Amazon Oil and Gas Drilling: A Toxic Legacy


Ecuador & Peru

Project risks:

Environmental Destruction, Social Harm


  • Empresa Publica de Hidrocarburos del Ecuador (EP Petroecuador)
  • Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA)
  • China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)
  • Empresa Nacional del Petroleo (ENAP)
  • China Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec Group)
  • CPC Corporation Taiwan
  • Pluspetrol Resources Corporation BV
  • China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec Corp)
  • Sinochem Group Co Ltd
  • Tecpetrol Internacional SLU
  • Frontera Energy Corporation
  • GeoPark Ltd
  • Gran Tierra Energy Inc
  • PA Belorusneft
  • Compania Espanolade Petroleos SA (Cepsa)
  • PetroChina Company Ltd
  • Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC)
  • Perenco SA
  • Vietnam Oil and Gas Group (PetroVietnam)
  • Posco International Corporation
  • KunLun Energy Company Ltd
  • SK Innovation Co Ltd

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There is no climate stability without the Amazon Rainforest. In the age of bushfires and species extinction, companies are extracting oil in the Amazon Sacred Headwaters region in Peru and Ecuador. With their projects, the oil companies are pushing the rainforest and its people to the brink.

In the Amazon River Basin lies the largest rainforest on Earth. The basin stretches across about 40% of the South American continent.14735 Numerous streams and rivers in Peru and Ecuador flow together to become the mighty Amazon River that twists and turns through the entire basin. No other river in the world carries as much water as the Amazon River.

Many of the streams that become the Amazon river begin in the mountains and forests of the Amazon Sacred Headwaters region. Jaguars, pink river dolphins, anacondas, howler monkeys and thousands of other animal species and unique plants are at home in this paradise. About half a million indigenous people from 20 different indigenous nationalities live alongside them in the Headwaters region.

The Amazon Sacred Headwaters region is located in Ecuador and Peru. Credit: Kmusser, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The listed companies are responsible for upstream oil and gas activities in the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Region. The Sacred Headwaters region is a clearly defined part of the Amazon rainforest located in Peru and Ecuador. However, the negative effects of oil and gas drilling of course also apply to other parts of the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon Sacred Headwaters region is the birthplace of the Amazon River. The river travels all the way through Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil before it flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Caroline Bennett, Amazon Watch
It is home to thousands of animals, such as Poison Dart Frogs. Credit: Bejat McCracken

Under the lush forest, oil companies have discovered large deposits of oil. To access it, Gran Tierra, CNPC, Petroperú, Petroecuador and other companies are carving roads into the wilderness and ripping out old-growth trees. The oil producers are speeding up deforestation in the entire region. Currently, the Amazon rainforest is 83 percent intact.1473714739 Scientists warn that we can no longer halt the destruction of the Amazon rainforest if this figure drops below 80 percent.14737 This would inevitably turn the Amazon rainforest into a savannah.

First, the oil companies bulldoze the ancient Amazon rainforest to make space for their oil production. Credit: J. Yurasek
Then, the companies extract the oil in the middle of the rainforest. Credit: Amazon Watch

Ecuador: Pipeline Curse

Oil companies have a toxic legacy in the Amazon Sacred Headwaters region. Recent oil spills in Ecuador are an alarming reminder that oil & gas companies have in no way learned from their destructive history. In April 2020, oil companies caused the worst oil spill in 15 years in the rainforest.14741 The oil polluted hundreds of miles of river and destroyed the livelihoods of 27,000 indigenous people in Ecuador.1474314745 In January 2022, history repeated itself. More than a million liters of heavy oil gushed out of a pipeline operated by the private company OCP. It poured into the rainforest in the Napo province in Ecuador, the same region that was hit by the 2020 spill. Impossible to stop, the thick black oil flowed over soil and rocks and into the nearby river Coca. The oil poisoned the water of at least 150 families and spread into the Cayambe Coca National Park.14747

With each new road they construct and pipeline they lay, oil and gas companies are making their own business riskier. The ongoing deforestation caused by oil and gas infrastructure and other industrial activities intensifies soil erosion. Rain washes the river banks away. Mudslides become more likely.14749 The risk of accidents increases. Rocks, mud and the moving ground tear holes in pipelines and damage other infrastructure. As the history of oil spills in the region shows, oil and gas companies do not take the necessary measures to protect their infrastructure.

Oil companies have been spilling oil into the Amazon rainforest for decades. Credit: Earth InSight
Everywhere they go, the oil companies leave dirty traces. Credit: Ivan Castaneira/Agencia Tegantai
The spill in April 2020 polluted the river running through the Sani Isla community. Due to the oily water, Damary Mayerli Grefa has developed skin problems. Credit: Ivan Castaneira/Agencia Tegantai

Peru: Fines Finally Piling Up

In the Peruvian Amazon, oil companies happily exploited the lack of environmental regulation and protection of indigenous peoples in the 1990s and 2000s. Oil companies such as Pluspetrol Norte, Occidental Petroleum and others took advantage of low environmental standards and disregarded indigenous rights.14751 Many indigenous people live less than an hour’s walk away from oil production sites. Researchers have found that the closer they live to the oil sites, the more frequently they suffer from cancer and high lead levels in their blood. This is especially scary for children because high lead levels can severely harm their development.14753 In more recent years, the Peruvian Environmental Agency has been at the companies’ heels. Between 2011 and 2021, Pluspetrol Norte alone had to pay more than USD 47 million in fines for environmental destruction. Still, the dirty practices continue.1475514757

A Lifetime Fight

In both Ecuador and Peru, indigenous communities are fighting the oil companies. To force the unwanted guests out of the rainforest, they are organizing in different regional and global alliances like the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative or Alianza Ceibo.1475914761 With protests, blockades and lawsuits, they have already driven international companies like ConocoPhillips, Eni and Petrobras out of the Amazon rainforest.14763

Oil and gas resistance in the Ecuadorian Amazon has expanded into national courtrooms and sparked international campaigns. All the way to Ecuador’s highest court, an alliance of indigenous organizations demanded a greater say on extraction projects. In February 2022, they won. The supreme court judges decided that oil, gas and mining projects cannot go through if affected communities do not agree.14765 With the court’s backing, indigenous people now guard their lands from bulldozers and excavators.14767 However, the struggle is not over. Petroecuador continues to build new platforms, wells, and roads inside Yasuni National Park in the territories of isolated indigenous peoples.14769 Other companies, like GranTierra, CNPC and Frontera Energy also want to expand their activities in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Verónica Grefa, leader of the indigenous Toyuca community (left) and Severino Sharupi, Shuar leader of Pastaza won’t be silent until all oil companies have left their home. Credit: Alejandra Yépez Jácome, Amazon Watch

In some indigenous communities in Peru, the fight against oil and gas drilling on their lands is becoming a lifetime task. One prominent example of indigenous resistance against oil production in the Amazon rainforest is the persistent fight of the Achuar People of the Pastaza River and the Wampis Nation. For 3 decades, they have effectively defended their lands against the attempts of international oil companies, such as Oxy, Talisman, and Geopark, to drill for oil in oil concession block number 64. Now, these communities are taking on state-owned Petroperú, a company infamous for its history of pipeline spills and destruction.14771 Oil companies eager to expand into the Amazon have tried to spread distrust and division within the indigenous communities to prevent resistance. However, the Achuar People of the Pastaza River and the Wampis Nation have kept up the fight.14773

The Peruvian courts have not been of much help for the long-lasting fight of indigenous communities. In 2021, the highest Peruvian court turned down a case filed by the Achuar indigenous people against oil and gas activities on their land. The judgment undermines affected communities’ rights to free, prior, and informed consent.14775 However, the fight will not stop there. The Achuar People plan to overturn this judgment in the Interamerican system. They have already filed a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).14777

To banish all oil companies from their home once and for all, indigenous peoples and NGO allies are increasingly targeting financiers and investors.1477914781 Any financial institution backing oil companies in the Amazon must expect resistance.

Especially in Peru and Ecuador, oil and gas projects encroach on indigenous people's territory. Credit: Earth InSight

Groups working on the Amazon Sacred Headwaters: Aidesep, Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, Pachamama Alliance, CONFENIAE - Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, ORPIO - Organización Regional de los Pueblos Indígenas del Oriente, Gobierno Territorial Autónomo de la Nación Wampís, Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative, Alianza Ceibo, Clínica Ambiental, Centro de Políticas Públicas y Derechos Humanos - Perú EQUIDAD, Unidad Territorio Justicia y Libertad, Amazon Watch,, SOMO, Oxfam Novib, If not us then who, Amazon Frontlines

Further Reading:

Sources: Chapter 28, p.3 Chapter 24, p. 3……………