Spring should have been a good time for fishing in the network of dark, tree-lined lakes around this small Kukama Indian village in the northern Peruvian Amazon. Seasonal floodwaters that draw river fish into the lakes to spawn have traditionally meant a bonanza for fishermen here. But this year was different. ‘There are no fish in the lakes,’ says village President Galo Vásquez, a small, softspoken man with a perpetually worried expression. ‘We have to go farther upriver, sometimes a day or two away.’ A late start for the rainy season could be to blame. But Vásquez and his neighbors also suspect lingering effects from a 2014 oil spill along a pipeline that carries crude 845 kilometers from Amazonian oil fields to the Pacific coast. Traces of oil still occasionally float past the village, even after 2 years of cleanup efforts in the area.
Sitting down to breakfast at a wooden table in an open-sided house typical of the Amazon, as rain pattered on the palm-thatch roof, Vásquez and his neighbors wondered aloud whether the pollution drove the fish away and whether the few fish they did catch were safe to eat. A recent toxicology study found heavy metals in villagers’ blood and urine, but did not pinpoint a source, raising more questions than it answered.
The dense green canopy of the rainforest in eastern Peru and Ecuador hides substantial reserves of oil, and over the last 4 decades a web of wells and pipelines has spread through the forest. And where there is oil, there are spills. In the past few years, a spate of oil spills along Peru’s main oil pipeline, including three this year alone, has fouled the water and land of dozens of indigenous villages. The spills have sparked a lawsuit by affected communities—and fledgling efforts by scientists to understand how oil affects the Amazon ecosystem. By global standards, the Amazon spills are small. The 2000 barrels that leaked from the pipeline here are a drop compared with the more than 3 million barrels that spewed out of the sea floor when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But oil may affect the complex Amazon ecosystem in unexpected ways, so that lessons learned in marine spills may not apply. ‘Where biodiversity is incredibly high,’ as in the Amazon, each species may react differently, says physical geographer Paúl Arellano of Yachay Tech in Urcuquí, Ecuador. And because local people rely on fishing and on river water for drinking, the human impacts of oil pollution could be especially severe.
A handful of studies are beginning to trace toxic components of oil as they wend their way through the Amazonian ecosystem, into the river fish and possibly into the people who eat them. Still, ‘of all we know about the fate of crude oil in water in general, only 2% or 3% of the information freshwater systems,’ says biologist Adalberto Val of Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus.
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