LIMA, Peru – Basta. Enough.
That’s what 700 representatives of the Achuar people from the Corrientes River basin in northern Peru said when they took over Peru’s largest oil facility on Oct. 10, blocking 50 percent of national production.
For 35 years, the Achuar said, contamination from current drilling by PlusPetrol Norte and previous drilling by Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Petrolifera Petroleum Ltd. had been affecting the health and territory of Native people in the region.
On Oct. 24, after a 14-day occupation, representatives of the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes Rio (FECONACO), which includes the Quichua and Urarinas people, reached an agreement with PlusPetrol and the Peruvian government. The agreement gave them 98 percent of their demands.
“Today,” the Achuar traditional authorities said in a statement released on the day the occupation ended, “we celebrate peace. This will be a day in which we celebrate the triumph of truth over injustice and death.”
More than 1 million barrels of toxic waste were being injected into the rain forest every day, the Achuar said, not only making people sick but killing off the plant and animal life upon which Native communities in the region depend to survive.
The Peruvian government and PlusPetrol agreed to the re-injection of up to 100 percent of the toxic formation waters back into the ground within 12 months, a new hospital and health services, a one-year emergency food supply for communities affected by pollution, 5 percent of the state oil royalties for community development and acknowledgement of the Achuar’s opposition to further oil exploration in the region.
The Achuar’s complaints about their health were backed by a study released by the regional government of Loreto in May, which reported that 98.6 percent of the children and adolescents in communities of the Corrientes River Basin had cadmium in their blood exceeding acceptable limits, and that 66.2 percent had lead which exceeded the limits for children.
Native communities in Peru have title and authority over their territories, but they do not have rights to natural resources beneath the land, which is owned by the Peruvian government. In the negotiation process with oil companies, the government first signs an agreement with the company, then conducts a series of “educational workshops” to get community response.
The Achuar said they have been trying since 2003 to get the Peruvian government and PlusPetrol, an Argentine company that recently sold 45 percent of its stock to China National Petroleum Corp., to take their complaints about pollution seriously.
On Oct. 4, after the government officials failed to show up at a meeting with them, 30 Achuar traditional authorities from FECONACO called for immediate re-injection of waste water into the ground and a meeting with the Peruvian government and PlusPetrol.
“The Achuar people have stood up,” the authorities said, “and we have said calmly but firmly: ‘Enough, we ourselves are going to stop pollution in our communities.’”
Four days later, the Achuar took over the oil wells in Lot 1AB and Lot 8 and blocked road traffic to the site. Conflicting media reports surfaced about the occupation, blaming the Achuar for violence and hostage-taking, which the Achuar denied. One report of 40 hostages taken turned out to be oil workers who couldn’t leave the area because of the road blockade. The Peruvian government sent in 150 troops, but the Achuar refused to let go of the oil fields, and the troops left the area.
After a meeting with government representatives, the Achuar traditional authorities signed an agreement which they later rescinded, upon advice by a consulting nongovernmental organization, Racimos de Ungurahui. The terms of the agreement, they said, were too vague and failed to include any reference to the Achuar’s desire to block further oil exploration in the region by other companies.
On Oct. 19, Minister of Mining and Energy Juan Valdivia issued a warning that a shortage of oil could occur with “grave consequences for the region and for the Amazon in general” if the Achuar didn’t end their occupation.
Another Native organization in the region, the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of Bajo Corriente, rejected the oil well occupation by representatives of FECONACO, saying they welcome oil, wood and mining exploitation as good economic opportunities for Native people, but that they want more control over the process.
FEPIBAC is a local organization that works in alliance with the regional indigenous organization, the Confederation of Amazon Nations (CONAP).
“We all recognize that damage has been done,” CONAP President Cesar Sarasara told Indian Country Today during the oil field occupation, “but we think we should all sit down at the table together and negotiate in a peaceful way, without force. Our objectives and FECONACO’s objectives are basically the same.”
He and leaders of FEPIBAC blamed the nongovernmental organization Racimos de Ungurahui for “promoting their own political agenda” and interfering with the autonomy of indigenous peoples.
Javier Echeverria, legal assessor for the indigenous organization AIDESEP (the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle), and FECONACO representatives, claim FEPIBAC and CONAP are funded by oil companies to create dissension within Amazonian peoples who are affected by oil drilling.
When asked how CONAP was funded, Sarasara said, “That’s a delicate question that I can’t answer at this moment.”
ICT tried several times to contact PlusPetrol, without response.
After the occupation ended, Valdivia admitted that the Corrientes River Basin had been adversely affected by oil company activity since the early 1970s, but blamed FECONACO and their consultants for “negativity.”
Members of the Achuar communities are now facing a government investigation and possible jail terms for their occupation. Andres Sandi, president of FECONACO, said the Achuar traditional authorities would hold firm on their demands for no further oil exploration in the region, despite the opinion of FEPIBAC members and pressure by the government.
“This is a clear victory for indigenous people everywhere which can’t be denied,” said attorney Lily La Torre, of Racimos de Ungurahui. ¨The Achuar had the courage to defend their situation, to the ultimate consequences.”