Indigenous Urarinas Leader Documents Oil Contamination in The Chambira River Basin

There’s a rusty old oil pipeline running through the soccer field in Progreso, a community of indigenous Urarinas people that lies along the Chambira River of the northwestern Peruvian Amazon. Children from the adjacent school are continuously moving through that field: holding soccer matches, cutting through it on their way home, resting on its benches. When this rusty pipe ruptures, which is only a matter of time, the town’s population will be exposed to carcinogenic hydrocarbons and heavy metals known to cause respiratory problems, kidney and nervous system damage, and skin irritation, among myriad other health problems.

Augustin Soria Gonzales is the president of the Indigenous Association for Development in the Chambira River basin (AIDECURCHA), a federation of Urarinas indigenous community leaders that began organizing last year in an effort to confront the oil contamination in their region. The members of the federation are motivated by concern for the land and the indigenous communities that populate it, operating without much support and with no source of funding save their own pockets.

Mr. Gonzales contacted Alianza Arkana in June asking for assistance with his mission to document evidence of oil spills and denounce Argentine oil giant Pluspetrol Norte for neglecting to address the contamination it flagrantly perpetuates. We lent him our camera, and a month later he returned with images so egregious and distressing that one ended up on the front page of the La Region, the newspaper of record for the Loreto region of the Peruvian Amazon. For legal counsel we directed him to the Program to Defend Indigenous Rights (PDDI), a group of activist lawyers Alianza Arkana partners with.

Mr. Gonzales has now publicly taken Pluspetrol Norte to task for two oil spills that occured this summer near an area of protected jungle known as the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, one on May 9 near the indigenous community of Santa Teresa, one on July 18 near the community of Progreso. Pluspetrol, for its part, defaulted to the tactic of blaming supposed indigenous vandals for the July 18th spill, without producing any evidence to support the accusation. Mr. Gonzales countered the claim, highlighting the mortal risk involved with tapping into a pipeline; someone that taps into a pipeline risks being burned or asphyxiated.

“The oil washed down a creek and into the lake where people go fishing, and now the lake is contaminated. Now what are they going to eat? It is not part of the native Urarinas culture to go around breaking pipelines. Those pipelines rupture because they are old,” Mr. Gonzales said. Pitting the documented evidence of rusted and deteriorating pipelines against the total lack of evidence that suicidal indigenous vandals are tapping into pipelines, Mr. Gonzales’s argument is pretty convincing.

b2ap3_thumbnail_9616914828_ba329b6aa9_o.jpgMr. Gonzales stumbled upon evidence of Pluspetrol’s attempt to clean up their contamination with Oclansorb, a peat-moss that absorbs hydrocarbons by encapsulating them on contact. Plastic bags filled with peat moss and oil were piled up along the pipelines, the effort having been, if not abandoned then certainly on pause for close to two months.

Oil spills in their territory have become such a commonplace occurrence for the Urarinas communities that organizing in protest can seem futile. Bribery is common practice for oil giants in the Amazon; once indigenous community members are convinced that resistance will be ineffectual, the oil companies will pay them off to quell any opposition. Stuck between the rock of poverty and the hard place of not knowing their rights, members of the Urarinas communities in the Chambira have been vulnerable to such bribery.

Augustin and his federation are committed to empowering indigenous community members with the knowledge of their fundamental right to live in a clean environment. Mr. Gonzales hopes this knowledge will catalyze the realization that contamination at the hands of ravenous oil giants is an unacceptable daily reality.

Deborah Rivett, Saturday, 31 August 2013

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