The Camisea chronicles 'River people try to cope with a life without fish'

<i>Editors’ note: This is the first of a series of articles documenting the effects of the controversial Camisea Gas Project on the Machiguenga, Yine and Quechuan communities in the Peruvian Amazon.</i>

<b>Part one</b>

QUILLABAMBA, Peru – To the 22 Machiguenga and Yine communities along the Lower Urubamba River in the Peruvian Amazon, the river has been sustenance and life.

That changed abruptly four years ago, community members say, with the arrival of the Camisea Gas Project, a multi-million-dollar gas pipeline that will run from the Amazon to Lima and, eventually, export gas to the Western United States.

Now, they say, the river and the surrounding forests are empty. The constant traffic of company boats and contamination from ruptured gas ducts have chased the fish away, and helicopter air traffic has scared off the animals the river peoples have traditionally hunted, causing a rise in malnutrition in these isolated communities.

“For breakfast, it’s canned tuna!” said Jeremias Sebastian, Yine, at a recent meeting of Lower Urubamba residents in the community of Sivankoreni. “For lunch, canned tuna! If this keeps up, we’ll end up with cancer, like the foreigners have!”

Some canned tunas have been found to contain the toxic substance methylmercury.

But residents of the nearby town of Quillabamba, who have traveled extensively in the lower Urubamba region, say cans of tuna are a luxury for many Machiguenga and Yine families, who now depend on whatever they can afford to buy from the sparse stock of the traveling merchants or tiny stores in the area.

“People used to invite you to fresh fish when you arrived,” said journalist Eloy Maita. “Now, it’s packaged rice and pasta.”

Machiguenga leaders say the absence of fish and game has changed the way the Machiguengas relate to each other.

“Before, one family would catch a fish and offer it to others in the community,” said Lucio Calisto Aladin, leader of Sivankoreni. “Now, because no one has enough, everyone keeps what they have to themselves.”

Sivankoreni is one of the more fortunate communities of Lower Urubamba, Aladin said. Its leaders learned negotiation skills with Shell Oil back in the 1980s and have been able to negotiate river access deals with both Shell and the current company, Pluspetrol, that have given them enough money to build a two-story office, a bridge and a community center with a large-screen satellite TV and several computers.

But even here, the big-bellied signs of childhood malnutrition were in evidence. The food the women cooked in an iron pot over an outdoor fire was mostly rice and pasta, with a pig donated for the second day of the two-day Lower Urubamba meeting by Pluspetrol.

Dr. Efrain Vilcapata, who works with isolated Machiguengas in areas still populated by fish and game, said he is struck by the difference between the isolated peoples and the Machiguenga in contact with mestizo society.

“The isolated Machiguengas don’t have the diseases the others have,” he said, which include skin, respiratory and digestive problems as well as
malnutrition. “Their children are strong and healthy.”

Dr. Meliton Concha, director of indigenous health for the Quillabamba region, attributed the deterioration of Machiguenga health directly to dietary changes brought on by gas company activities. “Before, there were fish and birds in abundance. Now the rivers are impoverished.”

Concha said state money from these activities has not made its way to the 11 health outposts that serve Lower Urubamba indigenous and Quechuan settler communities, which can only be reached by a several-hour boat ride.

“To give you an example,” he said, “we finally got a motor for the motorboat we have been asking for, but we still don’t have the boat.”

Ciro Miranda, of the nongovernmental organization CEDIA, said the money negotiated in river access deals with Pluspetrol for three-year river exploration rights, which can range from $10,000 to $89,000, is minimal for the needs of the communities. Pluspetrol requires that the community present a project to them before they will disburse the funds. The projects don’t always immediately alleviate malnutrition.

Transportadora de Gas de Peru, the other company involved in the Camisea Gas Project, holds private negotiations with community leaders for the use of indigenous territory.

Machiguenga community members said the river-access money isn’t always fairly divided among the members of this traditionally clan-based society, which leaves some going hungry.

Community members and outside observers said state- or NGO-sponsored projects for producing livestock,
agriculture or small businesses often fail because of inadequate training and the radical lifestyle change these projects require of the Machiguenga, who have not lived by the future-driven world of business and agriculture.

Until 50 years ago, when they were contacted by Dominican priests, the Machiguenga lived in this region on their own terms, hunting and fishing the land without any sense of ownership or territory.

Machiguenga and Yine leaders have asked for fish farms to replace the fish driven from the river, as well as more training in livestock production, agriculture and small business. Though the state and Pluspetrol have begun some livestock and agricultural projects in the region, the 8,000 people who live along the river are still waiting for the fish farms.

Pluspetrol, a consortium that includes SK Corporation, Sonatrach Petroleum Corp. and the Texas-based Hunt Oil, bears some but not all of the responsibility for the absence of fish and game in the region, said Pluspetrol Community Relations Coordinator Jose Palomeras. Other factors, he said, include river contamination from nearby Cusco and increased commercial fishing in the region.

“We have studies that show the fish are coming back,” said Giovanna Gallegos, another Pluspetrol representative.

Walter Kategari, head of the Machiguenga Council of the Urubamba River (COMARU), also said the fish are beginning to come back in some areas. But eating habits, he said, and Machiguenga society, have already changed.

“There have been huge changes in the environment, in the culture and in society,” Kategari said.

He said COMARU’s goal was to negotiate better financial deals from Pluspetrol and affiliated companies for the communities.

For many inhabitants of the gas-rich Urubamba River region, if the fish are beginning to swim the river again, it’s not happening fast enough.

“These days,” said Sebastian, “when you take the lid off the cooking pot, out fly a bunch of mosquitoes. And that’s it.”

<i>(Continued in part two)