Eye on the Amazon

Saramurillo: Justice This Time for the Indigenous Peoples of the Peruvian Amazon?

Could the recent mobilization held at Saramurillo in the northern Peruvian Amazon be remembered as the one that finally brought much needed justice to indigenous peoples affected by over 40 years of irresponsible oil activity? In mid-December 2016, 49 agreements were signed between Peruvian government officials and indigenous peoples. Will things be different this time; will the accords be complied with? In the wake of too many state promises left unfulfilled and the constant oil spills on their territories, hopes are nevertheless high for the thousands of native peoples who united during 117 days in the native community of Saramurillo to demand respect for their rights and to call for an end to the oil destruction of the Peruvian Amazon.

Coming from five river basins of the Marañón, Corrientes, Pastaza, Tigre, and Chambira, this broad coalition at Saramurillo was formed by different Amazonian peoples such as the Kukama, Urarinas, Achuar, Kichwa, and Quechua. Approximately 3,000 people were present at the peak of the protest. All have suffered the impacts of pollution on their territories owing to Peru's two oldest Amazonian oil fields and pipeline.

The agreements concluded this three-and-a-half-month long protest, which began on September 1st 2016. Indigenous peoples sustained a blockade of a section of the Marañón river as a means to press for their demands until November 29th. After several failed attempts at dialogue, and instead of militarizing the conflict, the Peruvian government responded this time by renewing the dialogue on-site in Saramurillo with a state commission headed consecutively by Minister of Justice and Human Rights Marisol Pérez Tello, Minister of Energy and Mining Gonzalo Tamayo, and Minister of Production Bruno Giuffra in December 2016. "The main problem here is employment," affirmed Peru's Minister of Energy and Mining. "Tell me, indigenous leaders, who among you haven't been working for the oil companies?" Hundreds of people gathered at the traditionally-built community center stared at him in silence.

Our Executive Director and legal counselor to the indigenous people, Sarah Kerremans, testifies: "I almost fell off my chair when hearing the Minister's opening words to hundreds of indigenous fathers and mothers with exhausted yet hopeful hearts and minds after 117 days of pacific protest. One Achuar leader stood up to break the silence, he was very gentle when he spoke: "We know you duty holders from Lima have difficulties to understand what we really mean, but don't worry, we will not get tired of explaining our legitimate demands, not even if we have to do so for several days, over and over again. It will necessarily be an intercultural debate". It was a strong statement that set out the rules for this long debate, which resulted in 49 signed agreements."

The Peruvian region of Loreto – a micro Venezuela, whose local economy has depended upon oil for the past four decades – entered a severe economic crisis in 2015 when the international oil price per barrel dropped. Yet the indigenous peoples' first demands at Saramurillo were not about jobs. Sarah, a fundamental rights specialist who has been involved in numerous dialogues, roundtables and prior consultation processes between indigenous peoples and the Peruvian state over the last three years, sees a trend: "This is part of a broader strategy. First of all, the Peruvian state has not been a guarantor for fundamental rights in Loreto for a long time. When indigenous peoples claim their rights after four decades of oil activity on their ancestral lands – fundamental rights such as the right to clean water, their territories, and the right to life itself – they are not listened to. There seems to be a tendency to use the idea of jobs creation, or even the so called "empresas comunales" to meet these demands. This might work for a while and does give the impression of direct satisfaction and immediate attention in places where there was little attention before. But after a while, community members see that the problem remains the same over the long term. So one of the main issues put on the table in Saramurillo was not about employment, but rather the immediate and effective remediation of the thousands of contaminated sites in oil Block 192 (operator: Pacific Stratus Energy, former operator Pluspetrol), oil Block 8 (current operator: PlusPetrol) and along the 800 km long pipelines (operator: Petroperu) which cross the Amazon."

Important Agreements for the Past, Present, and Future

The process that allowed the agreements was not simple nor was it free of tensions. The debate became a space where indigenous democracy and republican democracy sought to understand each other in order to restore trust and seek justice for their demands. Unlike the usual technical roundtables, the methodology insisted upon by indigenous peoples at Saramurillo was for an intercultural political debate in the presence of a Minister of the state.

The Saramurillo accords notably call for the effective remediation of contaminated sites to begin in 2017. Alongside of this, agreements include an independent inspection of the Northern Peruvian Pipeline in the first half of 2017, as well as other pipelines that cross Blocks 192 and 8, with the participation of indigenous representatives.

"With regards to the pipeline in the Marañon river, we are speaking of an emergency: the rainy season is now underway and the crude from over twelve oil spills last year alone will uncontrollably spread and contaminate the drinking water of the Marañon river, the city of Iquitos, and the Amazon further downriver. The goal of the current government is to continue to exploit oil in the Amazon as soon as possible, despite the corrosion of the old pipelines and despite the many social and environmental problems. So, is that still viable? We hear a new language in the discourse of indigenous leaders in this part of the Amazon and this led to an important agreement to implement a parliamentary commission to discuss this," comments our Executive Director Sarah Kerremans.

Under the Saramurillo accords, a community environmental monitoring law and nationwide discussions on Peru's energy future, in particular with regards to the Amazon region, could see the day through the introduction of a bill by the the Congressional Commission on Andean and Amazonian Peoples, Afro-Peruvians, the Environment, and Ecology.

"Oil has not served to improve our Loreto region", observes Kichwa advisor Jose Fachin. "The economy of indigenous peoples cannot be dependent upon oil activity, and neither can Loreto. We want to potentiate our own resources, train ourselves, diversify the local economy, and not suffer from pollution. That is why we have to work on an investment plan so that people can improve their quality of life without oil activity, which has been imposed upon us." In this regard, specific agreements were reached regarding health, education, sanitation, electrification, infrastructure, access to social programs, and a special development plan for various income-producing projects in the communities as compensation for damages. The first stage of this development plan was initiated during a dialogue with a Multisectorial Commission in January 2017, and is due to present its first progress report in June 2017.

Accords also aim to to investigate the impacts of the four-plus decades of oil operations in Blocks 192 and 8 through the establishment of a Truth Commission involving the government, indigenous organizations and oil companies in order to identify the improvements that can be made.

Not everything was agreed. Issues such as land titling in protected areas and payments for easements related to the Petroperú pipeline went unresolved. But even so, through the implementation of the Saramurillo accords, indigenous peoples hope to see concrete results in the immediate, mid, and long term since there is a commitment of five years with the current government.

  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "Indigenous peoples today have united like never before. It is a privilege to be defending our rights and this is why we have mobilized. We are from different ethnicities, speaking different languages. We are defending the dignity and physical integrity of life for our children and future." James Rodríguez Acho, Shipibo leader and President of ACONAKKU
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "Water is life. That is why we look after our water, so that it doesn't get contaminated. But then the companies contaminated our rivers and forests, and brought so many illnesses. The lowland rainforest of Peru has been declared the lungs of our world. But they have deteriorated it, we are losing it. If we fight to preserve it, yes it will be the lungs, yes, it will continue to be so. Now if the state doesn't respond to us, many things are going to happen. Careful." Yolanda Naro Greffa, Kukama leader
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "Where have the 40 years of the oil exploitation gone? Nothing has improved. We don't have anything that serves us, we are in extreme poverty. If the people are united today, it is not because they want money. It is to demand our just right so that the government listens to us, because no one listens to us. If you don't protest and don't speak up, no one listens." Jairo Sandi Mayanchi, Leader of Saramuro
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "I remember as a child seeing how my family and people lived before. They lived a peaceful life. We ate fish and meat, healthy food – not like it is now. Now we eat fish that is contaminated with oil. The companies are truly criminal because so many have died. These companies have done so much harm. We, indigenous peoples, united for this struggle in Saramurillo. We will see how things move forward now." Julia Chuje Ruiz, Kichwa member of FECONAT
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "For the first time in history, the government and the state representatives arrived to our community to see our reality. We ask all the peoples to be united. Whether there is sunshine or rain, whether we have eaten or not, we are fighting to defend the rights of our lands, our rivers and our forests." César Llerena Rioja, Kukama leader and President of ACONAKU
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "We cannot accept anymore abuse, anymore destruction. All that we want and ask now is respect from the companies and the state. We, as indigenous peoples, have always respected. But what we have never received is respect. The concrete and positive result that we are hoping for will be seen in the long term. The communities have lost trust in the state because of all the prior agreements which have not been implemented. But now we are building together, once again familiarizing ourselves with each other and trusting – today more than ever, because things can't be postponed." Daniel Saboya Mayanchi, Achuar Leader and President of FEPIAURC
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "The state has appropriated the territories in which we live, our ancestral indigenous territories which belongs to us and which are our home. We don't want to have to be asking things to to the state that we shouldn't have to be asking. We demand our just right that was taken from us by oil. If there is no solution and acceptance of these demands that we are making, we will not allow a single barrel or gallon of oil to leave our territories." Miguel Manihuari Tamani, Kukama leader and President of AIDECOS
  • Photo credit: Sophie Pinchetti
    "We want the state to understand us. That is the demand. Why? People died because of the contamination of water, food, what people drink and eat. Now plants – we plant them but they do not grow. That's why we want remediation, so that our soil gets cleaned. What has begun here in Saramurillo is not finished – it will continue." Miguel Zuñiga Careajano, Achuar leader, ORIAP (pictured right)

More Unity, More Strength

In the face of too many previous agreements left unfulfilled, more unity is the best strategy going forward, affirm the indigenous federations united in Saramurillo. Two months on from the signing of the accords, they continue to stand together, ready and vigilant as to the compliance of the accords made by this new government, which "wants do things differently and wants to fulfil" in the words of Peru's Prime Minister Fernando Zavala during his visit to Saramurillo on December 19th, 2016 to pledge government support for the accords.

Whether there was sunshine or rain, the strategic alliance of these indigenous federations brought together native Amazonian peoples from different languages and ethnicities who ate, slept, laughed, cried, stood strong and hoped side by side. A new horizon, cultural pride and dignity rose through this struggle for territorial defence and their collective and individual rights. "Today, indigenous peoples have united like never before", declares Shipibo leader and President of ACONAKKU James Rodriguez Acho. "This unity is going to pervade", insists Achuar leader & President of FEPIAURC Daniel Saboya Mayanchi, "because it is not just the unity of federations or river basins, it is the unity of communities and community members who are at the essence and giving this credibility."

While the mobilization at Saramurillo on the ground may have come to a close for now, the indigenous unity built during this landmark mobilization is still growing in strengths. This month, more indigenous organizations joined in the platform of the five river basins. The coalition now includes fifteen indigenous organizations, each one representing villages affected by oil activity in the Peruvian Amazon. Together, these organizations are uniting to show that their struggle for the land, water and life itself continues.

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