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Don’t Drink the Feces: Indigenous Seek Results for Peru’s Toxic Waters

Government testings in Peru found that drinking water in 17 out of 17 indigenous villages was unfit for human consumption.

When Ander Ordóñez learned the extent of pollution among the Kukama indigenous communities along the Marañón River in Peru’s northeastern Amazon region, he was not surprised.

He had accompanied the experts who took water, soil and sediment samples last September, and the pools of crude petroleum and other damage he saw in near oil wells and along a pipeline was “terrible,” he said. “We can’t just stand by and do nothing.”

In the wake of government findings of heavy metals, including lead and cadmium, in the area and a determination that drinking water in 17 out of 17 villages tested was unfit for human consumption, Kukama leaders are calling for health studies and a halt to oil pumping until the pipeline is repaired.

“The soul of the Kukama people is deeply wounded,” said Alfonso López, president of the Cocama Association for Development and Conservation (Asociación Cocama de Desarrollo y Conservación San Pablo de Tipishca, Acodecospat). “And we are angry at the government, not only because it is killing us, but because it is affecting our children, their children and the generations to come, because much of the damage that is occurring now will be irreversible in the future.”

Leaders from 48 Kukama communities gathered in López’s village, Dos de Mayo, in Peru’s Loreto region, on February 19 to hear representatives of half a dozen government agencies present the results of the environmental testing.

Concentrations of heavy metals were highest in Block 8X, one of Peru’s oldest oil fields, which has been operating for four decades in a wetland area that is now the Pacaya Samiria Natural Reserve, and which has been home to indigenous communities for generations.

Pollutants were also found in lakes used for fishing and in the broad Marañón River, a major tributary of the Amazon, from which many communities draw their drinking water.

Perhaps of greatest concern was the finding by the Health Ministry’s Environmental Health Office that none of the water in the 17 communities where it took samples was safe for human consumption. All of the samples contained fecal coliforms indicating contamination from human waste, and some contained arsenic.

There are no public water or sanitation services in that rural area of the Amazon, upriver from the city of Iquitos, and bottled water is prohibitively expensive for most people, who have little cash income.

Responding to the presentations, one Kukama leader commented that the government officials presenting the reports were drinking bottled water, but the several hundred people attending the meeting had no choice but to drink water they had just been told was unsafe.

The problem goes beyond safe drinking water, however. The seasonal rise and fall of water levels in the wetland—which can range from several feet to several yards deep, depending on the time of year—means that pollutants could be more widespread than the government testing shows, according to Ricardo Segovia, a hydrogeologist from E-Tech International, a United States-based engineering firm that is advising the Kukama association and organizations in the Corrientes, Pastaza and Tigre watersheds, which are suffering from similar problems.

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That could mean that fish and game animals are also affected, although further testing would be necessary to determine if there is a risk, he said.

The pollution has an especially deep impact because of the Kukama people’s spiritual connection with the broad, muddy Marañón River, which is their highway, fishing ground and constant companion.

A person who disappears in the river and whose body is not recovered is said to have gone to live under the water in cities that are a reflection of life on land. Those people maintain their ties to their families, visiting in dreams or through shamans. So contamination of the water has serious spiritual implications for the Kukama as well, according to the Rev. Miguel Angel Cadenas, a Catholic priest who has worked in the area for 20 years and who attended the meeting in Dos de Mayo.

Barbara Fraser

Members of the community of San Regis prepare breakfast beside a lake in the community of Dos de Mayo before an assembly to discuss the results of government testing of water, soil and sediments.

The Marañón is the fourth watershed tested for pollution. Heavy metals were also found in the Corrientes, Pastaza and Tigre watersheds, most likely from decades during which the companies operating oil blocks 8 and 1AB—including state-run Petroperu, Occidental Petroleum and the Argentina-based Pluspetrol, the current operator—dumped salty, toxic-laden wastewater from the wells directly into rivers and streams.

Tests also found high levels of lead and cadmium in the blood of Achuar people in the Corrientes watershed.

In a statement issued after the February 19 meeting, the Kukama leaders called for remediation of environmental damage and a halt to oil production in Block 8X until corroded sections of the pipeline are replaced, as well as testing of fish, game animals and residents of the area to see if heavy metals have accumulated in their bodies.

“We are asking for respect for our culture, which unites us spiritually with our territory, our plants, our animals, our rivers, our lakes, the spirits that surround us, and the bones and spirits of our ancestors, which give us the strength to continue working in defense of our children and the legacy we have received to pass on to the generations to come,” López said.

Barbara Fraser

In the community of Dos de Mayo, the lake is the source of water for drinking and cooking, as well as the only place to bathe, do laundry and wash dishes.