As the boat takes a turn to leave the lower Marañon river, the water turns from dirty brown to a clear, dark black. After 8 more hours or so, not passing more than a handful of thatched roof houses along the way, we reach the small Cocama Cocamilla indigenous community of San Francisco de Choroyaco. Choroyaco is also the name of the river which we followed to reach the village. On several occasions, pink river dolphins have welcomed us on the way.
I’m accompanying five young Norwegian students and their professor who came to the Peruvian Amazon to learn from its people. We make an odd group, and rely fully on Ander, who skillfully maneuvered the boat up the Choroyaco. Ander is of the indigenous peoples Cocama Cocamilla, which mainly populate the lower Marañon river, and an active member of their federation – ACODECOSPAT. Over the last years, Ander and ACEDOCOSPAT have been monitoring Pluspetrol’s oil concession 8X, situated within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, adjacent to the Marañon. When oil spills have occurred, they have time and time again denounced Pluspetrol and informed the regional government. Their various outcries have so long been ignored.
The life that meets us in San Francisco is seemingly little concerned with such a reality. As the days pass, the community invites the young students to join in their daily activities: collecting yucca and plantains from their chakras; picking avocados and mangoes from the trees; harvesting aguajes that will later be sold in Nauta; collecting some leaves and barks that serve medicinal purposes, putting out the fishing nets at night and rowing them in early in the morning. The two girls are also invited to the kitchen and get a taste of the art of food making on an open fire. After dark, the river becomes alive with the noise of little and larger fish gasping for air; frogs and toads join in the nightly symphony.
A highlight for us, as well as seemingly for the whole community, was when one morning, a group of young men from the community had caught a tapir, of which the entire village seemed to live off for a week or so. The students get to see and experience what seems a life of plenty. Basic products and necessities that the community lacks are traded with or procured in downriver communities – mostly Nauta, which is a very long day’s river journey away by peke-peke.
A few days into our visit, Apu (traditional leader) Rudi and his wife take us upriver to see Piwichococha, a larger lagoon. Every night, punctually around 6pm, anyone can be a witness to an impressive nature spectacle, in which hundreds of thousands of Piwicho birds, accompanied by a screechy high pitch sound, come to occupy their nests. Besides the Piwicho birds, the cocha, with its quiet waters, is an important breeding ground for the various species of fish that populate the Choroyaco. It is also the habitat of various species – to name but a few – of monkeys, blue macaws, crocodiles, and river turtles we encounter on our visit.
Immersed in this idyll, it was however difficult not to think of another cocha – Shanshococha – which has finally received some attention lately, but suffered a different fate. First used as a dump site for crude oil, recent efforts of Pluspetrol to cover up the mess have left the cocha as a large hole in the forest, meaning disaster to the surrounding Quechua communities.
Making this link doesn’t come out of the blue. San Franciso and Piwichococha are actually within Lote 173, which the Peruvian state plans to auction off for oil lots early next year. Apu Rudi tells us that some months ago people from the state owned Perupetro had come to San Francisco, “to take some inventories and do some investigations”. He says that the village wasn’t really prepared, nor did they understand well what the visit was all about. “Next time we will tell them we will not receive them unless we have our own experts or advisers who can assist us.”
Sadly, history has shown, time and time again, that the auctioning off of large tracts of land to oil exploitation – in Peru as elsewhere – compromises the well being of the local populations and the environment.
Piwichococha, which is a major food provider for the local Cocama Cocamilla, has been actively managed and conserved by the community for decades. It is just one of the marvels of the Amazon, which has recently been pronounced as one of the natural wonders of the world. Rightly so, Peruvians, and in particular the region of Loreto, are proud of this. But the state must get serious about conserving and protecting this unique natural and cultural heritage
Tuesday, 11 December 2012