Three Day Event Unites Indigenous Leaders Against Newest Oil Threat in Peru´s Amazon

From August 6th to August 8th, one day before the International Day of the World´s Indigenous People, over 25 leaders from Shipibo indigenous communities in the Ucayali and Loreto regions of Peru met in Pucallpa, in the office of ORAU — the Ucayali regional organization of the Peruvian pan-Amazon indigenous federation AIDESEP — to discuss the imminent threat of oil exploration in their territories for the first time. This marks a new wave of oil development in the Amazon, making the last wave pale in comparison, with 75% of the Peruvian Amazon now divided into oil lots and therefore available for oil exploration and production.

Oil companies in the Amazon have a long history of entering indigenous communities, gaining support by making promises of development, and then creating division and in-fighting amongst community members and destroying the cultural and environmental fabric that has made those communities flourish for hundreds of years.

The objective of the meeting, ¨SHARING EXPERIENCES OF COMMUNITIES AFFECTED BY OIL ACTIVITY¨ was for newly affected communities to listen to the experiences of communities already affected by years of oil companies’ presence, learn about their rights from law experts at Earth Rights International and PDDI (Program for the Defense of Indigneous Peoples Rights), and create a regional plan, in conjunction with ORAU, of how to create an educated and united network of indigenous peoples. The event was financed by Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

IMG_0127The community leader from Canaan talks about 35 years of oil activity in his territory.

The first day of the workshop was dedicated to the sharing of experiences by leaders already affected by oil contamination in their territories. The apu (community leader) of Canaan, a Shipibo community near the city of Contamana in the Loreto region of Peru, talked about when the oil companies first entered his community 35 years ago. He told the audience about the many spills of crude in their creeks (their primary source of free, clean drinking water), and how they would bathe in it, and eat the birds who had died in it, not knowing what it was. ¨We also used it to slick in our hair, to make it shiny. That´s why so many people in Canaan are bald now,¨ he joked. But all joking aside, he spoke with sadness about the divisions created between community members and neighboring communities, about the increased cases of cancer and other diseases in his community, and the alcoholism and cultural breakdown that have occurred since the arrival of the ¨oilmen.¨

Alfonso Lopez, the leader of ACODECOSPAT, a federation of Kukama Kukamilla people, then talked about his experience with oil companies in his home on the Marañon River in Loreto. He talked about the money the oil companies offered him to allow them to enter his community, and that when he did not accept, the campaign they waged against him, pitting his own community members against him. He talked about the many oil spills that contaminated their drinking water, and government complicity in hiding these facts. ¨They know perfectly well that we drink that water, that we eat those fish. Our life doesn´t mean much to them, perhaps nothing. But we can´t just sit down and weep, we have to stand up as leaders. They are violating our rights.¨

IMG_0167Two indigenous leaders read their country´s constitution for the first time.

On the second day of the meeting, Dr. Lily La Torre and Marissa Vahlsing from Earth Rights International and Dr. Jorge Tacuri from PDDI , explained to participants their rights on national and international levels. Dr. La Torre passed out Peruvian constitutions and the United Nations ILO Convention 169 on indigenous rights, breaking down each article into easy to follow language. It was quite powerful watching many of the participants read their country´s constitution for the first time, and be able to understand its language and their rights.

Marissa Vahlsing, a Harvard law graduate, explained the strategies of oil companies: their desire to come across as ¨good neighbors¨, making promises of development and jobs, and offering clean drinking water. ¨No one will go against the very hands that are supplying clean drinking water,¨ she said. She explained that to avoid legal actions against them, the companies try to allow a two year established legal time frame to pass, by offering up false agreements, projects, and creating division within the communities.

IMG_0169Marissa Vahlsing, a lawyer from EarthRights International, talks about indigenous rights on an international stage.

Day three began with a powerful forum theater activity, organized by Alianza Arkana, in which the leaders were divided into two groups, and asked to create a theatrical scene of how oil companies could affect (both positively and negatively) community well-being. They shared scenes of oil companies offering community authorities money to buy alcohol, unbeknownst to community members, and the division and in-fighting thereby created. After each performance, audience members were then asked to talk about the problem, and change the scene to reflect a better outcome. In each instance, the new scenes ended with the ejection of oil companies from their territories.

Participants then worked in groups to design a regional strategy of training and vigilance. The end declaration called for:

  • Establishing a Petroleum Vigilance Committee in each community
  • Carrying out trainings and workshops in each of the affected communities, so that all community members are aware of their rights and obstacles faced.
  • Developing a Regional Petroleum Round Table, made up of the presidents of indigenous federations and communities, with a united and firm position on oil development in the region.
  • Follow up on all stages of petroleum activities in the area

IMG_0197Writing down ideas for a regional plan on oil activity.

Participants left the meeting with a greater awareness of their rights and knowledge of the reality of oil development in the area. They agreed to share what they learned with their community members, and ORAU and Alianza Arkana agreed to do further capacity building and follow up in local communities.

Indigenous communities are the underdog when going up against multi-billion dollar transnational oil corporations. The people of this area often have little education, do not know their rights, and are won over by promises of better schools and cleaner drinking water for their children. Workshops such as this are an essential beginning towards creating an educated and united front against oil companies. As Marissa Valhsing explained to the audience: ¨There is no tool more powerful than a united people.¨

Deborah Rivett, Monday, 13 August 2012

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