Shipibo Territory and Culture Under Threat from Invasion of Oil Companies

When I first moved to Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon August last year, it was noisy like most Latin American cities – cocks crowing in the morning, dogs barking, motor-taxis passing at all hours, evangelical Christians playing bad rock music, the roar of the daily plane services to Lima and Iquitos, the distinctive rhythms of Cumbia music blaring forth from discos and street parties.

Recently, however, a new and more disturbing sound has been added to this mix – the noise of helicopters hovering overhead as they go to and from the Pucallpa airport. Last Saturday, I counted at least twelve throughout the day.

These helicopters evidence the latest threat to the Amazon in the region of Ucayali – the arrival of oil companies intent on first exploration and then production. The companies come from Vietnam, Spain, Canada, and also include the Peruvian National oil company, PetroPeru.

The Ucayali region is the heartland of the Shipibo people. They live along the Ucayali river and its tributaries, although in common with many indigenous people all over the world, they are increasingly migrating from their rural communities and moving to the city.

Up until now the Shipibo have been reasonably fortunate in that only two of their communities have been affected by oil exploration and production. These are the communities of Canaan and Nuevo Sucre, one day downriver on boat from Pucallpa. Recently, fed up by the energy company Maple´s refusal to offer them reasonable compensation for the damage caused by numerous oil spills in their territory, the community have taken non-violent action to occupy the nine wells producing oil on their territory.

However, with the recent decision of the Peruvian Government to sell further concessions for 72% of the Peruvian Amazon to different oil companies for exploration and production, the oil companies are now arriving in Shipibo territory with a vengeance.

This represents a substantial second wave of oil activity in the Peruvian Amazon after the first wave forty years ago. Much of this first wave was directed at other indigenous territories in the Loreto region, who are now facing the full implications of this in terms of the social and environmental damage caused.

For the Shipibo, the arrival of oil companies represents a significant threat to their way of life. The companies offer jobs, projects such as schools and health centres, and a Western model of development which is an enticing package to people increasingly caught up in the global economy and needing money.

However, these projects for the most part do not materialise, the jobs are only temporary – mainly in the exploration phase – and the Western model of development brings associated problems of alcoholism, drug addiction and prostitution.

Alongside the social problems, there are serious environmental problems as witnessed by the Shipibo communities of Canaan and Nuevo Sucre in their forty years of experience of oil company activity. Their rivers and creeks, their only source of water, are now filled with crude oil. There are no longer any fish left, their primary dietary staple, and they notice fewer animals in the jungle and have found many animals dead from unknown causes.

These diseases are not restricted to animals. In the community of Nuevo Sucre at least three people have died in the last eighteen months of what is officially recorded as “enfermedades desconocidas ” (translated as unknown diseases).

Now the oil companies are arriving in the Districts of Masisea, Iparía, Padre Marquez, Yarinacocha and Callería. All these Districts are areas of significant numbers of Shipibo communities. Many communities have little awareness of the real consequences of oil activity on their territory. Those that choose to resist the oil companies often find the odds hugely stacked against them – the oil companies have major political and economic power as well as substantial technological and organizational resources.

Deborah Rivett, Wednesday, 03 October 2012

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