The ecological disaster of La Pampilla in Peru | Antonio Peña Jumpa

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Escrito por Antonio Peña Jumpa (*)

On Saturday, January 15, we experienced abnormal waves on the coast of Peru. The cause was found in the eruption of a volcano in Tonga, a kingdom of Polynesia, in Oceania (on the other side of the Pacific). This event was serious on the coast of Paracas, in the province of Pisco, Ica region, where the sea flooded restaurants and houses adjacent to the beach called «El Chaco». It is disputed whether the same event was the cause of an oil spill that occurred just when a ship was unloading thousands of barrels at the La Pampilla refinery, under concession of the REPSOL company, in the district of Ventanilla, province and region of El Callao, approximately 280 kilometres north of Paracas.

Although the flood in Paracas brought considerable damage to affected restaurants and homes, their reconstruction is possible. What happened in La Pampilla, on the other hand, is different. The spill of thousands of barrels (more than 10,000 or 11,000 barrels, depending on what is being investigated), leads us to incalculable damage with a difficult remedy: oil spreads in the sea, following the Humboldt Ocean current, destroying life systems of microorganisms, algae, fish, birds, animals, and people.

According to the published facts, what happened in La Pampilla is a case of ecological disaster: irreparable or uncontrollable damage occurs in marine ecosystems that affect the nearby population and the country. Two concepts are important to understand the magnitude of the problem: disaster and ecosystem.

The concept of disaster is found in the content of a highly systematized formula following the experience of the Red Cross at the international level:

[1]

Applying the formula to the case of the La Pampilla spill, we obtain the following: the disaster situation occurs when there is a hazard (discharging the oil into the sea through pipes or other means, exposed to the tide or other phenomena) which it is multiplied by the vulnerability of the company (by having or not having plans and equipment to face the hazard) and of the adjacent population (how much of the population is in cultural, social and economic conditions to face the same hazard), which proportionally it is divided between the resilience of those who would face the hazard (psychological capacity to face the panic or trauma caused by the danger in the company team and the adjacent population) multiplied by the response capacity of those who suffer the effects of the hazard (the preparation of the specialized team of the company and the adjacent population and all those who feel committed to overcoming the damage caused by the hazard).

The ecosystem concept, on the other hand, leads us through other complex issues:

  • “An ecosystem consists of a community of organisms together with their physical environment.
  • “Ecosystems can be of different sizes and can be marine, aquatic, or terrestrial. Broad categories of terrestrial ecosystems are called biomes.
  • “In ecosystems, both matter and energy are conserved. Energy flows through the system—usually from light to heat—while matter is recycled.
  • “Ecosystems with higher biodiversity tend to be more stable with greater resistanceand resilience in the face of disturbances, or disruptive events.” [2]

Applying the concept to the case of the oil spill on the coast of La Pampilla refinery, we obtain the following: the marine ecosystems of the coast of Lima and the north of Lima are damaged. The spilled oil damages matter and energy related to living organisms that live in community under the sea (flora and fauna, or fish, algae, and microorganisms) and on the surface and the adjacent coast (various birds and marine animals, fishermen and people who live in interaction with marine species). But, as the spilled oil expands, it damages not one but several coastal marine ecosystems. If we consider that our marine ecosystems are diverse, their resilience and resistance will be greater, but this does not exclude the damage that occurs. Dead fish and birds are only a small part of the damage to the ecosystem.

Having both concepts presented, we can better understand the magnitude of the problem identified as an ecological disaster. On the one hand, the ecological damage that we know is the effect of a hazard that could have been foreseen, controlled, and remedied based on the vulnerability, resilience and response capacity of the company involved in the economic activity and the adjacent population that suffers the direct effects. Given the economic activity of the La Pampilla refinery, which includes the discharge of oil through pipelines or other means that connect large ships at sea with deposits on the coast, the HAZARD or DANGER of an oil spill will always exist (although there are demanding legal permits and strict control by the State authorities), the key to avoiding disaster is to anticipate vulnerability, resilience, and response capacity.

On the other hand, ecological damage is not only summarized in several dead fish and seabirds, but also in damage to an ecosystem or a set of living organisms (from microorganisms to marine animals); more numerous when the ecosystem is more diverse. In terms of human beings, the damage includes the hundreds or thousands of people who participate in ecosystems (fishermen, for example), but also the thousands or millions of people who interact with or benefit from what is extracted from said ecosystems or of the natural environment that is produced or constitutes the habitat of said ecosystems and is shared by people (the beaches and their summer activities, for example). 

What can we do?

In the current context of ecological disaster of La Pampilla in Peru, the answer can be summed up in one word: participation. All of us who are directly or indirectly affected by the damage or damages produced, are committed to participating. Thus, in the need to manage disaster risk and recover damaged ecosystems, it is important to focus on identifying the people and authorities responsible, but it is more important to prevent, control and remedy the damage that is still increasing.

Disaster Risk Management has a law in Peru, Law No. 29664; its application is the minimum that we can demand to face the described ecological disaster. In the same sense, it is urgent to act in the face of other tragic experiences, such as the oil spills that occur in the Amazon.

Lima, January 26, and February 5 and 6, 2022.


(*) Sobre el autor: Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and the National University of San Marcos. Lawyer, master’s in social sciences and PhD in Laws.


[1] Published in articles by the author “Ciudad, ciudadanía y gestión del riesgo de desastres” [City, citizenship and disaster risk management], in Propiedad: enfoque urbanístico y registral  [Property: urban and registry approach], coordinated by G. Puertas, I. Ortiz and J. Ortiz, Lima: Themis, 2020; and “informalidad legal y gestión del riesgo de desastres” [Legal informality and disaster risk management], in Informalidad en la construcción de unidades inmobiliarias en zonas vulnerables de los AAHH Nicolás de Piérola y Los Cañaverales (Chosica, Lima) [Informality in the construction of real estate units in vulnerable areas of the AAHH Nicolás de Piérola and Los Cañaverales (Chosica, Lima)], coordinated by M. Nizama and others, Lima: UNMSM, Salamanca: Ratio Legis Editions, 2020.

[2] Compiled from Khan Academy, online https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/ecology/intro-to-ecosystems/a/what-is-an-ecosystem (visited 02/06/2022).

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