A vital undertaking in solidifying indigenous defense of their rights

Alfonso is an incredibly compelling speaker and his message is powerful – that you cannot negotiate with life, health, and the environment (he emphasized to the rapt audiences in the communities that there is no price on the life of yourself, your family members, or that of future generations), and that the oil company must be held responsible (legally, in a court case to be filed this year) for contaminating their river.

His message in a nutshell:

• First: After the large June 16, 2010 oil spill in the Marañón, it was an impressive victory that he and other indigenous leaders were able to demand and receive urgent attention from the company in the way of food aid, and medicine, and water, as well as promises of medium-term projects to benefit their livelihoods. However, this does not negate the need to denounce the company legally and demand that they pay damages in accordance with an economic estimate of harms committed. Rather than leaving it to the company to determine their willingness to pay when it comes to compensation and indemnization, Alfonso suggests that there should be a quantification by experts (‘tecnicos’) of all harms committed, including analyses of human health (e.g., testing of blood, urine, hair and nails) and environmental contamination (including tests of water, fish, and select crops, especially those that are known to have a high absorptive capacity for contaminants). These studies will contribute to the evidence needed for a legal case, which is in the pipeline for this year, and also motivates the urgency to seek solutions to the continuing environmental problems (i.e., crimes). On the other hand, Alfonso is cognizant that this is a long term battle and goal, and that the studies and lawsuit will be expensive to conduct and will require myriad outside supporters and experts to go forward (including lawyers, funders, biologists, economists, and others).

• Second: Contamination is a serious and pressing problem. For example, Alfonso cited the finding of the Peruvian research institution, IIAP (the Institute for Research about the Peruvian Amazon), that fish in the Marañón are contaminated with heavy metals. Specifically, IIAP reported in an October 2010 report that a number of bottom-feeding fish in San Pablo de Tipischa lake and various other test points along the Marañón have lead levels that exceed the maximum permissible legal limit; that all fish species analyzed exceeded maximum permissible limits for cadmium; other metals like iron and zinc were in high concentrations in some species; and that ambient water levels in all of their test sites exhibited lead concentrations that exceeded maximum permissible limits (0.001 parts per million), as well as oil levels that exceeded national water standards established in the national decree (‘decreto supremo’) 002-2008, administered by national Ministry of the Environment. Alfonso aptly noted to community members that these types of metals, once taken in, are not urinated or defecated out, but rather accumulate in their bodies.

Furthermore, given their lifestyles as a river-based culture, Alfonso emphasizes that they have no other option than to continue to eat contaminated fish and drink water they know is contaminated, which is an unfortunate situation and a violation of their rights. (Note: we also heard testimonies from numerous community members of other far-reaching effects of contamination, including reports of diminished fish numbers and sizes, and significant impacts on crops, including on occasion, full scale loss of rice and maize crops). Alfonso also noted what they all seem to know and agree with: that far from being a one-off event, oil spills and water contamination is prevalent and continues. This year alone, Alfonso was able to point to medium- to large spills in June, December and 2 spills in January, and while we were on the journey another small spill reportedly occurred as recently as May 2 near Saramuro.

• Third: Apart from oil concessions, there are a range of other threats to the Amazon and to their lives and livelihoods. These include, especially, the push for individual land titling (‘parcelization’) promoted by Hernando de Soto and others, as well as the proposed revision to the Ley Forestal (Forestry Law), which he considers to be the two primary threats to indigenous lands and territories at the moment. He suggested that parcelization will prompt the dissolution of indigenous communities, the loss of territories that are vital to their livelihoods but extend far beyond anything they would receive in individually titled plots, and the temptation for community members to sell their land, which he considers to be an inevitable precursor to disruption and ruin for those that sellout over the long term. In terms of the Ley Forestal, Alfonso decried the way in which the law would prompt the “reversion” (i.e., appropriation) of indigenous territories to the state so that the lands could be “more efficiently utilized.”

Alfonso also referred to a panoply of other threats, like the construction of a railroad being built from Pucallpa to Yurimaguas that he suggests will bring an influx of immigrants that will threaten indigenous land rights; plans to dredge the Marañón (in order to facilitate large barges), which may disturb sediments and kill off fish populations; plans to divert water to the coast; and the possibility of a surge in biofuel production in the region.

Since Alfonso is such a powerful speaker, I would be remiss to recap his message without sharing his voice directly, so here are a few direct quotes:

• When we started this indigenous federation in 2000, many people said that “what Alfonso Lopez wants is for us to return to how we lived before – without shirts, without pants, covered in nothing but leaves – but this isn’t the case. We began to think at that time [in 2000] that we have to feel empowered about what we’ve received from our forefathers, and that society respects this: respects, first and foremost, our indigenous knowledge; secondly, our territory; and finally, our other rights that are recognized in national and international law, such as ILO 169 [the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of the International Labor Organization]. What we wanted was to begin to build a different world for ourselves, to begin to recognize the [importance of the] knowledge that we have acquired from our ancestors. They cannot deny us this – not yesterday, not now, and they cannot deny us this in the future, because we will continue thinking this way. Our blood is dyed red, and we will keep this [pure,] red indigenous [blood] forever. [We will keep] our way of living, which is how we have lived forever. They cannot deny us this.”

• What we need to know is “really, how they [the oil companies] have harmed us. How much does this harm amount to? And within these harms, we’re not only talking about the superficial level. We’re speaking about our culture, our relationship to nature and the environment, our relationship with our medicinal plants, and with our spirits. Within this is our life, my  brothers. For us, the water signifies life. We live in the water. Look – our plants feed from the water – at this very moment the plants are being nourished by the water. Who has raised this issue so far? The need to have analyses of our blood, our hair, our nails, and I don’t know what else, in order to realistically determine our state of health…

And it’s not only when we drink that we absorb [contaminated water] in our bodies. Our bodies also absorb water when we bathe. Our bodies also absorb the water that it needs, and from there we’re absorbing contaminated elements that continue to damage our health. These are big issues that don’t cost 100 soles [~US $35]; that don’t cost 1000 soles [~US $350]; that don’t cost 10,000 soles [~US $3,500]. Our existence, my brothers, our life, does not cost one million soles [~US $350,000]. The existence of our children does not cost one million soles. When you get sick, the money that they give you will not be enough to cure you. When your child gets sick, the money that they have given you does not mean that you will be able to see your child get cured.

Correspondingly, this has led us to have a clear position about the work that we’ve been carrying out from the beginning – to fight for the defense of our lives. To fight for the defense of the water, of the environment, and to demand that the companies pay for the harms that they’ve done to us…The spiritual and the material – we will be able to address both if we are united.

• Our allies “want to know, really, what it is that we want inside our communities. When I’m in the city, I speak to the press, using all forms of media that I can access, drawing on all of the sources for communication, in order to say that we are fighting for the defense of life, referring to our slogan developed in the February community meeting in Solterito [a meeting also made possible through support of Alianza Arkana]: that ‘our life is not up for negotiation.’ We shouted this to the world – that we would give our lives to defend our rights and the lives of our brothers – because our life is not up for negotiation, and the company needs to assume its responsibility to pay for the harms it has committed.

Meanwhile, there are others that say: ‘No, señores, we do not want to denounce the company. We want them to give us money – 12 million soles. Entering in a court case would delay 5, 10, 15 years. No – we don’t want this – we want to reconcile with the company so that they give us money.’

Therefore, our allies want to know what it is that the community members really want. We are visiting you here to know, really, what the people here want. You will define here what you want – Do you want to defend your life or convert your life into a negotiation? This is what you will decide – we are not here to pressure you. This is a decision, this should be a decision, that you make conscientiously, knowing realistically what harms they’ve inflicted on us.”

Within short order of any given community visit, the leadership in every single community we visited contacted Alfonso to confirm that the community is onboard – both with the federation and with ‘the denuncia’ (the legal case against  Argentinean oil company PlusPetrol for river contamination).

This strengthening of the federation and enhanced solidarity was an important accomplishment of the trip and was only made possible by the financial support of Alianza Arkana, since otherwise the federation does not have funds to do even seemingly straightforward actions, like boating around to visit base communities as we just finished doing (note: the price of fuel is very high in the region, despite being a producer of petroleum, and any monetary expense, like paying for gasoline, is a burden for these very cash-poor communities).

Alianza Arkana is also helping promote the funds to legalize the books and formally register the community leadership boards – important tasks in and of themselves, but made even more so since this will allow the community leaders to be formally file as legal representatives in the legal case against PlusPetrol – an action anticipated for later this year.

Deborah Rivett, Thursday, 16 June 2011