QUILLABAMBA, Peru – In the Machiguenga village of Shivankoreni, a six-hour boat ride into the southern Peruvian jungle, community members gathered in front of a giant television screen, watching blonde wrestlers throw each other around in a remote civilization.
Outside, one woman stood with her back to the newly installed outdoor sinks, washing her hands in the rain.
The people who live here, and in the other 38 Machiguenga and Yine communities along the Urubamba River, have seen their traditional way of life change radically since the arrival of the Camisea Gas Project to this area four years ago.
Some have embraced the changes. Others have rejected them. But no one can ignore them. The buzz of helicopters, the churning waters of transport boats, the gas leaks that caused fish to die and skin to burn have been continual reminders in this territory that was once exclusive to the Machiguenga and other peoples.
“There have been substantial changes in the environment, culture and society,” said Walter Kategari, head of COMARU, the Machiguenga Council of the Urubamba River.
Because of changes to their diet and environment, the Machiguenga are suffering from new diseases they didn’t have before, Kategari said.
The absence of fish and game in the region, as well as new habits of consumerism, have caused the Machiguenga to abandon their traditional hunting, fishing and bartering, and move – often unprepared – into the labor market.
“The training and workshops we’ve received from the gas company have been positive,” Kategari said, “but not enough. We need more training, better use of human resources.”
The gas project is run by a consortium led by the Argentine company Pluspetrol, with the pipeline construction operated by Transportadora de Gas de Peru.
Though the nearby municipality of Echarate has used state gas money to create more than 300 new construction projects that have brought jobs to impoverished Peruvians, the Machiguenga have complained that this money has been slow in coming to their remote communities. They say that they get very few of the jobs created by these projects, even in their own communities, where outside workers with more skills are brought in.
Women have been particularly vulnerable to the new economic pressures, sometimes ending up as prostitutes, said Jorge Katari, COMARU environmental coordinator.
Sixteen cases of syphilis were reported in the communities of Shivankoreni and Camisea after gas company workers set up camp nearby in 2003, and Machiguenga girls as young as 14 have been seen working as prostitutes in Quillabamba.
Yonny Luti, 17, left her village of Chocoriari a year ago. All she was able to find was a home-worker position that paid her room and board and nothing else.
“I’m going to keep trying,” she said. “I want to learn secretarial skills so I can work at the Machiguenga House.”
Luti said life was just as hard in her village, where she has lost four brothers to accidents on the river.
For Machiguenga and other peoples who have chosen to live in isolation, the presence of valuable natural gas in the region has made it harder to maintain their privacy. In 2003, TGP representatives brought several missionaries into contact with isolated people on the Nahua Reserve.
Machiguenga leaders say the company has since improved its control over worker contact with Native people in isolation.
The Machiguenga have several hundred years’ experience with contact from outsiders, including unsuccessful attempts at conquest by the Incan civilization, enslavement by rubber barons and conversion by Catholic missionaries in the 20th century.
In the 1980s, with oil exploration activities by Shell Oil, they decided to abandon their traditional sense of territory as something that was used but not owned. With the assistance of the nongovernmental organization CEDIA, they began to better negotiate with oil and gas companies by establishing title to their land.
Some Machiguenga, like other Amazon peoples, feel they are caught in a political tug of war between NGOs and oil and gas companies.
“CEDIA has been good for helping us develop our negotiation skills,” said Javier Kawanire, of the Quillabamba Commission on Indigenous Affairs, “but they focus too much on cultural preservation and are always telling us to go against the gas company. They want us to stay in the past, wearing kushmas [traditional robes].”
Oil and gas companies that give funding and training to indigenous organizations, on the other hand, have brought Native leaders under pressure in their own communities for receiving special favors and not representing the needs of their constituencies.
Gas company representatives have denied they give any special favors to Native leaders in the region.
Currently, COMARU has joined forces with the three other indigenous groups in the region, the evangelical-inspired CECONAMA, the Yine organization FECONAYY, CEDIA and several other organizations, including Pluspetrol, to work together as the Development Committee of Bajo Urubamba to achieve sustained progress for the people of the isolated Lower Urubamba region.
At a recent meeting of this committee in Shivankoreni, Francisco Osego, of Nueva Luz, said he appreciated the electrification and other improvements that had come about as a result of the Camisea Gas Project.
“Five years ago, the transportation here was dismal. Now, it’s much easier to get from village to village.”
But for leaders like Manuel Bardeles Fernandez, of Sabbabantieri, whatever improvements brought by the project have paled next to the damage it has caused.
“We had severe epidemics after the 2004 gas spill, diarrhea and respiratory diseases,” he said. “Three people died. And we have received nothing.”
Cultural change has been just as damaging, Bardeles Fernandez said.
“Machiguenga culture is not about getting ahead. It’s about maintaining. We used to work in our own way, on our own time. Not any more.”
The gas project has been criticized by environmental groups for shoddy construction of its pipeline, which has suffered five reported gas spills in 18 months. TGP has paid compensation to some communities, but not to others whom it claims were not affected.
Jorge Kategari said he hopes the Machiguenga and other peoples of the region will be able to protect their culture and environment, keeping a balance between tradition and modernity.
“We want to become professionals without losing the values of being Machiguenga: respect among ourselves, speaking the truth and equality.”
(Continued in part three)