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The Camisea chronicles.

Machiguenga fear continued gas damage

By Lisa Garrigues -- Today correspondent

Part three

QUILLABAMBA, Peru - ''A big black cloud spread over the entire town, and oooh ... our faces burned like chili pepper.''

Maxine Ovaldo Duenas Parki lives in Kepashiato, a collection of dirt roads and precarious wooden homes inhabited primarily by Quechuan settlers who have come to this Peruvian jungle town from the Andes looking for a better life.

In March 2006, an accident on the Camisea gas pipeline, the fifth in 18 months, caused an explosion that injured two people and panicked town residents.

Today, fears in the Urubamba River region continue, with many residents expressing concerns about unreported gas spills, poor reforestation and waste management, and lingering health effects.

The pipeline, which runs near several indigenous Machiguenga and Quechuan settler communities, will eventually export gas to Mexico and possibly the United States. It is being managed by Transportadora de Gas de Peru, part of a gas company consortium which includes the Texan company Hunt Oil.

In the Upper Urubamba region, some Native and settler communities near the pipeline are accessible only by walking six to 12 hours. Residents of nearby Echarati, Kiteni and Quillabamba expressed concerns about pipeline safety, based on travels to these regions and conversations with Machiguenga community members.

Roberto Zamira Ortega, of Matamango, a laborer and vendor, said he was working near the Tiboriari Machiguenga community in June 2006, when he noticed that ''the river was a strange dark color, and the fish were dead in the water.''

Three days later, he said, three community leaders were given jobs with TGP.

Ortega also said a gas spill had occurred when he worked for the subcontractor Inspectra in 2003; and in October 2006, a landslide originating in the area of the gas duct damaged several homes and farms.

In the Lower Urubamba region, leaders of the Quechuan settler community of Tupac Amaru complained that TGP has been negligent in its disposal of waste and in its reforestation efforts, planting grass where there were once trees, which has caused serious erosion.

''The land is dead; it's like a desert,'' said Juaquin Cardenas. ''When it rains, our drinking water turns to mud.''

Another Lower Urubamba settler, Eduardo Bendezu, said he had leaks from inappropriately stored gas waste products.

In March 2006, the public watchdog organization People's Defender published a report based on six years of investigation in indigenous and settler communities that documented damage to irrigation channels, forests and drinking water, as well as unkept promises by TGP.

Last year, the People's Defender budget was cut, and the Quillabamba office in the Camisea project region closed. The organization is now unable to schedule the trips to visit isolated Native communities that it once took.

As a condition of its loan for the project, the IDB set up a new organization in 2003 to take complaints about the Camisea project, the Camisea Defender. This organization, which holds a private mediation session with the complainant and gas company representatives, has been criticized by the Amazonian Native organization AIDESEP for having been created without indigenous input.

Sylvio Campana, of the People's Defender in Cusco, said TGP was disputing government fines levied upon them as a result of the Defender's report.

Journalist Eloy Maita, of Quillabamba, felt much of the local media was not holding the government or the gas companies accountable for social and environmental effects in the region. Maita, as well as former Quillabamba Mayor Fedia Castro and Ciro Miranda from the nongovernmental organization CEDIA, said it was common practice in the area for journalists to accept money from governmental and private organizations to slant or minimize their stories.

Maita's own television station was shut down by the state government for operating without a permit after he ran an investigation critical of the Camisea project, he said, while other illegal stations in the region remained on the air.

In Kepashiato, Maxine Parki and Mayor Martin Huaman said the population continued to suffer from illnesses they didn't have before the incident, despite a study published by the Peruvian Ministry of Health that showed no permanent environmental damage.

Kepashiato clinic nurse Victoria Espinoza said the number of patients with eye and throat problems and headaches increased for two months after the incident.

Clinic doctor Leonev Loiza Macedo said he currently sees a greater-than-average rate of ''unexplained'' headaches.

''We've asked them to take the pipeline elsewhere,'' said Huaman. ''It damages the flora, the fauna, and instills fear in the human society.''

He said the town was still waiting for the new health center and police station they had requested from the state, in the event of other spills.

Rafael Guarderas, of TGP, said even though it was ''impossible'' for Kepashiato residents to have suffered the symptoms they claimed because they were too far from the actual explosion, the company provided medical attention to community residents after the incident.

Guarderas said he was unaware of the erosion complaints by residents of Tupac Amaru or other communities, and that any continuing spills or problems with the pipeline would show up on TGP's SCAVA computerized monitoring system.

''There have been no other spills besides the ones reported,'' he said.

He said that some communities that are claiming to be affected by gas spills and other environmental damage are looking for financial gain.

An independent environmental auditing firm, E-Tech, released studies in February and August of 2006 which found the pipeline suffered from faulty and hurried construction, and used unqualified welders.

The Inter-American Development Bank, which funds the Camisea project, and the Peruvian government, rejected this study. IDB is currently funding a social and environmental study by ICF International, to be published in February, and a technical study of the pipeline by Germanischer Lloyd, scheduled to be completed in June 2007.

In November, ICF investigators for the social component were criticized by Lower Urubamba Native leaders at a meeting in Shivankoreni for not visiting enough communities, and for not informing Native organizations beforehand of their visit. IDB had scheduled public audiences for them in 11 communities in 10 days, most of them in Lower Urubamba. Three communities that had suffered gas spills would not be visited, they said.

Copies of the ICF report were scheduled to be given only to the Peruvian government and to IDB. Investigators said they would recommend copies also be given to Native organizations in the region.