Catching the Oil Industry in The Act: The Pathos and Power of a Photograph

I was devastated when I first saw the photo: Our longtime friend and partner Aurelio Chino Dahua, leader of the Quechua indigenous federation FEDIQUEP from Pastaza River in northern Peru, sits alone, crumpled in a pose of shock and resignation in a field of Amazon mud where a small lake called Shanshococha once teemed with fish and birds and other life and fed streams that provided his peoples with water and food.

The photo, taken by my colleague and Alianza Arkana investigator Stefan Kistler late last month, shows that Shashococha is now gone, and the bulldozers and oil company workers who destroyed it are seen in the distance, resting after their routine “cleanup” operation.

After working with Chino in Peru over the last year to help bring attention to his people’s cause, seeing him in the photo brought a feeling of pain and a deep sense of loss. But then I started to feel the potential power of the frame.

While the circumstances are truly tragic, the photo provides vital evidence and bears timely witness, testifying to how oil companies deal with environmental regulations in the Amazon in the rare instance that they are forced to do anything at all. In short, they cover it up. But the photo reveals what they try to hide.

In this case, the lake was contaminated by crude oil, drilling compounds and chemical dispersants by the multinational oil company PlusPetrol and its predecessor, the U.S. driller Occidental Petroleum. Locals have decried the lake’s demise since 2005. Last May, FEDIQUEP’s team of community monitors documented the contamination of Shanshococha just before nearly 500 Quechua, Urarinas, Kandoshi and other indigenous people mobilized to protest the destruction of their land and water in what was known as oil Block 1AB (now called Block 192), and to leverage the regional government for long-promised and long-withheld services.

The uprising brought government officials around to finally witness the contamination first hand, resulting in a congressional investigation and the first-ever scientific testing of the area last month. In the meantime, PlusPetrol had time to try to hide its crime, filling Shanshococha up with soil and debris dug and cut from the surrounding forest.

Captured in a photograph, though, PlusPetrol can no longer deny or hide. Such telling evidence, including the other dramatic photographs provided by Alianza Arkana and other witnesses, were finally presented to governmental officials this month in the port city of Iquitos during a rare decentralized meeting of the central government’s multi-sectorial commission – a body of ministers representing Health, Agriculture, Energy & Mines and their offshoots. They’ve been presented to Peru’s Congress, too.

The timing is good, especially as Peru seeks national and international legitimacy for its test case for the new law of Prior Consultation, a process just beginning to play out over Block 1AB, where Chino and FEDIQUEP, PUINAMUDT, and our other indigenous and NGO partners demand a voice and a role. The photos provide a powerful warning to communities throughout the Amazon as the governments of Ecuador and Peru seek to auction off more Amazon oil blocks – at least 13 in Ecuador and at least 19 in Peru.

Images like this and the other documentation gathered during the recent investigation could also help support new legal actions filed against PlusPetrol by our partners ACODECOSPAT, the indigenous federation representing some 57 Kukama communities along the Maranon River. Federation leader Alfonso Lopez Tejada recently filed complaints against PlusPetrol for contaminating the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, where the company is allowed to drill oil without public oversight. The federation accuses several government agencies of failing their mandate to protect the reserve – putting even more light on PlusPetrol and the oil industry in general at this crucial time.

In any case, Kistler’s photograph and the others that accompany it have made their rounds on the Internet since they were first published on our blog, appearing on the indigenous and environmental news sites from South America and traveling the activist circuit, hopefully provoking the same outrage I felt and inspiring others to keep up the fight.

For me it was a reminder that the work we do is important, even if it’s just the act of being there alongside our indigenous partners and bearing witness to devastation, refusing to let industry hide the truth.

Seeing him there, atop what used to be Shanshococha, I remember what Chino said when we first met last year.

“All my life they’ve been telling us that the oil companies will bring wealth and development,” he testified to Iquitos residents gathered to  hear about oil.

“It’s a lie,” he said. “For 40 years all they have brought our people is contamination, illness and conflict.”

“My people want me to fight on,” he told me. “I will fight on.”

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Deborah Rivett on Tuesday, 20 November 2012

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