Working in the Community of Nuevo Sucre Part One: The Problem – Oil Contamination

Normally, as Education Director of Alianza Arkana, I write about the intercultural educational projects we are setting up with the Shipibo and other indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon.

In this blog entry, however, I want to write about recent experiences I have had with a Shipibo community suffering from the effects of an oil company operating within their territory.

I first visited the Shipibo community of Nuevo Sucre in mid-February this year with my son, Luke, a journalist based in London. Luke was writing an article about oil production in the Peruvian Amazon and, to investigate this further, we wanted to visit the two Shipibo communities (Canaán de Cachiyacu and Nuevo Sucre), which have experienced over 40 years of oil production on their territory.

Photo_2_3The flight from Pucallpa to Contamana, the nearest town to the two communities is spectacular. Thirty minutes flying low in a light airplane, criss-crossing the swollen, serpentine River Ucayali in full flood, as it winds its way north-eastwards to join the Amazon at Iquitos.

Despite having tried to tell the community of Nuevo Sucre we were visiting them, we were not expected. This immediately created an atmosphere of tension and resentment. However, as we explained why we were there, and the authorities in the community responded by telling their story of 40 years of involvement with oil companies, the atmosphere started to soften.

We were told that the oil company Maple Energy Plc (a relatively small integrated energy company registered in Ireland with interests in Peru) had acquired the concession to operate in this zone in 1994, taking over from the national Peruvian oil company PeruPetrol.

They have 27 wells in this area, nine of which are located in the ancestral territory of the community of Canaán de Cachiyacu. Permission to drill on this land has never been asked. An oil pipeline passes from the oil wells, through the territory of the community of Nuevo Sucre, to storage facilities on the banks of the river Ucayali.

DSCN2025An oil boat that has been rusting in the community river for several years.

Six oil spills have been documented within a few miles of Canaan and Nuevo Sucre between January 2009 and July 2010, adding to over forty years of crude seeping into the land and water, affecting people, animals, fish and vegetation in the area.

I had read about oil spills before and seen television images of them – as we all have – but I had never witnessed their effect close up in a community. It is one thing to read about this in a book or see it on the TV, quite another to experience it directly in the faces, bodies and spirits of the people affected. 

Three people in Nuevo Sucre have died suddenly in the last year. These people have started to suffer intense, agonizing abdominal pains, and have then died within 12 to 24 hours. The cause of these deaths has been officially registered as “enfermedades desconocidas” (unknown illnesses). In addition people in the community are suffering from skin, eye, stomach, liver, neurological, and reproductive problems.

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A recent report by a World Health Organization expert consultant on community health, based on video interviews with people from the community of Nuevo Sucre concluded that:

“I can conclusively state that the individuals in these communities have suffered ill health as a result of exposure to crude oil.”

I think it is unusual for a Medical Doctor and scientist to be so unequivocal.

In addition, the crude oil has contaminated the local creek, around which the community is situated, to such an extent that there are now no longer fish in it, a key, nutritious, and formerly easily accessible food source for this community.

This creek also used to be the main supply of clean drinking water for the community. Initially many people became sick by drinking the water without realizing that it had been contaminated by crude oil. Animals have also been found dead in the surrounding forest, with no obvious reason for their deaths.

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Members of the community have been paid by the company Maple to help clear up the oil spills, as well as to conduct biannual clean up operations. However, they have never been given any protective clothing to do this, despite a clear and well-documented medical literature on the health risks of exposure to crude oil.

The same report quoted earlier states:

“These risks are so dangerous and so well known, that protective measures and plans are put into place.  The risks are short-term and long-term and affect multiple systems.  Risks include sudden death, as well as damage to the dermatologic, respiratory, hematologic, ophthalmologic, neurologic, gastrointestinal, and reproductive systems.”

We talked to a man and his daughter who have both cleaned the pipeline and the surrounding area many times. Both suffer from severe head and stomach-aches, which have developed since they have been cleaning leaked crude.

“We walk two hours there and two hours back, and we have to provide our own clothes. They (Maple) give us buckets and rags. Nothing more,” said the father.  “Not even gloves,” he confirms when asked.  And where do Maple say the toxic waste, gathered in buckets should go? The father seemed puzzled by the question. “They don’t say anything about this,” he said after some thought.

As I read more about the effects of exposure to crude oil, I realized how toxic crude oil is. The effect on the health of this community of this toxicity has been devastating. Not only have there been the effects on peoples’ physical health, but also an emotional atmosphere has been created of fear, anger, suspicion and depression. No wonder that we had not been welcomed when we first arrived!

The anthropologist Mary Douglas talks about the “cultural contamination” engendered by the effects of conventional economical development on indigenous communities, as their traditional cultures and values become eroded. This “cultural contamination” is becoming increasingly evident and documented all over the world, as contact with oil companies often brings social problems of alcoholism, prostitution and drug addiction in its wake, as well as all of the resulting environmental damage. A number of women from Canaan have made accusations of sexual harassment against Maple employees.

My reaction to hearing this story, seeing the obvious signs of illness and distress in many of the faces of the population of 46 families in Nuevo Sucre, and also feeling the overall atmosphere of anxiety, anger and unhappiness was to think that I had never met a group of people before with so much suffering. Other people, though, have told me that this situation is worse and more widespread in other areas in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Northern Loreto such as the river Marañon.

My other principal reaction was to resolve to try to do something about this situation. In the second part of this blog, I will describe what we are doing to help this community tackle its health issues.

Since writing this blog, there has been another oil spill in the creek in the community of Canaán de Cachiyacu. Accountability Counsel released the following information.

On April 23, 2012, the community of Canaán de Cachiyacu suffered another oil spill in the Cachiyacu tributary caused by Maple Energy plc. The community of Canaán relies on this tributary and understands this to be a major spill of crude oil and produced waters.

Maple’s response to the spill has been unacceptable, and contamination has reached the Ucayali River, a major tributary to the Amazon River. Community members were not informed or alerted to the spill, no emergency plan was implemented, and the community has not been provided alternative sources of food or water. The community discovered the spill the morning of the 23rd. They noticed erratic jumping behavior of the fish in the tributary and alerted Maple Energy immediately. In response, Maple denied the spill and rejected requests for a meeting with the community. As of the morning of April 24, 2012, more than 24 hours after community members first observed the spill and alerted Maple, clean up of the Cachiyacu had not yet begun.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Luke Roberts in the research and writing of this article.

Deborah Rivett, Monday, 30 April 2012

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