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Machiguenga Communities Could be Affected by Peru Gas Production

A commission appointed to monitor the impacts of Peru’s largest national gas production facility and pipeline warns that the project could be affecting the diet and culture of Machiguenga communities near the site.

Anthropologist Glenn Shepard, a member of the commission, which was established in 2009 by the United States Export-Import Bank, as a condition for its guarantee of financing for the $3.8 billion project, said community members told him of malnutrition, the appearance of diseases that were previously unknown in the area, and increased alcoholism and domestic violence in the years since gas production began.

Infrastructure projects, such as water systems, have also been abandoned or are in poor repair because of lack of parts or maintenance expertise, he said. He pointed to a $150,000 hospital boat that capsized when the river rose and now lies partly submerged near the gas field as an example of poor management of development projects designed to compensate communities for the environmental and social impacts of gas drilling.

Although Camisea, which was developed in the 2000s, was the largest and one of the most scrutinized energy projects ever launched in Peru, “The step that was lacking was for (indigenous communities) to prepare for this major change,” Shepard said.

Located in the Urubamba River valley in Peru’s southeastern Amazon region and operated by a consortium headed by Argentina’s PlusPetrol, Camisea began pumping natural gas and gas liquids across the Andes to the Pacific coast in 2004. Part of the gas is for domestic consumption and the rest is liquefied for export to other countries, especially Mexico.

During construction, environmental and indigenous groups expressed concern about possible environmental damage, particularly from construction and operation of the pipeline, and pressured for international organizations, especially lenders, to keep a close eye on the project. The Export-Import Bank established its commission in response to those concerns.

The Camisea consortium also agreed to ferry workers and building materials to the site by air, instead of building roads that could open up the region to settlement. While the only access to the gas field is still by plane or boat, the local government is using tax and royalty revenues to build roads upstream. As a result, the population around the Machiguenga communities is growing.

The Camisea project was sharply criticized after it began operation, when it suffered a series of pipeline ruptures. While those problems were resolved, Shepard encountered a number of indirect impacts when he visited the area in late 2011 to interview residents about the project for the commission’s report.

Government officials and industry executives have promoted Camisea – like other energy and mining projects around the country – as a springboard to development for Peru.

In the communities he visited, however, “people said what’s happening now is not development,” Shepard said.

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Shepard, who worked for many years in the area and speaks fluent Machiguenga, asked 21 residents and nine leaders from 10 communities one question: How have things changed since the company – as local people refer to the consortium – began working?

Some people told him they catch fewer fish than before the gas operations began, and the fish are smaller than they used to be. Many blamed pollution, but Shepard said he found those species were available in markets in the town of Sepahua, further downstream, indicating that commercial fishing could be the culprit.

Merchants hawking everything from beer and cookies, trinkets and cooking pots are regular visitors to the communities. Shepard said the merchants, who travel from community to community, setting up tents on the river bank for a day or two and leaving trash when they move on, are “like sharks in the water” in a region that has only recently shifted to a cash economy.

The people he interviewed complained that beer is replacing masato, a traditional drink made from fermented cassava. That change has affected relationships between women – who traditionally made and served masato – and men, who buy and control the beer, he said.

While nine of the people he interviewed said the change to a cash economy was positive, 17 said alcoholism had increased, nine associated it with cultural losses, and 14 saw other negative effects. People in communities reported that domestic violence had also increased, he said.

Shepard said the project has also had an impact on education, as many bilingual teachers left their positions to take jobs with oil and gas companies.

“They’ve lost a whole generation of their most educated people,” he said.

As a result, only about 40 percent of the teachers in Machiguenga communities are Machiguenga, he said.

Shepard called for culturally appropriate development planning, not only around Camisea, but also in other parts of the Peruvian Amazon where oil and gas exploration or production is under way in or near indigenous communities.

“I don’t think it’s too late,” he said. “Camisea should be a learning experience.”