Seeing an Abusive Oil Industry through Indigenous Eyes

One would assume its native inhabitants might enjoy at least some of the same official focus and respect given to the Amazon Rainforest as it was nominated one of the “Seven Wonders of Nature” this week on the international scene.

Instead, indigenous people from Peru’s Amazon region say that they have rarely been so forsaken — abandoned by their own government and abused by foreign companies drilling in their forest territories for oil.

On Thursday, the 40th Anniversary of Oil Exploitation in Amazon region of Loreto, indigenous leaders from throughout the region staged rallies and marched through the streets of Iquitos, displaying their nascent intertribal unity and counter-spinning the official story that 40 years of oil extraction in Loreto has been a blessing for the people of Peru.

Together they have presented a public declaration of rights and demands and their own vision of development that they will soon send to all levels of government in Peru.

“These times that we are living are like in the times of the Spanish when we lost our freedom, and like when they enslaved us during the times of rubber. It’s the same as what is happening today, during the forty years that we have lived under the exploitation of oil,” said Andres Sandi Macushua, leader of the FECONACO federation of Achuar people from the Rio Corrientes.

“That’s why, brothers, we standing here in front of you today to say ‘no more’ to the oil companies. Because our families have suffered enough, they are ill and there is no solution for us with the oil companies.”

Loreto, 1971

Leaders gathered in Iquitos for the “memorial” described the advent of oil production in their region as a kind of original sin.

On November 17, 1971, U.S. oil giant Occidental Petroleum plunged its drills deep into the forest floor of the Trumpeteros district of the Corrientes basin, establishing the Corrientes X-1 as the first operational oil well in the region of Loreto. When crude oil first flowed there early the next year, the moment was heralded as an auspicious start for Peru, launching the region’s first major oil rush and catapulting public aspirations from ‘Third World’ into the ‘First.’

With no prior experience of industrial development, local indigenous inhabitants of the region were left out of the decision-making, but they were promised their share.

“I remember watching the reports and stories in the newspapers,
saying that oil exploitation was the beginning of development for the country and, even more, for the indigenous peoples living in Lot 1-AB and Lot 8,” said Edwin Vasquez, leader of COICA — Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon — and President of ORPIO — the Regional Indigenous Organization of Loreto — speaking this week in Iquitos.

“Instead … during the last 40 years, the only thing we have through the exploitation of oil is contamination, destruction of the resources on which our brothers survive, and the slow death of our brothers who live there,” he said.

Contamination and conflict

Specifically, the “slow death” Vasquez many other indigenous leaders testified to this week has come as a result of contamination from the industry’s frequent oil spills and toxic wastewaters that, until only recently, were dumped or pumped directly into streams, ponds and the rivers themselves affecting the locals who only have the river water from which to drink, bathe and fish.

As far as the ongoing spills, there have been at least 90 in the Corrientes region alone by a single company since 2006, after the company was put on notice and temporarily brought under scrutiny by Achuar people in a series of aggressive protests.

“Before the petrol company came, we had many different species, animals, plants, but after their arrival, the animals, fish and trees started to disappear, and the river contamination kept increasing and increasing up to now,” said Roosevelt Casternaque Torres, 51, of Tarapaca on the Maranon.

“Right now the contamination is serious. Now the fish are sick… they have spots and tumors like this all over their bodies….

“This means that the contamination is making everything sick and is killing the natural resources in our lakes and rivers. It is killing everything,” he said.

Just as it poisons the water, the industry has contaminated their culture and sense of community as well. The new money and consumer products sow division – some incidental and some by design and erode communal ways. Kukama leader Alfonso Lopez says the intrusion represents a break with “los espiritus de nuestros antipasados” – the spirits of their ancestors.

“When the oil companies enter, they say they bring development, they say they bring assistance,” said Aurelio Chino Dahua, Quechua leader of FEDIQUEP, who spoke Thursday in Iquitos after the march.

“On every corner now (in Andoas, on the Pastaza) there are discotheques, there are bars. This is their ‘development!” Dahua said.

“Go to Andoas and ask for the professionals trained with the company’s money. There are none!” he said.

History of Exclusion

Since it hatched in the early 70s, the industry and ills that began on the Corrientes has spread throughout Loreto, to the Tigre, Pastaza, Maranon as the government hacked up territory on maps and hawked oil as-rich sectors as “blocks” with various schemes of payment and use by foreign companies.

At least 72 percent of Peru’s Amazon was thus divided into blocks and leased or up for contracts by 2008 with more in the works to date. These days, according to the national oil and gas company PetroPeru, Loreto accounts for at least 60 percent of the oil produced in Peru.

To defend themselves, indigenous people of all four major rivers have organized themselves into federations. Among those participating this week in Iquitos were FEDIQUEP, mainly composed of Quechua people from the Rio Pastaza; FECONAT, representing Kichua communities on the Tigre; ACODECOSPAT, a tightly knit organization of 56 Kukama communities from the Maranon; and FECONACO, the flagship federation of Achuar from the Corrientes.

“For 40 years they have ignored us, refused to dialogue. Unfortunately we cannot realize a single benefit, or get any kind of relief or help unless we demand it in the streets or mobilize in the our territories,” said Adolfo Rengito Hualinga said as he marched down a rain-soaked avenue in the jungle port town of Iquitos with about 150 indigenous people, students and activists Thursday.

Actions taken in Rengito’s native Corrientes basin, the place it all started four decades ago, provide a good example of what happens when the government and companies refuse to listen.

Legacy of Harm

In 2006 — after more than a generation of increasingoil on the corrientes – 5.jpg illness and depleted harvests, fish stocks and game — Achuar armed with spears closed parts of the river and took over the pumping stations and airfields of Argentinean driller Pluspetrol, which had bought out Occidental’s claims in 2000.

Costing the company millions of dollars a day for two weeks, the Achuar’s bold move forced the government and company officials to the negotiating table where the Achuar won a landmark pact which stopped one of the industry’s worst crimes: the dumping of tens of millions of barrels of toxic “formation” wastewater into rivers and streams.

The agreement opened the door for the first-ever health and environmental surveys in the area, the results of which showed extreme levels toxins in the Achuar including lead and cadmium — tell-tale indicators of poisoning by petroleum and the byproducts of oil. The studies vindicated their complaints of headaches, fevers, rashes, tumors and deaths.

Amazon Watch and EarthRights, through their work with the Achuar federation FECONACO, aptly named their report on the studies, a “Legacy of Harm.”

Among other shocking revelations, the study showed that during its 35 years of operations Occidental had knowingly dumped an average of 850,000 barrels per day of toxic oil by-products directly into rivers and streams used by the Achuar for drinking, bathing, washing, and fishing; and used unlined pits, prohibited in the U.S., to store drilling chemicals, crude oil, and industrial by-products which leeched and seeped into streams.

Now facing another unwelcomed incursion of their territory by Talisman energy, Achuar are fighting again – this time through the courts, for as long as they can, and this time by joining hands with the other federations from the four major watersheds in the region under PUINAMUDT – Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon United in Defense of their Territories.

Maranon, Pastaza, Tigre and Beyond

Since it bought the original oil block known as Block 1-AB from Occidental in 2000, Pluspetrol has assumed the role as chief polluter on the rios Corrientes, Tigre, Pastaza and Maranon. Pluspetrol has recently been joined in the region by the Spanish driller Repsol, Anglo-French operator Perenco, and Canadian companies Petrolifera and Talisman, among others, who are mostly still exploring and testing. Conditions on the rivers continue to worsen and relationships with the regional government and company officials are uneasy, at best.

In 2008, less than two years after the Achuar confronted Pluspetrol on the Corrientes, Quechua, Kandoshi, Achuar and Urarina activists on the Rio Pastaza, organized under the federation FEDIQUEP, seized Pluspetrol’s airfield, occupied pumping stations by force and shut down company operations in the region for several days.

Their actions resulted in the Acta Pastaza, an agreement with the regional government to begin a process of investigation, remediation and development along the Pastaza. The government has lagged on its promises, however, says FEDIQUEP leader Chino Dahua. Even an unprecedented meeting with a high level commission of ministries several weeks ago let them down when only low-level officials showed up and offered no promises of any kind.

Another showdown looms.

“We’ve asked (regional governor) Ivan Vasquez to visit us in Andoas three times. He hasn’t come and they are still not listening to us,” Dahua said at one of the recent panels as leaders sought solutions. “What are we supposed to do? How long are we supposed to wait?”

Hope in Unity

For all their bleak assessments of the oil industry’s four-decade legacy, the leaders gathered in Iquitos this week seemed to go about their work with a sense of satisfaction, similar to how they enthusiastically swing machetes shoulder to shoulder during their traditional communal work parties, or mingas.

This is part of their process of unifying peoples and river sheds, they say, another step against the oil companies and toward their own vision of development in harmony with nature.

“This economic system divides people. And when people are divided, they only look for personal interest. And when this happens, the people lose their strength, and when we lose our strength, they [the oil companies] do whatever they want with our land, and that is what is happening now,” said Jose Decena Fachin, 31, one of the younger generation of leaders of FEDIQUEP.

“That is why being united is very important,” he said.

“Defending the Amazon is not just an issue for the people of Loreto,” indigenous lawyer Jorge Tacuri said after Thursday’s march. “It’s issue for the whole world. It’s an issue for humanity.”

This week the leaders thanked their allies – international and local – and pleaded for others to join their struggle.

“That’s why we are calling all the people, indigenous and non indigenous, nationals and foreigners, to join us in our cause,” said Fachin, “to create an alternative economic model that is different to this [model], with tradition that is sustainable, that doesn’t damage our resources, that doesn’t extract or take from nature senselessly, without taking into account other lives, and the people who live there.”

Deborah Rivett, Sunday, 20 November 2011
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