story were key, especially those of the Shipibo, Inga, Tacana, Siona, Nasa, Kichwa, Quechua, Kukama, Wampís and Achuar communities.
Context about the project:
For more than five years the media that cover environmental issues have been reporting incidents associated with the oil industry operating in the Amazon. The most common are oil spills caused by infrastructure problems, obsolete pipes that break or poor disposal of the waste generated. The problem is serious. In Peru, more than 474 oil spills have been reported in the Amazon between 2000 and 2019, according to a recent OXFAM report. In Ecuador, between 2011 and June 2021, according to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, 1202. In Colombia, we are talking about at least 272 spills in the Amazon between 2015 and June 2022, as indicated by the Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA). And in Bolivia we keep reporting the problems without the authority sharing the official results and sanctions after the incidents occurred.
We considered that this panorama required an urgent investigation to establish the magnitude of the impact of the oil activity, to make official information available to the audience, which should be freely accessible, and to reveal the list of companies behind the sanctions and fines imposed in the last 10 years. The biggest challenge was to build the two databases. In the case of the one that gathers penalties and fines, it was difficult to access information that should be publicly available and to review more than 200 files . That’s why one of the most important findings of this work is the secrecy of the environmental authorities in providing information, with the exception of Peru. In Colombia, for example, only official data on companies sanctioned in one region, the Orinoquia region, was provided. The Ecuadorian government stated that between 2011 and June 2021, 1202 oil spills were registered but did not provide the list of those responsible. Bolivia did not even respond. However, the information gathered and analyzed allowed us to reveal that there are at least 282 sanctioning processes against 16 companies in Peru and 56 in Colombia. We were also able to establish, based on partial information provided by the authorities of both countries, that 169 fines have been imposed against 36 oil companies operating in the Peruvian Amazon and Colombian Orinoco for an amount exceeding US$55 million.
The second part of the investigation, which was also quite complex, was first to obtain the official geographic coordinates of all titled indigenous communities in the Amazon of the four countries and of the active oil blocks. This information was collected from each of the experts in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru who have contributed to the construction of maps for the Amazonian Network of Geo-referenced Socio-environmental Information (RAISG). After this, the participation of an expert in geospatial analysis was key because he helped us to extract the information from the maps to build a second database and cross-reference the location of indigenous territories and natural protected areas with the oil blocks. These cross-reference of the database helped us to establish the percentages of overlapping, which in many cases reaches 100 percent.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
First, when it comes to an investigation in which requests for information from the State are key, it is important to map all the institutions that may have the data and to consider, within the investigation period, the clarifications and new consultations that will have to be sent to the authorities, as well as the extension of time that they usually request. On the other hand, it is not enough to wait for the response from the institution to the request sent, it is necessary to insist with the communications offices. At the same time, I recommend looking for data in environmental organizations that are mapping the issues we are interested in investigating, since many times they may have made the requests before and have the information that we are having trouble getting. Also, I consider it a very powerful tool for investigation, to use different layers of information and overlap them on a map to understand from different angles the problem we are covering and find more answers. That is why we built a database of fines and sanctions, but we also understood with the overlapping of layers of information how the extractive industry, with the endorsement of governments, is adding new extraction zones within indigenous territories and protected areas.
On the other hand, after publication, I think it is important to not abandon the database that you have worked so hard to build. In this case, behind those 282 sanctioning processes and 169 fines against companies and behind those 1647 indigenous territories and 52 protected areas affected by the overlapping of oil blocks there are socio-environmental conflicts that have not been told. That’s why one of the challenges now is to ensure that the media alliance remains united to continue monitoring the extractive industries.