This week I witnessed a comeback that some here in the Amazon might call a miracle.
I saw Kukama federation leader Alfonso Lopez leading the apus, or presidents, of 52 of his federation’s base communities from the Rio Marañon in a 200-strong march with a dozen other indigenous groups through the streets of Iquitos chanting together against Big Oil in the Amazon.
They strode through crowded markets and plazas and roadways alive with a new sense of unity and confidence after they had all just
been legalized and registered as the legitimate chosen leaders of their indigenous communities, together as a federation surmounting the heap of logistical obstacles put in their way. Without that legal stamp, they would otherwise be left vulnerable to predatory oil, mining and timber companies and unable to sue Pluspetrol except as individuals.
At their request, Alianza Arkana had supported them to travel down from isolated villages tucked away in the quebradas and river banks and wetlands, often connected only by radio phone or canoe-borne messengers, to assemble in the port city of Iquitos this week, demonstrating their cohesion and resolve and reaffirming their collective intent to sue Pluspetrol for damages.
Some here might call this a miracle because only a few months ago it was widely believed that Lopez was out and that his federation was defunct – crippled by the selective use of cash and assistance by the notorious Argentinian oil giant Pluspetrol. But now, as we all saw here this week, ACODECOSPAT is clearly one of the strongest — if not the strongest — indigenous federation resisting oil companies in the entire Peruvian Amazon. And a strong federation is the only real voice indigenous people have out here in la selva.
Taking advantage of a ripe political moment, Lopez asked Alianza Arkana to help him reclaim his presidency from the imposters and reorganize his base to take on Pluspetrol in court. Alianza Arkana seized the moment and took on the task.
For over two months this spring Lopez journeyed tirelessly by small wooden boat and commercial lancha up the Marañon River, briefly
down the Amazon and up the Ucayali rivers to reach his base – the 54 communities represented by the indigenous federation ACODECOSPAT, the Cocama Association for the Development and Conservation, San Pablo Tipishca.
Many said it was a fool’s errand. Accompanying Lopez on part of the trip, I even joking named his wooden boat the Rosinante as he went about jousting with one of the most powerful industries in the world.
His federation was in shambles. After Lopez mobilized his base in the wake of a June, 2010 oil spill by Pluspetrol, the company deployed its “community relations” department, supporting rivals and a smear campaign against him that left his people unsure of who represented them.
It was a classic case of “divide and conquer – a tactic that indigenous and mestizo communities know well after 40 years of oil exploitation in the Peruvian Amazon.
But Lopez persisted, arriving unannounced in each village and slowly regaining the trust of each apu before addressing the community as a whole. He explained the company’s tactics, instructed them in how to organize their community assemblies and warned them about the struggles ahead. If I can, I will call for you to come to Iquitos to be legalized this summer, he said. Together we’ll make a comeback.
This week, with the help of Alianza Arkana, Lopez kept that promise.
Besides the obvious and important fact of solidifying their organization and giving them the strong collective voice that is so important in dealing with the outside world, their legalization adds important layers of protection against both the oil company and the state. Now that the apus are registered as the legitimate leaders of their indigenous communities, Pluspetrol must deal directly with the apu himself. Their communally-held land now has an extra layer of constitutional protection against state policies increasingly aimed at breaking up indigenous communal holdings into private parcels that can be sold off, clearing the path for oil, gas and mining companies and for large-scale commercial agriculture that Lopez warned would leave the Kukama people as peons on their own ancestral land.
But perhaps most important in the short run is that being legally registered allows each community to now be the legal plaintiff in an upcoming civil lawsuit against Pluspetrol for the June, 2010 oil spill that the rivers and wetlands, contaminated the precious Pacaya Samiria National Reserve and, according to them, made the Kukama people sick.
After this week’s historic forum on oil contamination in Iquitos the apus of ACODECOSPAT surrounded Lopez in the Gran Otorongo auditorium, energized with their sense of unity and bolstered by the days spend sharing experiences and forging a new strategy against oil companies with their indigenous brothers from other nearby rivers: the Quechua of the Pastaza, the Achuar of the Corrientes and the Kichwa of the Tigre, as well as many others.
Energized after their miraculous recovery and now that Lopez is firmly back in command, it will be up to them to take that energy and purpose back to their communities and gear up for the long, hard fight against Pluspetrol and any other companies who try to enter the Marañon.
In the words of the apu of the Marañon village of Victor Raul: “They’re going to have a hard time here.”
on Friday, 08 July 2011