How investigative journalism exposed environmental damage in Latin America’s oil industry | Mongabay Impacts

In June 2023, Mongabay’s Spanish-language news team, Mongabay Latam, published a collaborative investigation titled “The Debt of Oil: More than 6,000 Uncleaned Wastes in Four Latin American Countries” with La Barra Espaciadora, Cuestión Pública, Rutas del Conflicto and El Deber that revealed the extent of environmental damage caused by the oil industry in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

In this collaborative and transnational investigation, Mongabay journalists Alexa Vélez Zuazo, Vanessa Romo and Yvette Sierra Praeli revealed more than 8,000 oil contaminated sites that, although they have been identified by governments, only 23% have been remediated. In other words, 6,371 points of contamination pose a risk to the environment and to the health of people living nearby, including Indigenous lands and protected areas.

“This research began in 2022 mapping controversial actors in the oil industry, companies that operate in Amazonian territories accumulating fines and sanctions for bad environmental practices without real consequences,” said Mongabay Latam managing editor Alexa Vélez Zuazo. “The results of this work allowed us to understand that it was also key to map where companies are leaving the toxic waste from their operations without remediation and what characteristics they had.”

Real-world impact

Oil found amongst marsh reeds. Photo by Juan Carlos Contreras.

The investigation’s findings grabbed the public’s attention, garnering 31 republications from outlets such as El Deber (Bolivia), El Espectador (Colombia), El Comercio (Peru) y Ladera Sur (Chile). This also inspired action and more public discourse between stakeholders and those involved with cleanup efforts. Mongabay Latam was contacted by the Environmental Liabilities Program of Profonanpe, the institution that leads the process of cleaning up some of the toxic waste sites in Peru, to recognize the importance of published work, despite being involved in the resolution of environmental liabilities.

In communication with Mongabay Latam, Profonanpe stated that remediation would begin by the end of 2023. However, the cleanup work is still pending. In addition, Profonanpe invited representatives from the National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA) of Colombia and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition (Maate) of Ecuador to speak at the Peru Remedia academic event held in September.

Furthermore, Vélez Zuazo was invited to present the investigation’s findings on Mexico’s public radio station, IMER, and Peru’s public television station, Televisión Nacional.

Similarly, in Colombia, neighboring fishing communities to the ones mentioned in the investigation, in Magdalena Medio, contacted The Debt of Oil journalists to inform them that they took Mongabay’s database of environmental oil liabilities to use it in a complaint against Ecopetrol in order to repair the environmental damage caused by the petroleum refineries company. The fishing communities of Puerto Wilches and El Llanito noted that the data analysis was key to demonstrate how the problem affected their territory.

“This research allowed Mongabay to generate three concrete actions. First, the institution in charge of the remediation processes in Peru requested a meeting to recognize the importance of the investigation and report on progress in their work. Second, a community in Colombia told us that they took the results of the database to include them in a lawsuit against Ecopetrol. And third, the stories were republished in more than 20 media outlets in eight Latin American countries.”

Environmental accountability in action

Through rigorous reporting, Mongabay remains committed to enabling access to information by holding industries, governments and other key decision makers accountable for their environmental practices. This case exposing environmental damage in the oil industry by our Spanish-language bureau is one example of many cases of real-world impact derived from objective, nonprofit journalism.

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