Braving long river journeys and uncomfortable stays away from their forest villages, indigenous leaders from Peru’s Central Amazon are converging in the city of Pucallpa this week to plan a common defense as foreign oil drillers coveting underground treasures of gas and oil invade the region on a scale and pace not seen since Peru’s debut oil boom of the 1970s.
While the oil lies mostly beneath indigenous territories, Peru’s government has leased the rights to those subsurface resources to private companies, setting the conditions here for the same style of inevitable conflict between companies and communities that has rocked other regions of the country in recent months and years.
To help bolster their side in the divide, leaders from at least 25 Shipibo indigenous communities from the upper Ucayali River region met in a workshop on Monday 6th August to share experiences of their contacts with the industry, compare stories of company tactics and hear from leaders from other regions whose communities’ lands and water have already been ravaged by the first 40 years of oil production there.
The three-day event, organized by ORAU, — the regional organization of the Peruvian pan-Amazon indigenous federation AIDESEP –Alianza Arkana and Earth Rights International, marks the first time many of the “apus,” or community presidents, have ever met. They often spoke in their native Shipibo.
Organizers say it’s just the beginning of such opportunities to organize in the face of the new oil boom.
“There has to be a regional plan for indigenous people,” said Lizardo Cauper, vice-president of ORAU and a Shipibo leader from the oil-ravaged community of Canaán. “We can’t just stand back while they (the companies) come in,” he said.
Until recently, only two communities on the mid and lower Ucayali have been affected by the oil industry, which was mostly a hangover from exploration done back in the 1970s. Among them, Canaán and Nuevo Sucre have suffered severe contamination – coupled with company manipulation and government neglect — for nearly four decades, most recently by Maple Energy, which has consistently spilled oil and dumped toxic production waters since they took over for the state energy company in 1994.
With a PowerPoint presentation showing recent oil spills and aggressive community mobilizations, Basilio Rodriguez Sauancino president of Canaán, presented his experience to leaders from other communities who have only recently been approached by company men with offers of cash and promises of development.
“Be very careful with your community’s territory,” he warned the others.
While Canaán and Nuevo Sucre near Contamana bore the brunt of the first wave in Peru’s oil rush, the disruptive presence of at least three new companies is now being felt as they come to claim oil lots leased during recent administrations. Some are just now beginning the first stages of exploration, seismic testing, while others are ready to dig exploratory wells or, as in the case of Maple, start new production.
“Every one of our communities has or will be affected by the oil concessions,” Cauper said on Monday.
The Shipibo leaders – some militant, others sober or even a bit somber about what they face – discussed recent clashes between native communities and mining companies in Cusco, about a recent spill of mining tailings that sickened hundreds of residents in Ancash last week, about indigenous Machingenga “brothers” fighting the PlusPetrol gas consortium Camisea in the south. They discussed the loss of indigenous identity and the loss of traditional territories as they face the simultaneous, symbiotic threat of consumer culture that drives industry into their lands in search of the fuel that drives consumer culture everywhere else.
Asking the apus to consider what makes them and their peoples “indigenous,” Cauper reminded them that what made their communal concept of territory different that the Western conception of private property and land extends beyond the productive and the economic to include the spiritual.
“The government doesn’t recognize spiritual value,” he said. “In talks with the companies, they will talk about market value, but never what we call the spirit of the land or spiritual value of our territory.”
The workshop continues this week with sessions on international human rights by Earth Rights International and the Program for the Defense of Indigenous Rights, the legal partners of Alianza Arkana.
“What we demand here are rights to life and to water,” Capuer said during a dramatic slide presentation about a recent Maple Energy oil spill that devastated Canaan. “These are our rights and we have to claim them.”
Tuesday, 07 August 2012