Eye on the Amazon

"Our Grandchildren Will Thank Us for the Territory We Are Defending"

Achuar assembly reaffirms strategic partnership with Amazon Watch

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Across the Amazon, indigenous peoples are waging high-profile campaigns to protect the "lungs of the planet." Brazil's Munduruku people are fighting against the construction of mega-dams along the Tapajós River. Ecuador's Kichwa people of Sarayaku are promoting their Living Forest concept before climate bodies. And the Achuar people have successfully evicted a steady parade of international oil companies from their vast territory along the Pastaza River in Peru.

The Achuar have a concrete plan for defending their ancestral homeland: they're demanding that the Peruvian government provide legal recognition of their collective territory and they're actively campaigning to keep out extractive industries, including oil, mining, and logging. In the past, they sent ARCO, Occidental Petroleum, and Canada-based Talisman Energy packing. Now the Achuar face a new threat: Chile-based oil company GeoPark, which hopes to pick up where Talisman left off.

In October, Amazon Watch traveled deep into Achuar territory to renew our mandate to support the Achuar and make plans for a new campaign. Here's what we learned.

Three Days Into the Depths of the Amazon

It took us three days to reach Tsekuntsa, an Achuar community located close to the Peruvian border with Ecuador. From the Peruvian capital city of Lima we flew in a commercial jet to the small city of Tarapoto, wound through lush mountains along a harrowing two-lane road, chartered a six-seat prop plane and finally sped up the Pastaza and Huasaga Rivers on a day-and-a-half boat ride. The delegation included Amazon Watch Communications Manager Moira Birss and other international allies of the Achuar.

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

The Achuar indigenous federation FENAP invited us to attend their annual general assembly, in which dozens of affiliate communities come together to exchange information, debate policy, and build action plans. Over three years had passed since Amazon Watch's last visit to Achuar territory and we were overdue to renew our personal connection. Though we have been accompanying the Achuar for over a decade and maintain regular communication with FENAP officials, nothing can substitute for face-to-face interaction.

A lot had happened since our last visit. FENAP leadership had changed hands, as part of their regular process of democratic transition. Sadly, one of their elected leaders and longtime friend of Amazon Watch – Lucas Irar – had drowned in the Pastaza River as he traveled home for the holidays in January 2016. Also, Chilean based oil company GeoPark signed an agreement with the Peruvian authorities to explore for oil in Block 64 – the great majority of which overlaps Achuar territory – and received government approval to move forward in December of 2016.

The Achuar Life Plan – Their Vision for Development

The assembly's agenda mirrored key aspects of the Achuar Life Plan, in essence the Achuar grassroots vision for their own collective development. The first section of the Life Plan – which was drafted in 2003 but remains an important reference to this day – is defense of Achuar territory. Key points relevant to Amazon Watch's support include: "Achuar territory is globally recognized and titled in accordance with ancestral claims." and "Respect the agreements of the Achuar congresses which have decided to not accept the incursion of oil, logging or mining companies within Achuar territory."

Photo credit: Amazon Watch

Over the course of the second day, ally organizations presented their work before the assembly. The Amazon Watch presentation featured a decade's worth of photos as visual aides, detailing the successful campaign between 2008 and 2012 to expel Talisman Energy from Block 64. The photos illustrated Achuar resolve at a local level – the foundation upon which the campaign was based – supplemented by advocacy delegations of Achuar leaders to Talisman's headquarters in Canada and international media campaigns. The sum of these efforts helped encourage Talisman to cease and desist from their exploratory efforts in 2012. Though it only carried out exploratory activities, Talisman left environmental destruction that haunts the Achuar to this day.

Now, five years later, a new threat has emerged as the Peruvian Government encourages Chile-based oil company GeoPark to advance oil exploration in Block 64 where larger oil companies Arco, Occidental, and Talisman all previously failed. The corporate face may change but the threat remains the same from the perspective of the Achuar people who are fighting to protect their territory, culture, and way of life.

Mandate for Solidarity

Extraordinarily, despite years of attempts to divide and conquer the Achuar, their unified resolve to keep their territory free of major extractive industries remains firm. Our presentation before the assembly provoked strong reaffirmations of Achuar resistance and support for Amazon Watch to continue accompanying their process of territorial defense. At one point all assembly participants stood up and shouted their approval of our ongoing accompaniment, launching their fists into the air. Several leaders, including women, took the microphone and encouraged us to stay strong and work with other Achuar allies.

The official minutes of the gathering state, "The FENAP assembly requested that our supporter NGO Amazon Watch continue helping the Achuar people with financial as well as political support in defense of our territorial integrity and rejection of oil activities." This renewed mandate from the Achuar is crucial. As we insist that governments and corporations respect indigenous autonomy, we also must ensure that our solidarity is based on the Achuar's free, prior, and informed consent.

Some of the most powerful words of encouragement came from Wasan Chumap Washikiat, an Achuar woman from the community of Yampik. Responding to the Amazon Watch presentation, she said "Brother, continue onward with strength! The oil company is looking for their strategy. We Achuar should find other strategies to defend ourselves. We thank you for your heart. Our grandchildren will thank us for the territory we are defending." Wasan continued, "When you return to your country, tell our sisters that the Achuar women are fighting for our territory! Pass this message to the women there, so they will also help us."

Indeed, that is our plan: Inform international friends and allies of the Achuar that they are still fighting to stop destructive projects in their precious territory; recruit support to put GeoPark and any other oil companies on notice that they are not welcome within Achuar territory; and let the world know that the Achuar are doing their part to address climate change by stopping any would-be deforestation in their vast Amazonian territory and keeping the oil in the ground.

Amazon Watch is just one part of the international support network for the Achuar. Other nonprofit organizations, indigenous peoples, universities, legislators, socially-responsible companies, and many individuals have shown their solidarity at strategic moments. The Achuar are reaching out once again, and we hope you'll join us in having their backs as they confront another corporate threat.

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