This has happened before.
There is a small indigenous community along the banks of an Amazonian river. These people do not live a romanticized, utopian existence of costuming and feathers. They ride a fine line between the worlds of money and subsistence. They work in their forests and homes to sustain themselves and sell the excess for cash. They live quiet, secluded lives without internet, far away from the bustle of Iquitos.
This could be one of many communities, but in this case it is Cuninicu, a village along the eponymous creek, which feeds into the Marañon, one of two major tributaries of the Amazon River.
As with many others before them, the creek defines the community’s existence. It is their drinking and bathing water, food source, transportation, and worldview. Its ‘sweet’ taste, lively drift, and ‘sun on the beach’ smell all led the Kukama people to integrate their cultural identity into its ebbs and flows.
Around the end of June, something drastic happened. A nearby pipeline burst, filling the eponymous creek bed with crude oil. If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been paying attention, but hopefully this hasn’t happened to you personally.
What does this actually look like? What happens when you find out that your backyard is filling with crude?:
• Fear: Everyone knows something is terribly wrong. People try to locate the leak, but once they do, they don’t know how to stop the oil stop from pouring out. It soon fills up the creek bed.
• Reaching out: You contact surrounding communities to spread the news and confirm that your experience is already theirs. Some people try to get ahold of oil company representatives and the press.
• Action: Upon the arrival of corporate representatives, you and your neighbors are recruited to clean up the site, being offered attractive daily pay to do so.
Without seeing the spill, you immediately notice other obvious impacts:
• Dead fish and animals: All of the fish you would normally be eating lying dead atop the surface of the water. Other forest animals that are also your food are found dead on the ground, without traces of blood. You find it hard to feed your family and earn an income.
• Sickness: Your children and grandparents having wrenching stomach pains, diarrhea, and body-wide rashes from drinking, eating fish, or bathing. You may be experiencing these things too.
• The river: Once a flowing vein of life, your river is insipid, iridescent, and sluggish. It smells and tastes like petroleum, like blood poisoning.
Saturated with Greed
The Kukama have lived this out before, as have hundreds of communities in the Amazon and around the world. This particular depiction happens to be based off of the testimony given by two priests in the neighboring community of Santa Rita de Castilla (who are now being intimidated to avoid future testimonies). This spill happened the last week of June and directly affects seven different communities. 10% of the population has already reported sick.
Petroperu representatives were quickly on the scene, hiring minors at 80 soles ($29) a day to clean up the spill using small plastic buckets. Ignorant to the health risks and eager for the cash, many of these workers stripped naked to get neck-deep in the mire, as their crude-soaked clothing was burning their skin. They were provided protection only after the press arrived a week later.
Petroperu has been silent about the quantity of oil spilled and denies all responsibility for the submerged and corroded condition of the over 39-year-old pipelines. Standard industry safeguards, like upgrading pipelines or installation of pressure-sensitive valves that automatically shut when pipes leak, haven’t been offered as solutions. This is illegal and unconscionable.
Yet they operate with impunity under a government that refuses to enforce corporate accountability or distribute humanitarian aid to the affected communities, leaving them with the deafening horror that they, their land, and their life-waters are slowly being poisoned to death.
At 20,000 meters across, this is a relatively contained site. But when the rains come in November, this crude will wash into the Marañon, the Amazon, and finally the Atlantic Ocean, having a very widespread impact on many people.
This has happened before and, in less than one month’s time, it has already happened again further along the Marañon. This sick cycle will continue until companies take accountability for their product and infrastructure, politicians work for the interests of their populations and not corporations, and individuals deeply and radically reconsider what it means to be complicit by consumption and how to move beyond. Don’t be fooled by the distance: we are all downstream.
Friday, 25 July 2014