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Tribes in Peru-Colombia-Ecuador border fear death by oil

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Guido Sandoval, a leader of the Secoya Tribe in Peru says the few hundred members of his nation have lived quietly for decades in the forests, despite being near a FARC rebels-Colombian army war zone, close to an infamous old drug trafficking route and not far from where Peru and Ecuador fought on and off wars for decades.

While the Secoya land in the Gueppi region of northern Peru may appear close in a map to all that drug and political violence, the area where the Secoya thrive is a “very clean,” rainforest right in the middle of the Amazon and hundreds of miles from the closest highways or Western-style town and all their trouble, he says. Life – despite rivalries with Huitoto Tribe neighbors – has been good for decades.

But now he and others are afraid the next threat they face – oil exploration by a Brazilian state owned company – is one that could change the entire way his tribe has lived “for 1,500 years” in that same region. He is afraid it will be far worse than the enslavement by rubber barons his tribe suffered a century ago because this time it could damage their land forever.

Lifestyle endangered

While the Secoyas were nomadic for centuries, starting some 60 years ago under the direction of the Republic of Peru (established in 1821), they left their old lifestyle in circular multiple extended-family homes spread out in the forest to start settling in single family home towns alongside rivers to be closer together. They now share in those towns a precarious government-paid schooling and a medical outpost run by a nurse.

He said the results of following government advice to form such towns in the last 50 years or so has been positive. People in the tribe trust the nurse for emergencies and do not rely as much on traditional medicine anymore. Children attend government schools and make progress in math, even though the Secoya language is not taught.

The Secoyas spend time hunting, fishing and growing corn, plantain, yucca and this is what they teach their children themselves, adds Hermelinda Payaguaje, a leader of the tribe who came with Sandoval to Lima to seek help against the threat of oil exploration on their land.

In the worst case for the estimated 10,000 Secoyas, Kichwas, Huitotos and other mestizo (Spanish-Indian) groups that now live in the Amazon area, the worst threat is water pollution.

Sandoval, a Secoya leader, said the land and the water is all they have. He does not know any member of the group with higher education or close to getting it.

Education for all is at an elementary level taught by Peruvian teachers. The Secoyas teach their children the very basics like the language, making cooking and hunting tools, but not much else.

From beatings to poisonings, Sandoval fears that the history of what happened to his family decades ago because of another then hot commodity – rubber – could happen again with oil.

“My father told me that my great-grandfather was often beaten up because he did not understand what he had to obey fast enough for the patrons. They were beaten into working like slaves. No salaries were paid,” Sandoval said, remembering the stories from his childhood about the gun-carrying businessmen who ventured into the Amazon to seek rubber, enslaving Amazon communities.

Thanks to this exploitation, whites and mestizos managed to amass fortunes from rubber and palaces and opulent constructions abound in the closest cities of Iquitos, Peru and particularly, Manaus, Brazil.

That period ended when oil was processed into petrochemicals and synthetic rubber was created. Paradoxically, oil saved their land, and is now causing worse trouble.

Sandoval said he, as well as the 700 members of his community and the thousands of Peruvian Natives across the Amazon – often so divided and confronted with one another to the point where dozens of unrelated languages are spoken – do have one thing in common, fear that oil will damage their land. They say it has happened to communities very close to them.

“We know of very serious dangers to the health of the Achuar Tribe and the pollution that oil activities have generated in the Corrientes River,” read a statement released in mid-March by groups including the Secoya, referring to pollution that has occurred in those Peruvian Amazon regions already.

Amazon communities have complained that according to lab tests not only is the water contaminated, but their blood has abnormal traces of cadmium and lead from drinking polluted water that was used in oil production.

Uphill fight ahead

“Now we don’t have to buy water with money. We don’t have to buy any meat because we can hunt. We don’t want an oil company to change that,” Sandoval said.

Peru is not respecting its agreements with the Secoyas and others because an area known as Gueppi – which they say was offered as a reserved zone – was in recent years given in concession to an oil company, Brazilian-owned Petrobras, he said.

Peruvian state oil licensing and royalty agency confirms in its web page that the area in the very northern tip of Peru bordering Ecuador and Colombia is known to them as block 114, in concession to Petrobras since 2006. Peru separates surface property – like what the Secoya own – with subsoil property, like that of hydrocarbons that may exist below, which are always only owned by the state.

Because of the imminent explorations, 30 communities in that region which include 22 Kichwas and eight Secoya towns sent representatives including Sandoval and Payaguaje to Lima, capital of Peru, mid-March to warn that they do not want any oil activity because they fear death by lack of resources.

The statement said the thousands of Natives are so adamantly opposed to oil activity that they will not attend planned meetings with the company. Peru obligates companies to get communities approval for any activity to start. If Natives don’t show up, the company may not move forward with exploration.

Sandoval said he appreciates that Secoya children receive immunization and basic schooling in Peru and that the tribe mothers have a hospital bed to give birth in. He said he would not mind any investment favoring Peruvians, so long as it would not interfere with their lifestyle in such a scary way for them.

Victor Pérez, member of the Kichwa Tribe who also traveled to Lima to raise awareness, agrees with government authorities who argue that development is needed, but said standards of living must be raised for all people in Peru “without the need of the start of oil activity” that threatens their life.

The government of Peru is putting pressure on the tribes, saying that investment is needed for the overall good of the country. Pérez said the job of the tribe is to protect the Amazon “lung of the earth.”