Polluted river in Peru gains legal rights

A Peruvian court recently ruled in favour of a group of indigenous women, recognising the Marañón River as a legal entity with inherent rights. The river is subject to repeated oil spills, and the Peruvian government and oil company Petroperú has been ordered to stop the pollution.

OVER 60 OIL SPILLS: The Marañón River flows from high in the Andes and is one of the main sources of the Amazon River. There have been more than 60 oil spills into the river from the Norperuano pipeline between 1997 and 2019. Photo: Shutterstock

By Regnskogfondet.

Since 2021, a group of Kukama indigenous women have been leading a legal battle against the state, the oil company and the Peruvian authorities. They have demanded protection of the important Marañón River, which flows from high up in the Andes and is one of the main sources of the Amazon River.

Over 60 oil spills

There have been more than 60 oil spills into the Marañón River from the Norperuano pipeline between 1997 and 2019. The pipeline is operated by the oil company Petroperú.

Illegal gold mining has released mercury and other hazardous metals into the ecosystem.

Kukama Indigenous communities and others in the Loreto area rely on the Marañón River ecosystem as a source of sustenance, drinking water and for the irrigation of crops.

OIL LEAKAGE: Oil leaks from pipes that transport oil through the rainforest are a major problem in Peru. Photo: Stefan Kistler/Rainforest Foundation Norway

Raising environmental awareness

The Kukama women have demanded that the environmental damage be fixed, but also that the Marañón River and its tributaries are recognised as rights holders. The river should have an inherent right to exist, flow, give life to animals and plants and remain free from pollution.

Now the court in Nauta, in the province of Loreto, has ruled in favour of the river and the indigenous women.

"We are pleased that the court has recognised the rights of the Marañon River. The judgement values the importance of rivers for life in every sense, and it raises awareness of the environmental crisis and the need to protect nature. It also recognises the longstanding efforts of the Kukama women's association Huaynakana to protect the river," says Beatriz Huertas, Rainforest Foundation Norway's expert on isolated Indigenous Peoples in Peru.

Oil company must stop pollution

In the decision, the judge ruled that Petroperú must fullfill its environmental obligations, such as stopping oil and chemical discharges into rivers.

The court has also called on the government to protect the rights of the Kukama people as representatives, guardians and defenders of the Marañón River and its tributaries.

PROTEST: Indigenous peoples in Peru have fought against oil extraction on their lands for many years. Here, representatives from the indigenous Achuar people demand legal recognition of their land rights. Photo: IIDS

Case handled by Rainforest Foundation Peru partner

The Kukama women's case has been handled by, among others, Maritza Quispe of the Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL). IDL is a legal organisation and one of Rainforest Foundation Norway's partners in Peru.

The lawsuit was directed against the oil company Petroperú, Peru's Ministry of Environment, the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP), the National Water Authority (ANA) and the Ministry of Energy and Mining.

New legal understanding

A new legal understanding is emerging in the world that nature has inherent rights. The judgement may still be appealed by the authorities and the oil company, but is nevertheless an important judgement that creates awareness about the importance of giving protective rights to vulnerable ecosystems. It also creates legal precedence.

"There are several examples of nature and rivers being granted such inherent legal rights, but the fact that this is happening in Peru is groundbreaking," says Siri Damman, senior advisor at Rainforest Foundation Norway's Peru and Colombia team.

Siri Damman

Senior Drivers of Deforestation Adviser, Peru and Colombia Program
(+47) 907 25 441