In the Peruvian Amazon, over 40 years of irresponsible oil exploitation have affected countless indigenous communities. While scientists still do not know the long-term impacts of oil spills and water contamination, the links between indigenous rights violations, socio-environmental conflicts and the petroleum industry are becoming increasingly clearer. In this exclusive story, indigenous Kichwa student & Vice-President of indigenous student organization OEPIAP, Elisvan Greffa Yumbo, presents his observations following a research trip as part of an investigation which we facilitated with Lima’s prestigious Pontifica Catholic University on the right to clean water in the region of Loreto. The cases documented in the investigation, focused on the communities of Vista Alegre in the Tigre River and Cuninico in the Maranon river, were presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights during a hearing on May 7th 2018 with hopes to advance much-needed and overdue justice for Peru’s Amazonian indigenous peoples.
Text and Photographs by Elisvan Greffa Yumbo
Portrait of Elisvan Greffa Yumbo by Sophie Pinchetti
The right to water is a human right and as human beings we have the right to exercise it and to demand that the water we consume be treated, so that it is healthy to drink.
We embarked on an 18-hour trip from the town of Nauta to the indigenous community of Vista Alegre, which is located in the district of Intuto in the province of Loreto, with the aim of collecting information on water contamination and its consequences on the human right to water, in particular around the Tigre river.
During the tour of the Tigre River, I first observed the lack of birds that live on the banks of the river and feed on fish, such as the white heron, which can be seen in large numbers around the Marañón river. I couldn’t hear the songs of the howler monkey which I usually hear around the Putumayo river, which is where I come from.
“I first observed the lack of birds that live on the banks of the river and feed on fish”
When I arrived in the community I felt as I were arriving in my own community. All rural Amazonian populations have something in common, whether it’s the way of building their houses along the banks of the river or their hospitality, amongst other things. I felt calm, at home and drank the typical drinks offered to visitors, and ate the fresh fish of the river – a common way of life in the community.
When the research activities began, I was surprised to hear the reality of the community. In the interviews, people told us about the details of the environmental contamination caused by oil extraction, the direct consequences to health and the genocide carried out by the oil companies.
I listened to the story of Mr. Benjamín Cariajano, an elder 72-year old man. He told us about how life before the oil company arrived, and how the population of the community had a healthy life and consumed water from the river without getting sick. They lived happily, hunting, fishing in the river and their lakes, and they did not have health problems as they do now. With the arrival of the oil company Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY), oil exploitation and water pollution began in the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre rivers. In the community of San Juan de Bartra, which is located in the Montano stream (affluent to the Tigre) and which also passes through the Montano lake where, 29 oil wells were installed.
“They lived happily, hunting, fishing in the river and their lakes, and they did not have health problems as they do now.”
“With the arrival of the oil company Occidental Petroleum Corporation (OXY), oil exploitation and water pollution began in the Pastaza, Corrientes and Tigre rivers.”
Once the oil wells were installed along the Tigre river, the wastewaters and petroleum residues started to be deposited into the water and so the contamination began. With the rains, this pollution flowed from the Montana stream to the Tigre river. In between 1980 and 1982, pollution was at its peak as spills began in the oil blocks and reached the river, staining the surface of the water black. Fish and animal species began disappearing as they drank the contaminated water. The first to die were the fish and animals. The birds that feed on the fish and all the birds that live along the banks of the river died. Next, began the death of people and in between 1980 and 1982, twelve people from the community of Vista Alegre died. Among the twelve people were two of Mr. Benjamín’s children, ages 5 and 4. It was a great tragedy and many people also became sick, marked with spots on their faces.
“During these times, people did not know why they were dying, children bathed in water with oil and painted each other with oil.”
During these times, people did not know why they were dying, children bathed in water with oil and painted each other with oil. They didn’t know what it was. As the water and soil became contaminated, so started to appear diseases which people had never had before, and which they didn’t know how to heal. The shortage of food also began: people couldn’t find animals, there were no fish, and if there were, they were sick, thin and dying. The animals ran out. This situation was disastrous for the local population, said Benjamín.
A woman called Arminda Sandi Tuitui informed us that there were no diseases such as malaria before. She told us that the state gave indigenous lands to the oil company with all its inhabitants, contaminated the rivers and abandoned them. They do not receive support from the local or national state. When they realized the water was contaminated, people looked for water in the most remote areas of the community, which had not been touched by the contamination. Currently the community needs help to fight diseases caused by the contamination of their water.
“As an indigenous Kichwa student from the Putumayo river, I observed the violations of the rights of indigenous populations.”
After listening to people’s testimonies during the interviews, I realized the situation this community has suffered, and it is one similar to the rubber boom. As an indigenous Kichwa student from the Putumayo river, I observed the violations of the rights of indigenous populations. The state has not fulfilled its obligations to provide the most basic services such as health and education, which are the fundamental basis for the development of a people.
With regards to health, this population is abandoned. Despite being an endemic area, there are none of the necessary supplies. The healthcare manager for the town said that there are 20 to 24 cases of malaria every three days, which is alarming. National and local authorities responsible for this area are not taking on their responsibilities, and the healthcare manager is not able to treat all patients. There is also a lack of adequate medications.
“The state has not fulfilled its obligations to provide the most basic services such as health and education, which are the fundamental basis for the development of a people.”
For education, there is only one building in the area, and it is in precarious condition. There aren’t enough teachers necessary for classes, nor the materials to develop the classes properly. During these plus-four decades of oil exploitation in the area, no one has become a professional nor accessed higher education level, told us Walter Fachin Sandi.
During this investigation on the right to water, I found violations of human rights of all sorts, and the state as a direct accomplice to these acts of vulnerability. Despite what this indigenous territory provides to the country’s economy, the state does not provide basic services. Despite this area’s great importance to the country’s economy, there is no development.
Consequently, the communities are helpless, abandoned and sick, exposed to die with epidemics. In this part of Peru, genocide is committed and Amazonian biodiversity is destroyed.
Text & Photo by Sophie Pinchetti
Last weekend, indigenous youth of indigenous student organization OEPIAP organized a minga (communal work) in coordination with The Chaikuni Institute’s Sui Sui Program on the land which the regional government has promised them and where they hope to build their long-awaited and dreamed student centre.
Equipped with machetes, rakes, and blow guns, around 50 indigenous students attended the minga and began cleaning up the 0.6 hectare land, demarcating its perimeters with tape and wooden poles, and planting a few mamey trees with the help of Chaikuni’s Permaculture team. “I feel happy, we are working for the good of our people. Having our own land will facilitate many things, especially for our studies. It will be like our own home, and we will be able to study better there as well,” said Orfelinda Shunta Santiak, an indigenous Awajun student, paintbrush in hand.
“I feel happy, we are working for the good of our people. Having our own land will facilitate many things, especially for our studies”
The student centre will provide a stable place for indigenous students who have left their remote communities to come to the bustling city of Iquitos in order to pursue their dream of higher education and becoming professionals, as well as improve access to higher education for all future generations of indigenous youth in the Peruvian Amazon.
Acquiring the land has not been easy. It is the result of years of struggle – since 2012 to be precise – when OEPIAP signed an agreement with the regional government and University of the Peruvian Amazon, in which these authorities and institutions pledged to provide basic services for the students including accommodation and food. Years went by while these promises remained unfulfilled. Then finally, at the close of last 2017, and after a gruelling lobbying process which our Intercultural Education Sui Sui Program has been accompanying, the indigenous students succeeded in pressuring the regional government to comply with one of their many promises, and were granted a 10-year land lease where the student centre will be built. “We come from very far away and we have great necessities – that is why this land is so important for us”, said Leonarda Suarez Guerrera, a Ticuna student. “We have been struggling for this land and student center so that future generations that come after us have a real space and won’t be suffering like us, they will have a proper space to study, they will be able to feel stable in their studies as well as in the space in which they are living”.
“We want the regional governor to prioritize and approve the construction of the temporary malocas for the indigenous students”
The students are now eager to move to the allocated land plot as quickly as possible. Construction plans have been underway with the regional government for the building of two large malocas, which would hold up to 80 people and provide a temporary solution. “We want the regional governor to prioritize and approve the construction of the temporary malocas for the indigenous students” declared Edgar Peas Garciaz, President of OEPIAP and Kichwa student, emphasizing that the technical part of the construction has already been elaborated.
“With this student center, indigenous peoples from different regions and parts of the Amazon will finally have a better chance to give their children the opportunity to access higher education and become professionals”
“At the very least, I hope they fulfill this commitment to indigenous peoples”, affirmed Elisvan Greffa Yumbo, Vice-President of OEPIAP and Kichwa student. “Indigenous youth from different river basins in the Amazon have no place to live when they arrive to Iquitos. OEPIAP has always fought for this, claiming this right to education. After over 40 years of oil exploitation in indigenous territories which has generated significant income for the country, there is hardly anyone that is prepared as a professional or educated to higher education level in the communities. With this student center, indigenous peoples from different regions and parts of the Amazon will finally have a better chance to give their children the opportunity to access higher education and become professionals.”
The Sui Sui Program of the Instituto Chaikuni was happy to support the coordination of this minga and continues to support OEPIAP, an indigenous student organization representing more than 120 indigenous youth from 13 native peoples across the Peruvian Amazon, with whom we have partnered for several years. We are currently raising funds to enhance the student centre with the construction of fully equipped computer/study room and office which will provide adequate studying conditions for this indigenous youth in Iquitos.
Find out more about the campaign and donate here. Support this indigenous youth, they are the future of the Amazon!