Emily Jacobi: Documenting Oil Spills: Transparency in Hard-to-Reach Places

Adam, a community monitor in Digital Democracy's Remote Access program. See below for details about the project. (Digital Democracy)

Adam, a community monitor in Digital Democracy’s Remote Access program. See below for details about the project. (Digital Democracy)

The following post is by Emily Jacobi, founder of Digital Democracy and member of the #TABridge network.

Forty years of oil drilling have taken a heavy toll on indigenous groups in the remote northern Peruvian Amazon. With little to no government oversight, oil companies have acted with impunity, causing significant environmental contamination in the fishing and hunting grounds of the Quechua, Achuar and Urarina people who live there. But now, the communities are pushing back with technology to document oil spills and demand government action, corporate accountability, and clean-up.

This year, after decades of inaction, an investigation by a high-level government commission revealed dangerously high-levels of hydrocarbons and heavy metals around the indigenous communities living in the Pastaza and Corrientes river basins. In March, in a remarkable turn of events, the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, MINAM, declared a state of environmental emergency in the Pastaza region, and did the same this month for the Corrientes.

Why, after 40 years of pollution, is the government finally taking notice?

The answer lies in the work of local groups. Six years ago, tired of the harmful impact of oil drilling, indigenous communities elected their own environmental monitors to document what was happening in their communities. This was no small undertaking: these communities are 3-5 days of travel from the nearest city, and only recently gained access to limited Internet and mobile phone service. The region and its communities have long been neglected by government officials. Both the oil company – Argentine Pluspetrol – and the Government Energy & Mines Ministry consistently denied any contamination or wrong-doing.

The local monitors, armed with GPS and cameras, began visiting sites of historic contamination and documenting new oil spills. Their maps and photographic documentation highlighted the extent of the problem and have driven the government to action, pressuring the oil companies to respond. It’s a momentous victory for indigenous groups who are accustomed to being treated like an afterthought.

This spring, my colleague Gregor MacLennan and I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to launch a new program supporting local monitoring of oil contamination. Gregor has worked with these indigenous groups for the past ten years, and helped to set up the monitoring programs, but it was my first visit. As we traveled to the sites of oil spills, I saw firsthand the pollution and contamination that has become a fact of life along the Pastaza River. The river itself is beautiful, but decades of oil drilling have taken their toll. Even at a supposedly “remediated” site, stirring the water for just a few moments surfaced oily film and crud at the water’s edge. Given the extent of the pollution, it’s no surprise that the rivers’ condition qualifies as a state of emergency.

The government’s attention to the Pastaza is a victory, but it’s not the end.  Over past few years the monitors have been painstakingly combing the forest around the pipeline network, documenting new spills and discovering hidden dumps of crude and other toxic waste from years ago. These sites will continue to leech carcinogenic hydrocarbons and heavy metals into the water and fishing grounds until they are cleaned up.

Working with the monitors didn’t just expose me to the pollution, it exposed me to the importance of these local networks. The goal of our new program, called Remote Access, is to create a mobile toolkit which allows populations in remote areas to document, manage and share information about environmental and human rights abuses. What we found in Peru is that communities are doing extensive work to document oil contamination, but are having trouble managing and therefore effectively sharing this information.

The monitors are facing a fundamental data challenge: The government needs a list of contaminated sites so they can analyze the soil and water and demand the company takes action. Unfortunately much of that information sits in notebooks and on camera memory cards in villages with no cell phone or Internet access.

That’s where Remote Access comes in. We’re working with these communities to develop trainings and tools and a simple workflow that will allow them to collate the spills information and publish it themselves. Hardware needs to be simple, robust and replaceable. The communities need a simple system to download and backup information from GPSs and cameras before sending it downriver to be uploaded online. In the rugged conditions of the Amazon, hardware breaks easily. We could see the disappointment on the faces of our local colleagues when a laptop with their photos died after traveling three days downriver in the rain. There was no complete backup.

We’ll be sharing our learning as we go on our new website and blog. Local communities and organizations are facing similar challenges around the world. We hope to bring together the learning for the best tools and techniques for documenting and reporting environmental impacts and human rights abuses in remote locations with poor communications and little technical capacity. Join the conversation and share your ideas.

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