Cocama-Cocamilla Hold Annual Congress

From October 20th to the 23rd, around 150 Apus (indigenous community leaders) from over 50 Cocama-Cocamilla communities in the Marañon River basin of the Peruvian Amazonian region of Loreto gathered for the 12th Congress of ACODECOSPAT, the Cocama-Cocamilla Association for the Development and Conservation of San Pablo Tipishca. The congress consisted of three days of meetings in Dos de Mayo, a rural indigenous town situated in the Pacaya Samiria national reserve, just off the Marañon River. The topics covered during the congress comprised challenges facing the Cocama-Cocamilla, primarily in the realms of health, education, and oil contamination. Representives from various state agencies and ministries of the Regional Government of Loreto (GOREL) were in attendance, along with anthropologists and professionals from a cadre of NGOs working in Iquitos, including Alianza Arkana.

During the three days of meetings, ACODECOSPAT, the principal political voice for its 57 member communities, as well as two allied Cocama– Cocamilla federations – AIDECOS (The Indigenous Association for Investigation and Development of Samiria) and the women’s organization Huaynakana Kamatawara Kana–reviewed its activities over the course of the past year and discussed plans for the coming year.

A pressing theme these days is Peru’s Law of Prior Consultation, a piece of domestic legislation intended to comply with the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 – also known as the indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. It requires prior and informed consultation with indigenous communities before the implementation of development projects that affect their ancestral territory.

In June, Perupetro, the state company responsible for promoting investment in hydrocarbon activities, announced the upcoming auction of 26 oil blocks in the Peruvian Amazon, three of which overlap Cocama-Cocamilla ancestral territory. ACODECOSPAT, AIDECOS, and Huaynakana Kamatawara Kana began drafting two documents elaborating their demands soon after the announcement: one document lists non-negotiable conditions to be met before they will consent to hydrocarbon activity, the other consists of ways the state must collaborate in order for the Cocama-Cocamilla to live out their vision of a Vida Plena.

The Law of Prior Consultation proposal and the Vida Plena proposal are divided into sections: Politics, Environment, Health, Education, Culture, Economy, and Territory. Under each section, the Cocama-Cocamilla list their relevant demands: these include land titling that doesn’t expire, the recognition and inclusion of existing indigenous organizations in participatory budgeting processes and development planning, projects to recuperate and revitalize the Cocama-Cocamilla language, educational programs with intercultural curriculums that incorporate the teaching of traditional knowledge, and corrective action against teachers who have abused children in indigenous communities.

ACODECOSPAT leader, Alfonso Lopez

The Dos de Mayo assembly began the morning of October 21st with an opening speech by the president of ACODECOSPAT, Alfonso Lopez Tejada. The Apus convened in the town meeting hall – a wood slat building on stilts adorned with a colorful mural featuring a river scene with palm trees, a thatch roof house, and a giant paiche fish swimming under the arched moniker ACODECOSPAT. Standing before his audience, Mr. Lopez Tejada said: “We need to figure out what the Law of Prior Consultation means to us. We’ve experienced forty years of oil exploitation in the four river basins-the Pastaza, the Tigre, the Corrientes, and the Maranon-and it’s not given us development, it’s left us with povery, sickness, and death.” He stressed the importance of indigenous people working as a united front: “The risks that we face unite the indigenous populations of the four river basins. When we unite it gives us the power to question the government, to make our demands.”

Over the course of the next few days, representatives from the superior court of justice of Loreto, from the General Ministry of the Interior Government, an engineer from the regional government, a representative from the office of the Ombudsmen, representative from the Ministry of Agriculture and a representative from Perupetro delivered speeches to the indigenous audience. The best of these expressed genuine solidarity with indigenous efforts, and the worst were thinly veiled attempts to gloss over the inadequacy of various social programs, corruption, and the destructive consequences of oil activity. Exasperated with tired platitudes, the Apus responded with recrimination to the most offensive of these presentations.

Congress Participants
  Congress Participants

Throughout the year, indigenous environmental monitors from ACODECOSPAT have been closely keeping tabs on oil contamination in the infamous oil concession 8X, located within the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve, the traditional territory of the Cocama people. An engineer from the NGO ITEC (Institute of Training and Education for Capacity Building) presented a slideshow that included photos depicting grievous oil spills in Lot 8X. The photographs were taken when the engineer accompanied a multisectoral commission of environmental experts into the concession as they collected water and soil samples to be analyzed for TPH (Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons) and heavy metals.

Iquitos anthropologist Alberto Chirif, and long term friend of the Cocama federation, also attended the event. He delivered a talk outlining the history of oil activities in the region, the unifying process of several indigenous federations to face the oil companies, which has led to considerable advances. However, he stressed that serious challenges to achieving effective changes remain ahead.

In an impassioned address to the Perupetro representative, Mr. Lopez Tejada stressed the of land and natural resources through the indigenous lens: “There are spiritual resources, there is a spiritual wealth in the land. Our grandparents are there, our souls, the mothers of our rivers, of our lakes, of our doctors and of ourselves–we are permanently linked with them. Seen from the cosmovision of the Cocama people, the land is inside of us.”

Deborah Rivett, Friday, 25 October 2013