On a Saturday afternoon in January of last year, over 10,000 barrels of crude oil were unleashed into the sea off the coast of Lima, Peru.
The landscape had, until that point, been a hub for human and animal activity—local artisanal fishermen had long depended on healthy coastlines and oceans for their livelihood. But what was once one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems quickly became a sickening testament to human negligence when Repsol, a Spanish multinational oil company, inadvertently caused the worst ecological disaster in Peru’s recent history.
It didn’t take long for the damage to spread. Within weeks, the oil had ravaged 25 beaches, and enveloped an expanse of approximately 106 square kilometers, equivalent in size to Paris. The repercussions were devastating. Fish could be seen floating lifelessly in nearby waters, while birds and mammals desperately searched for refuge amidst the contamination. In turn, small-scale fishing communities lost their income, causing Repsol to provisionally pledge a monthly payment of US $750 to each affected fishermen in damages. (These payments were described as incomplete.) It also prompted Indigenous organizations to once again speak out on the state’s systemic inaction on oil spills that have affected their ancestral lands and the waterways on which they depend for decades.
It didn’t take long for news of the oil spill to spread either—followed by outrage and calls for accountability. Environmental activists rallied to draw attention to the scale of the damage and the plight of those affected. Fishermen staged protests outside the refinery, while advocates marched down to Repsol’s headquarters. Their demands were clear: not only should the company clean up the oil, but it must also assume complete responsibility, rectify all the inflicted harm, and adopt stringent measures to avert future calamities.
Among those taking action was photographer Lizeth Lozano Palomino, who started work on her long-term project, Orilla Negra, with the aim of documenting those affected by the crisis. “It all began when I saw the news about my country and also the social media posts of different people who were reporting [on] the oil spill, [but] no one was doing anything about it—not even the media,” Palomino told Atmos. “That made me very sad and angry because, once again, my country was being hit, and there were no strict measures in place to prevent it from happening again.”
In a bid to confront the wide-ranging effects of the ecological disaster, Orilla Negra combines multiple media to tell a complex story: devastating wide-angle landscape shots are placed alongside intimate portraits of affected families, documented through Palomino’s characteristically raw and honest lens. Orilla Negra is also a film that speaks to the daily reality of the crisis by drawing attention to its adverse financial and health implications through poignant interviews with those on the frontlines of the oil spill.
“My mother was born in Ancón, and therefore, my childhood was spent in those seas that are now completely contaminated by oil,” said Palomino. “Also, seeing people complaining, and [then seeing] the responsible parties and the Peruvian government doing nothing about it—[it was an] opportunity to create my project with the aim of finding solutions and getting more eyes from around the world [on] this climate emergency that my country and, therefore, my planet are suffering.”
“Bringing together more than 2,500 people from different locations, all holding hands, was a way to show the oil company that we are humans.”
A few months later, in late 2022, the project was announced as the winner of #CreateCOP27, an annual open call for creatives initiated by Art Partner that aims to raise awareness around the urgent issues that the United Nations Climate Change Conference should be tackling head on. And as Art Partner opens up submissions for #CreateCOP28, Orilla Negra’s urgency continues to resonate. After all, this year’s COP is set to take place in Dubai with Sultan al-Jaber, head of oil giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the world’s largest oil companies, as president-designate—a decision that has attracted furious backlash. Lawmakers have since penned a joint letter, directed at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President Joe Biden, highlighting the dangers of the “undue influence” fossil fuel companies will now inevitably exert on the negotiations.
It is in part why Art Partner established a platform for artists to shed light on the urgent climate-related issues prevailing in their communities. As fossil fuel companies continue to exert unreasonable and irresponsible power over agenda-setting climate talks, artists like Palomino become all the more crucial in effectively conveying the gravity of the climate emergency on populations worldwide.
“[Orilla Negra] was very complex, but not difficult to do. I faced many challenges from which I learned and understood how important it is to take care of our environment,” she said. “I investigated the entire process of the disaster and the significant [damage] that Repsol caused in our sea. So, I decided to face reality and find solutions.”
Over the last 18 months, Repsol has incurred fines of almost €5.5 million (US $6.2 million) from Peru’s environmental authorities in addition to paying over €11 million (US $12.3 million) for its mishandling of the disaster. But such sums fall short of making a substantial impact. The Peruvian government, which was criticized for not acting fast or efficiently in the months following the oil spill, said that estimated damages surpassed $3 billion in addition to $1.5 billion in collective non-material damages. Among those worst affected by the sanitization operation were the out-of-work fishermen hired by Repsol to assist in the cleanup efforts who were paid 50 soles (US $13) a day as they worked to restore the contaminated beaches.
“The biggest challenge was confronting the multinational company Repsol, fighting and being the spokesperson for the entire affected population, demanding justice and awareness of the damage caused,” said Palomino. “Bringing together more than 2,500 people from different locations, all holding hands, was a way to show the oil company that we are humans and that we feel the mistreatment of nature and animals that are not to blame for this catastrophe.”
But the road ahead is long. And the struggle to secure comprehensive reparations for the environmental devastation caused by Repsol as well as guarantees that prevent similar disasters in the future is an ongoing battle. Art is a powerful tool for communicating the plights of our times. But what happens when governments refuse to listen? Like COP’s decision to appoint an oil boss to lead the climate summit (who was then accused of greenwashing his Wikipedia profile after allegedly erasing mentions of a multibillion-dollar oil deal he signed in 2019), corporations like Repsol are turning a blind eye to the catastrophic high stakes of industrial activity and big oil.
“CreateCOP announced me as the winner, and I was featured in some news media,” said Palomino. “However, in my country, [the situation] has not been acknowledged. So far, the company has not shown any clear resolution. They have only provided minimal compensation to the population, but they haven’t done anything for the sea. We don’t have the support of the Peruvian government, and this process has been shelved. [As for me], I [will be] continuing this fight.”