Amazon Leaders Describe 40 Years of Oil Exploitation

When an Argentinean oil company spilled hundreds of barrels of oil into the Rio Marañon in June, 2010, crude and chemicals gushed downstream and seeped deep into the wetlands and lakes and lowland farming plots of the local communities along its banks.

For months local residents who bathed, drank and fished from the Marañon suffered rashes, fevers, other strange illnesses, and even reported deaths. Investigators later found heavy metals in the fish, and reported that plants sand soils impregnated with oil and trace chemicals, while the local people continued reporting burned crops, scarce fish, and inedible staple game animals such as majas with strange growths on their livers and meat.

It was just one spill. There were many before and have been many more since.

The Peruvian health agency later said the river water was “not apt for human consumption,” and suggested that the people living along that part of the Marañon find another source of water to drink and food to eat. The government did little to fix the problem and nothing to remove the theat.

First poisoned by foreigners, the people were then abandoned by their government.

That’s the status quo and that’s what has to end, says indigenous Kukama leader Alfonso Lopez Tejada, as he describes his people’s experience ever since the first oil well was tapped in the Peruvian Amazon region of Loreto 40 years ago this week.

“We remember that in 1971, the 17th of November, in this part of the planet, Mother Earth suffered one of her greatest internal pains. The land was dug up and her veins were to be drained. Oil began to be extracted, the very life blood of Mother Earth,” Lopez said in a fiery speech that characterized the kick-off event a week-long observation in Iquitos Monday. “Brothers, that moment, the beginning of that extraction, which ruptured the earth and began to kill the forests of the Amazon, the forests of our territories, began the destruction of our territories and lives.”

Demanding that the disaster stop, Lopez and other leaders are fighting back. Marking the date that oil first flowed, indigenous leaders from throughout the Peruvian Amazon have assembled in Iquitos this in defense of their land, communities and culture.

In workshops among the federations, by hosting public roundtable discussions and drafting a denunciation against the oil industry and declaration of their rights, at least a dozen indigenous leaders from the Peruvian rivers that feed the Amazon joined artists, activists, students and academics at various venues to build momentum toward a mass demonstration and march through the city planned for Thursday afternoon.

“Brothers, consider most important moment in the history of our indigenous peoples, because we are witnessing the unification and the willingness (of our peoples) to put away egos and work together in the defense of our Motherland,” Lopez said.

The federations from the rios Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre, Putumayo, Napo and others are assembled as PUINAMUDT – Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United to Defend their Territories — and are supported this week by guests such as renown anthropologist Alberto Chirif, who spoke on the impacts of oil and unsustainable economic model on Monday, and regional government officials who addressed public policy issues on day two.

In the short time since they united their efforts as PUINAMUDT this summer, taking advantage of dissatisfaction in the communities and a political opening as President Ollanta Humala took office, the Amazon leaders have developed a detailed political agenda that they carried to Congress and newly installed ministers in September.

Topping the agenda was a revision of all existing concessions and moratorium on new extractive industry concessions (including oil, gas, mining, hydroelectric and forestry operations that impact their territories and culture) while the revise the original contracts.

They also called for recognition and clear titling indigenous lands; direct benefits from existing oil and other extractive concessions, which they say don’t reach the communities; respect for indigenous organizations, including prosecuting of efforts to buy-off leaders or divide their organizations and communities with cash and gifts or promises thereof; and to end the infamously harsh legal persecution of their leaders for defending their communities and their rights.

In short, they demand that their own government defend them, as citizens and native peoples of Peru, rather than always advancing the interests of foreign companies. Instead of the environmental and cultural contamination they’ve experienced over the last 40 years, they demand development their territories according to their traditions, their cosmovision and ethic of harmony with nature.

Leaders say this week-long event in Iquitos reaffirms their unity and shows the public, the companies and the government that they are serious about achieving their demands.

“After 40 years of oil exploitation, where we have endured having to live with and drink contamination,” said Aurelio Chino Dahua, leader of the Quechua federation FEDIQUEP of the Pastaza. He and the others testified on the decades-long degradation of their environment, fresh divisions sown among native communities as well as a new willingness among their people to resist and insist on indigenous alternatives.

“For 40 years we stood waiting, and continue waiting for this discussion peacefully,” Chino Dahua said after announcing possible actions coming on the Pastaza.

“[But] I believe, brothers,” he said, “that now it’s not enough to continue waiting.”

For a video on the press conference and announcement to the people of Iquitos about this week’s activities, please visit our YouTube channel – here

Deborah Rivett, Wednesday, 16 November 2011

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