Victory in prospect for Peru's Kichwa People after 40 years of oil pollution

A Kichwa girl on the Rio Tigre blockade. Photo: David Hill.
A Kichwa girl on the Rio Tigre blockade. Photo: David Hill.

A young Kichwa on the Rio Tigre blockade. Photo: David Hill.

A month-long blockade of the Rio Tigre deep in the Peruvian Amazon has secured promises of compensation and cleanup for Peru's Kichwa communities who have suffered 40 years of contaminated waters from oil drilling operations in their remote Amazon region. But until the funds materialize, they are holding firm in their resolve.
There have been 45 years of contamination. The Kichwas, the agoutis, the tapirs, the water ... all poisoned. Our fathers and grand-fathers have died because of this.

Hundreds of of Kichwa indigenous people living along the River Tigre in the remote Peruvian Amazon are demanding over 100 million Peruvian nuevo soles ($32 million / £21 million) from oil company Pluspetrol in the "environmental damages" they have sustained over 40 years of oil drilling.

The Kichwa men, women and children blockaded the River Tigre for most of January with two cables - stopping two boats contracted by Pluspetrol to carry equipment, materials and supplies upriver to oil dilling sites.

The blockade was only suspended last Friday after Fernando Melendez Celis, President of the vast Amazonian region of Loreto, paid a visit to the protesters, camped by the side of the river on land belonging to Kichwa community Nuevo Remanente.

"Loreto now has a president that will fight for your rights", Melendez Celis told the Kichwas. "I'm here to tell you the regional government will fight for you. These territories belong to you."

The blockade is the latest manifestation of a new activism among the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon. Last December the Matsés people whose territory straddles Peru's border with Amazonas, Brazil threatened at attack any oil workers entering their lands.

Oil pollution an 'environmental emergency'

Pluspetrol's concession, Lot 1-AB, is Peru's number one oil producer. Operated in partnership with PetroChina, it yielded almost 25% of all Peruvian oil in 2013.

But operations there have led to severe contamination leading the government to declare an "environmental emergency" in the river Tigre basin in late 2013. Water samples from the Tigre and its tributaries revealed dangerous levels of lead, nickel, iron and aluminium - leaving local communities no water fit for human consumption.

The Kichwas are also demanding compensation for land use, environmental clean-up, and to be consulted by the government about the concession contract which expires this August, among other things.

Numerous Kichwas say that the Tigre and other water sources are contaminated, meaning that they, as well as the game and fish they depend on to survive, are slowly being poisoned.

"Our fathers and our in-laws are dying", said Edinson Munoz Moscoso, from Remanente. "We, the survivors, are fighting for the benefit of our sons and daughters."

"There have been 45 years of contamination", said David Inuma Sabaleta. "The Kichwas, the agoutis, the tapirs, the water ... all poisoned. Our fathers and grand-fathers have died because of this."

"We use the water for everything: to drink, to wash, to cook", said Orlando Chuje Aranda, another Remanente resident. "It's contaminated, but we have to use it because there's no other option."

There have been 45 years of contamination. The Kichwas, the agoutis, the tapirs, the water ... all poisoned. Our fathers and grand-fathers have died because of this.

"After 45 years of oil operations, we want to be able to drink water that isn't contaminated", said Carlos Huaya Luna, from the Vista Alegre community. "Here, we're fucked. Boys, girls, women ... how many people have had to suffer for us to reach this point? That's why we're protesting."

Pluspetrol and Peruvian government forced to negotiate

The blockade was suspended after Melendez Celis agreed to broker a meeting in the nearest city, Iquitos, between Kichwa leaders, Pluspetrol, and the central government's Council of Ministers (PCM).

And on the same day that Melendez Celis set off for Remanente, Peru's Energy Minister announced that the government will invest 100 million soles in the Tigre and other rivers where environmental emergencies have been declared, with the funds directed towards environmental clean-up, drinking water systems, electrification, land-titling, health and education.

Calls were made by satellite phone to Pluspetrol and the PCM in Lima, and Melendez Celis committed to attempt to ensure that Peru's Prime Minister Ana Jara would participate in the meeting too.

A PCM representative present in Remanente at the same time made various proposals to the Kichwas, including 3.5 million nuevo soles for land-titling, but they insisted on dealing with higher-level personnel.

"We don't want a speech", Fernando Chuje Ruiz, the newly-elected president of Kichwa federation FECONAT told the PCM representative, Jose Antonio Caro. "What we want is Ana Jara to be here."

Melendez Celis, whose term as President of Loreto started last month, told The Ecologist the contamination made him feel like a "Kichwa brother", that he is "assuming their fight" and will "protect them and their rights."

"The state has been indolent", he continued. "It has punished its indigenous peoples and forgotten them. No longer. My dream for Loreto is that policies are much more just."

Melendez Celis also committed to ensuring more oil revenues are invested in the Tigre region, and to paying for studies estimating the financial value of the environmental damage.

If our demands are not met, the blockade continues!

FECONAT issued a statement last week laying out various demands, and stressing that compensation and consultation are rights recognised by law. "For the first time in our history the Kichwa people has risen up in defence of our rights", the statement reads. "We're with our families fighting to be heard."

According to the statement Pluspetrol and Occidental, which operated Lot 1-AB from the early 1970s until 2000, have destroyed Kichwa lands and committed "genocide" while "the state has never defended us ...

"We want to make it clear we are not against development or oil operations. But nor are we going to allow ourselves to be made extinct in the name of development."

The meeting between the Kichwas, Pluspetrol and the PCM was initially scheduled for yesterday, but according to Melendez's media officer, Leonardo Caballero, it will take place this week, "possibly Wednesday."

The Kichwa protests are "unprecedented", said Jorge Tacuri, a lawyer acting for the Kichwas, who accompanied Melendez Celis to Remanente. "Never have the Kichwas protested as they're doing now. They've put the Tigre on the national and international agenda. The central government has agreed to sit down with them."

Tacuri points out that the suspension of the protest may only be temporary, depending on the outcome of today's meeting, adding that the Kichwas' camp at 'Base Tigre', an old oil operations base, is built to last: "They brought all their stuff to live there. They weren't joking when they said they would protest for a year."



David Hill is a freelance journalist and environment writer based in Latin America, writing for the Guardian, The Ecologist and other publications. For more details see his website: or follow him on Twitter: @DavidHillTweets 

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