Fresh back from the United States, I was anxious to get out into the field again to check on Alianza Arkana’s many projects and campaigns here in Loreto, particularly among the indigenous federations we support in their struggle to protect their territories from industry. It only took a few days before Kukama indigenous leader Alfonso Lopez offered me a chance.
Lopez’ federation, ACODECOSPAT – Association for the Conservation and Development of San Pablo De Papishca – is now a flagship federation in the region, bouncing back after a devastating oil spill by Argentine oil company PlusPetrol on the lower Marañon River in 2010. Alianza Arkana and our legal partners PDDI have been working closely with Lopez and the federation apus – community leaders – to strengthen the communities and the federation as it sues PlusPetrol, monitors other oil spills, and pressures the regional government for services and support long overdue.
Lopez invited Alianza Arkana associate Lauren Baker, a Yale doctoral candidate studying indigenous politics in the region, and I to a series of meetings in the Marañon port town of Nauta, the only other city or town you can drive to from Iquitos, which stands with Nauta as sort of an urban island here in the forest.
What a refreshing sight! Nearly one hundred apus and comuneros/as – and even some of their children – from many of ACODECOSPAT’s 57 registered native communities had traveled downriver and packed the Regional Government hall in Nauta for two days, listening to about a dozen government ministers and other officials explain ongoing programs in education, health, agriculture and more, with plenty of time for questions.
What made the meetings special was this: usually the government officials respond only to Lopez and key leaders in closed door sessions, usually after many unfruitful attempts and then only answered with platitudes and promises. But the way Lopez arranged it last week in Nauta, the bureaucrats had to answer to the people themselves. It was an interesting reversal and a huge display of federation strength. The Regional Government of Loreto, for its part, bought all one hundred of them breakfast, lunch and dinner for two days at a popular restaurant – a big expense for an institution housed in a building with no running water, no toilet seats and trouble keeping the electricity bill paid.
It may seem like a minor victory, but here in the jungle most people are accustomed to cold shoulders from government, not the warm welcomes the Kukama got. The showing of ACODECOSPAT allowed the people to look the public servants in the eye. Refreshing, indeed!
But with Lopez at the mic, no meeting would be complete without tough questions about the devastating effects of oil contamination on the Marañon. The officials, none of them experts in the field, all agreed that it was somewhat of a 800-pound gorilla in the room – that their ambitious programs for infant and maternal health, bilingual and intercultural education, small loans for planting camu camu and similar crops, were all probably moot points if the people and environment are being sickened by PlusPetrol’s oil and chemicals and waste; and they all agreed that the biggest problem on the river was oil.
The official’s exasperated shrugs and inability to give definite answers let the Kukama people know that they could not wait for their government to defend them. And I expect the demonstration will sharpen resolve in Kukama communities all along the Marañon to press on with law suits and fortify themselves for the next time they confront PlusPetrol directly on the river.
Wednesday, 14 March 2012