UK oil spill company Perenco endangers indigenous tribes and represses communities in the Global South

Perenco logo overlaid on a map of the world, with an oil spill pattern stretching across the image.
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This is part two of a two-part series exploring fossil fuel company Perenco’s impact on communities and the environment across the world. You can read part one here.

On Sunday 26 March, fossil fuel company Perenco polluted the strictly protected waters of Poole Harbour in Dorset. As an important marine space for seabirds and sub-tidal species, the government has designated multiple protected sites in the harbour itself and the surrounding area. Consequently, The Guardian pointed out that this latest Perenco oil spill incident showed how even strictly protected areas are “not immune to pollution from oil spills”.

However, Perenco’s operations elsewhere have long shown that protected area designations are no shield from environmental destruction. Furthermore, the company has used these designations to render indigenous people ‘squatters’ in their own lands.

Moreover, Perenco has a pattern of alleged collusion with military forces. In some cases, these links have served to suppress and criminalise protesters fighting the company’s operations. But as its record of corporate and environmental offences demonstrates, the multinational fossil fuel company is the real criminal.

Oil spills in biodiversity hotspots and militarised conservation

Part one of this article series explored the damage that Perenco was causing to the environment and communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There, the company has polluted the waters in Muanda, a town on the mouth of the Congo river.

The DRC government has designated part of this area a marine National Park. It is also a Ramsar wetland site of international importance. Ramsar sites are wetland habitats designated for conservation under the United Nations (UN) 1971 Convention on Wetlands. Notably, the park is home to a critically endangered manatee population. Disclose reported that the company flares gas and leaks crude oil onto the ground and into the watercourses of the fragile Mangroves National Park.


Likewise, in Guatemala, Perenco has operated oil wells in Laguna del Tigre National Park since 2001. In 2015, communities who lived close to a Perenco well in the park reported an oil spill. At the time, the fossil fuel firm was operating in the park illegally. This was because the company had failed to obtain an approved Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for their operations. Nevertheless, in 2010, the Guatemalan government extended its permit for a further 15 years.

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If governments continue to permit or fail to prevent illegal extractive oil and gas projects in these areas, who exactly are they protecting the environment from?

In the case of Laguna del Tigre National Park, it was the indigenous communities who lived there. As part of its extended permit agreement with the government, Perenco funded the park’s “green battalion”. These eco-guards have repressed and intimidated inhabitants. Moreover, the protected status of the park has resulted in the eviction of multiple communities in the forest area.

As recently as December 2022, Mongabay reported on a new bill that will renew Perenco’s oil and gas pipeline in the park. Even more worryingly, it could enable the company to expand drilling and construct further pipelines.

Endangering indigenous tribes

Worse yet, this isn’t the only place that Perenco has harmed indigenous communities. The company’s oil and gas operations in Peru have endangered uncontacted tribes. In August 2012, the Peruvian government approved an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Perenco to extract oil in a biodiversity reserve in the Amazon rainforest. Uncontacted indigenous groups were living here in voluntary isolation. Survival International stated that:

This is an area inhabited by at least two vulnerable uncontacted tribes who may well be destroyed by Perenco’s work there.

More recently, in August 2022, according to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Perenco attempted to sue the Peruvian government. The company initiated the legal action over government plans to establish the Napo-Tigre Indigenous Reserve. This reserve would prevent oil, gas, and other extractive industries from entering the territories of uncontacted tribes. Notably, Perenco only withdrew the lawsuit in November 2022.

However, Mongabay reported that the ministry for culture wrote a letter to Perenco to confirm that the company can continue to operate inside the reserve. Currently, Peru’s congress is considering a new bill which could revoke the new Napo-Tigre Indigenous Reserve. As a result, it could open the area up to further oil drilling by Perenco.

Repressing communities

On top of all this, when indigenous and local communities have resisted, Perenco has turned to repressive tactics. In an essay for Sur Journal, Isabela Figueroa explained how the oil company uses “coercive means to attain their goals”. Figueroa detailed how, in an agreement for community development in Ecuador, the fossil fuel firm wrote into the terms that:

the community, represented by its president and the full Commission, authorizes Perenco to use public force, impose order, and arrest any member of the community who attempts to paralyze construction of the pipeline, for whatsoever reason.

Moreover, in Ecuador, Perenco has potential ties with military forces that have violently suppressed opposition to the company’s activities. Campaign group Acción Ecológica has suggested that Perenco has links with the military in Ecuador. In 2006, campesinos (farmers) held a demonstration against Perenco over its environmental impacts in Orellana province. Police and the military reportedly used tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters. Additionally, the military arbitrarily detained Wilman Jiménez Salazar – a member of the Orellana Human Rights Committee – for 17 days.

Criminal connections

However, repressive state military forces are not the only armed groups Perenco has purportedly collaborated with. In 2012, a Colombian newspaper accused Perenco of funding Colombian paramilitary groups. In a series of court hearings, members of the right-wing paramilitary umbrella organisation Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) detailed the company’s connection to their illicit activities.

Moreover, the members explained how the fossil fuel corporation had financed them. In the early 2000s, Perenco allegedly contributed hundreds of thousands of pounds to far-right groups. In one instance, they claimed that the company had even provided a van for the counter-guerilla forces to transport their remittances.

The paramilitary coalition murdered thousands of civilians between 1997 and 2008. These included farmers, indigenous and leftist leaders, and unionists. The AUC’s violent kidnappings, drug trafficking and extortion also displaced millions of people from their communities. However, while some multinationals have faced trial for their links to these forces, there is no indication that Perenco has been held to account for its role.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Perenco was named as a partner in the state oil company’s billion-dollar money laundering and embezzlement scheme. Again, Perenco has yet to face accountability for its involvement.

Nevertheless, some communities in the Global South are a step closer to bringing the company to justice for its illegal actions. On the same day Perenco estimated that they had recovered 60% of the oil spill in Poole Harbour, French corruption police raided the company’s Parisian offices. They were searching for incriminating documents on the company’s operations across Africa. These will hopefully detail information on the firm’s bribery of officials in the African countries in which Perenco operates. According to the report by Challenges, France’s National Financial Prosecutor’s Office (PNF) has opened several preliminary investigations into the company’s suspected corruption abroad.

Polluters must pay

On March 27, ministers raised questions about the Poole Harbour incident in the House of Commons. The undersecretary for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Rebecca Pow, hesitated to confirm that the government would initiate criminal proceedings against Perenco. Speaking to the chamber, she said:

The EA [environment agency] will, of course, investigate if there is enough evidence to suggest that a crime has potentially been committed. Where a crime has been committed, and after the due process is followed, fines are possible.

However, local campaigners in Dorset have called for the polluter to pay for the environmental damage Perenco has caused with the oil spill. Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Extinction Rebellion held a protest on Monday 27 on Poole Quay. Multiple placards read their core demand: “Perenco out.”

As the UK Conservative government criminalises protest with their suite of repressive legislation, Perenco’s actions internationally are a reminder that the destructive fossil fuel industry will be one of the main beneficiaries. Moreover, indigenous and local communities across the planet have a common enemy and a shared goal. In short, Perenco and other polluters must pay for their crimes against people and the planet. And every non-profit, community and country that takes action against Perenco is a step towards the end of fossil fuel capitalism. Most importantly, it is a step closer to justice for all those it has harmed.

We can start by supporting Survival International’s campaign against the new anti-indigenous bill in Peru. The legislation would revoke the Napo-Tigre Indigenous Reserve. As a result, it would open the area up to further oil and gas extraction by Perenco.

Feature image via Hannah Sharland

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