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Landmark Agreement on Amazon Oilfields Shows Indigenous Movements’ New Power

When reviewing a story about a recent deal between the government and Indians regarding multinational oil companies in the Peruvian Amazon, the editor of an important national news magazine said the story seemed “bereft of drama” and too full of “insidery [sic] negotiations.” He was right. And that was what made it news.

When reviewing a story about a recent deal between the government and Indians regarding multinational oil companies in the Peruvian Amazon, the editor of an important national news magazine said the story seemed “bereft of drama” and too full of “insidery [sic] negotiations.”

He was right. And that was what made it news.

After having to seize oil facilities, capture airfields and blockade roads and rivers in recent years in order to grab attention and force talks, the Quechua people of Northern Peru this week won a landmark agreement with the regional government of Loreto – a virtual dream sheet, really, considering the decades of neglect – for services and projects in their communities along the Pastaza River near the border with Ecuador. A key feature of the freshly inked “Pastaza Act” is a sweeping investigation of health and environmental impacts that could bolster the Indians' case against Plus Petrol, the Argentinean oil company that they blame for polluting their rivers and ancestral territory for years.

The twist on an otherwise old story was that, after several years of violent protests over resource extraction throughout the Amazon, this group of 18 Quechua Apus, or community chiefs, confidently strode into the government building wearing face paint and headbands, flanked by a team of lawyers, anthropologists and media, and demanded to see the governor. They walked out three days later with a contract for new schools, doctors, and other infrastructure, as well as a government pledge to conduct blood and water tests that could be used as evidence in a possible lawsuit. And, with Gov. Iván Vásquez, they seemed to have made a powerful new friend.

It was all completely “bereft of drama.”

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“In 40 years of oil exploitation we've never had this level of direct talks with the government,” Quechua federation leader Aurelio Chino Dahua said on the day the contract was signed. Expecting conflict, he and the others said they were taken by surprise.

Their victory, won this time without a shot being fired, revealed the new face of the indigenous movement here and demonstrated the kind of political muscle the indigenous groups in the region are learning to flex as they regroup from recent violence and share legal strategies and bargaining tactics with neighboring tribes.

“What is happening here in the Amazon is profound,” said Catholic Rev. Joaquin Garcia, director of the Iquitos-based Center for Theological Studies of the Amazon, where he has worked with and studied indigenous groups since 1968.

“There is a new political consciousness, but also a new indigenous consciousness,” he said. “It is changing relationships and will certainly change the way business is done in the forest.”

Tribal Allies

As he prepared for the trip home to the Pastaza this week, the Quechua Dahua also announced a pact forged among indigenous leaders from four neighboring watersheds to put aside old feuds and jealousies and combine their struggles against multinational oil companies. They plan to visit each other's territories this summer and meet in Iquitos for six days later this month to discuss, among other things, a multi-river, multi-tribal “gran denuncia” or lawsuit against multinational oil companies operating in their region.

“Insidery negotiations,” indeed.

“Indigenous federations consolidating their struggles along the Tigre, Pastaza, Corrientes and Marañon watersheds could be an incredibly potent force,” said Andrew Miller, advocacy coordinator for the group Amazon Watch in Washington DC, when asked what the developments could mean.

“If the communities are united,” he said, “they have to potential to stop the government's plans.”

Jungle for Sale

Those plans, experts say, include leasing the last remaining oil blocks covering nearly 75-percent of Amazon rainforest that the Peruvian government has opened to oil and gas concessions. All the obvious criticisms of the oil industry aside, these existing concessions already overlap nearly a quarter of the so-called “protected areas” and nature reserves. Almost all of the oil blocks include the indigenous territories, including half of the designated indigenous reserves and more than 60-percent of the reserves for tribes living in voluntary isolation, according to a recent study by Matt Finer of Save America's Forests and a team of other scientists from Duke University.

The oil boom pits indigenous groups living at a subsistence level and barely integrated into the cash economy up against multibillion-dollar oil conglomerates that find it easier to pollute and pay fines to Peruvian officials than invest the money to fix their outmoded industrial practices and safeguard the delicate rivers and rainforest that the Indians have used sustainably for thousands of years.

The Quechua say that after years of contamination by Occidental Petroleum, Plus Petrol's operations at Andoas continue to contaminate the entire watershed downstream – their only source of water.

Decades of Destruction

“During 40 years of exploitation, all the liquids from these (oil) wells flow directly into the Rio Pastaza. This is the water we are drinking and using to make our masato,” Dahua said, referring to the fermented yucca brew that is a staple throughout the Peruvian Amazon.

“We were obligated to leave our own home and come to theirs, carrying with us the truth about the oil company Plus Petrol operating within the territory of the Quechua people and the truth that during 40 years of oil exploitation we have been totally forgotten by the state,” Dahua said as he announced the accord in Iquitos.

While he said they came in peace, the record shows the Quechua know how to wage war.

In 2008, Dahua and 50 other Quechua and Achuar activists were jailed – and some of them say tortured – when a police officer died in a melee at the Plus Petrol airfield in Andoas, which the natives had seized along with other oil stations after company officials and government ministers refused to hold talks about contamination and neglect in their communities. After some Quechua served up to a year in prison, they were all finally exonerated by an Iquitos court in December.

The Quechua leaders boldly returned to Iquitos last week carrying the same demands that landed them in jail three years ago.

Standing Together

While resuming their struggle was risky, the Quechua said they had potent new allies. Dahua was flanked by other seasoned indigenous leaders who have pledged their support and cooperation, including Achuar leader Andres Sandi Macushúa from the nearby Corrientes River and Kukama leader Alfonso Lopez Tejada from the Rio Marañon.

Macushua helped lead the Achuar in a siege against Plus Petrol in 2006 that shut down the company's operations there, costing them as much as a million dollars a day during the weeks-long protest. The Achuar emerged with a contract with the government on which the Quechua based their Pastaza Act. An Achuar federation has also sued Plus Petrol's predecessor, US oil giant Occidental Petroleum, in a Los Angeles court and has forced Plus Petrol to reinject its toxic wastewaters, or “formation waters,” back into the ground instead of pumping the sludge into the streams from which the Achuar cook, bathe and drink. Achuar are currently engaged in a campaign against Canadian oil firm Talisman Energy, whose officers recently announced plans to expand operations in Achuar lands.

Pledging solidarity with the Quechua and Kukama this week, Macushúa said the Achuar would lend their considerable legal and political experience to help his fellows take on Plus Petrol on the Pastaza and Maranon.

“I believe this is an important challenge that we are undertaking today,” Macushúa said at a press conference announcing their solidarity. “Because by uniting these indigenous organizations we will gain strength not only to confront the state but to ensure that these funds flow directly to the communities.”

He yielded to Kukama leader, Lopez, who hailed their handshake agreement as a signal that, “we are uniting more every day.

“Each one of us feels more like part of a single struggle,” he said, “a struggle in the defense of the Amazon, in the defense of the environment, for the lives of our children and the generations to come.”

Building the Base

For his part, Lopez recently completed a month-long trip in a small, wooden peque-peque boat to visit 40 of his federation's base communities along the Marañon, where he found villagers still fuming over numerous oil spills by Plus Petrol in the last year.

With the patience of a saint and perseverance of a soldier, Lopez won commitments from almost every one of the chiefs to reaffirm their legal status as indigenous communities with communally held land and to join a class-action lawsuit this summer against Plus Petrol for a well-documented June 19 spill of up to 1,000 barrels of crude – much of which flowed into the famous Pacaya Samiria National Reserve.

All along his route through the isolated communities, Lopez encountered Kukama leaders who cited recent international conventions on indigenous and human rights that were explained to them in workshops conducted by a team of Catholic priests working in the region. Many also said they took inspiration from a recent ruling against US Oil giant Chevron in neighboring Ecuador where, after 18 years in US and foreign courts, an Ecuadorian judge ordered Chevron to pay more than $9 billion in damages for fouling the water and forest – signs of keen awareness in a region where books and newspapers are rare and the Internet almost completely inaccessible.

Lopez, whose position all along has been to insist on complete payment of damages for the June 19 spill to force the cost into being too high for the company to spill again, says he feels things starting to turn in the Indians' favor.

“Alfonso is dangerous to Plus Petrol and to the oil companies in general because he sees beyond just his community, beyond his river,” said Jorge Tacuri, a lawyer and director of the Program for the Defense of Indigenous Rights – known by its Spanish acronym PDDI – which is helping the Quechua and Kukama groups prepare legal cases against Plus Petrol for contaminating the Pastaza and Marañon.

“He has a larger vision,” Tacuri said.

“Our lives are not for sale,” Lopez reminded the other Quechua and Achuar leaders Monday as they celebrated millions of dollars in improvements promised to their communities, but are looking at a long, hard legal slog with the oil companies to stop polluting the rivers.

Lopez has received numerous death threats and has seen his communities torn apart from the inside by a little well-placed plata, or cash, from the companies in a strategy, as he puts it, “to divide and conquer.”

“This is the difficult road, the path full of thorns and obstacles,” he says of the patient course the indigenous have chosen over direct confrontations – for now.

All week, Dahua and the other leaders mentioned “Puno” or “Bagua” as the alternative. Puno is the Peruvian highland city where thousands of residents have staged violent protests against a silver mine proposed by a Canadian company that they say would contaminate Lake Titicaca. Bagua, perhaps a little more apropos, was the site of a bloody clash between indigenous protesters and Peruvian police two years ago in Peru's northern Amazon that left at least a dozen protesters and 23 police dead. The still unresolved issues behind that clash simmer beneath the struggles of the Quechua, Achuar and Kukama.

While he says the budding solidarity and the quiet, grassroots nature of the movement that has sprung up in the wake of previous protests is encouraging, Amazon Watch's Andrew Miller said indigenous groups currently in conflict with oil and gas companies operating in their territory still hold strategic ground around the main oil pipeline to Lima in the north and a similarly vital gas line in the south.

“Indigenous communities know they can stand up, sit in and shut down significant economic activities in the country,” he said in a recent interview. “They don't do it every day, but when they are sufficiently unhappy or when the government or companies act in bad faith, they can shut things down.”

Dahua explained their current stance. “Before having more clashes like Bagua, before we mobilize ourselves, we came here seeking a dialogue to discuss our needs and this problem of the contamination of the Quechua people, ” he said Monday as he presented the Pastaza Act to Peruvian media.

“We have come to their territory to talk about a lot of things,” he said, “Including something that has been weighing heavily on our minds: Where are all the riches that have been taken from Quechua land?”

On July 12, Quechua leaders are scheduled to meet with regional government ministers and Plus Petrol officials in Andoas, the site of the 2008 clash, “so that they can see the problem from our point of view,” Dahua said.

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