The skiffs arrived a few hours after sundown on September 18, a dark and moonless night in the Peruvian Amazon. They landed at several points along the broad Corrientes River, which flows south over the country’s densely forested border with Ecuador. Hundreds of indigenous Achuar men, women, and children, many carrying ceremonial spears, organized into units by clan and village. They then followed their apus, or chiefs, toward seven targets: the area’s lone paved road, a power plant, and five facilities for the pumping and processing of petroleum.
The sites were occupied, their night staff escorted peacefully outside. By morning, the Achuar of the Corrientes controlled the local infrastructure of Lot 192, the country’s largest and most notorious oil block.
Over the next two days, the occupations spread. On the neighboring Tigre and the Pastaza rivers, Kichwa and Quechua chiefs led takeovers of key roads, the only airstrip, and several oil batteries.
“This is not a symbolic action — we have completely paralyzed the country’s most important oil field,” declared a spokesperson for several of the indigenous federations backing the protest.
The takeover of Lot 192 lasted for 43 days. It was hardly the first protest to shut down the oil facilities studding the rainforests of Loreto, Peru’s biggest region and for decades the hub of its petroleum industry. Since 2006, the native people who live on the river basins where this oil is produced — a watershed of five major Amazon tributaries: the Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes, Marañón, and Chambira — have executed at least a dozen similar uprisings. Some are just a few days; others stretch across seasons. Last autumn, indigenous communities launched a flotilla from the town of Saramurillo that blocked traffic on the Marañón River, the main artery of Lot 192’s sister block, Lot 8, for four months.
These uprisings have all demanded the same redress. For nearly a half-century, the state oil company, Petroperú, and its foreign partners have wreaked systemic contamination on the region, transforming daily life and poisoning the five rivers, whose waters fuse with the Ucayali River to become the Amazon just east of Iquitos, Loreto’s capital.
“For 45 years, the companies and the state have damaged our waters, soils, and health with impunity,” said Carlos Sandi, an Achuar chief in his early 30s who helped lead the recent protest on the Corrientes. “We will not allow them to continue extracting resources from our territory without a guarantee of prior consultation on the environmental and social impacts.”
As demands go, the federations’ insistence on prior consultation is a modest one. Under the Peruvian constitution and international legal conventions ratified by the government in Lima, they already possess the right to prior consultation. But the indigenous people on the five rivers have always fought for basic things, beginning with rights and water. As Lima signs deals on new oil blocks throughout the Peruvian Amazon — including an expected 30-year lease to expand Lot 192 — their fight for the right to live enters its endgame.
After striking oil in Loreto in 1972, the Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, and later its successor, the shadowy Dutch-Argentinian-Chinese company Pluspetrol, proceeded to commit a series of sustained and extravagant environmental crimes. For decades, spills have gone untreated or covered with a thin layer of dirt. Ponds in floodplains have been filled with toxic waste. Corroded pipes, including the main Northern Peru Pipeline, have been neglected and let to rust out, leak, and explode into gushing spills.
Then there is the generational scandal of the companies’ produced water. Until less than a decade ago, Pluspetrol, following the policy of its predecessor, Occidental, ignored the standard industry practice of re-injecting the carcinogenic fluids generated by oil wells, known as produced water. Peru’s Ministry of Environment estimates the companies dumped 1 million barrels a day directly into the rivers and forests of Lots 8 and 192. This amounts to 3 billion barrels of toxic fluid flushed into the water tables and food chains of at least 40,000 people.
Pluspetrol agreed to stop dumping produced water in 2006, after Achuar and Urarina communities blockaded the Corrientes and occupied 180 of its wells, shutting down operations for two weeks.
But the concession on produced water did nothing to remove the lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, and barium found in the local streams, rivers, and lagoons used for fishing, bathing, and drinking. It did nothing to treat the birth defects, learning disabilities, liver disease, skin rashes, cancers, and chronic head and stomach pains reported by communities in the area. And it did nothing to stop the hundreds of spills and leaks that have led the Ministry of Environment to issue multiple emergency declarations in the region since 2013.
The downstream impacts, though unstudied, reach deep into Brazil and the wider Amazon basin. This past August, when locals say 5,000 barrels of crude destroyed two Achuar fishing estuaries, the oil soon reached the Corrientes, which confluences with the Marañón, which joins the Ucayali to become the Amazon, the jugular artery of a watershed that contains a fifth of the world’s freshwater and performs a key function in regulating the planetary thermostat. “The impact of [oil activity] in the headwaters of the Amazon extends well beyond the boundaries of oil concessions and national borders,” states a recent paper in the journal Environmental Pollution, “[and] should be taken into consideration when evaluating large scale anthropogenic impacts in the Amazon.”
If the world has been slow to appreciate the magnitude of the contamination and conflict roiling the Upper Amazon headwaters, geography is partly to blame. Getting to Lot 192 requires commitment. Because no airlines service the tiny airport — the companies maintain a private fleet — the best route involves a six-seater to the dirt airstrip at San Lorenzo, a southern Loreto frontier town, followed by two days on the Pastaza River, a journey requiring a skilled native boatsman and several barrels of fuel.
This summer, I made this trip and spent several days in the oil town and surrounding communities of Andoas, a former Quechua trading village near Peru’s northern border with Ecuador. It was here, surrounded by jungle stretching hundreds of miles in every direction, that Occidental built its headquarters in 1971. At the time, it was a risky bet to try and pump oil from Loreto’s clay loams and transport it to Pacific ports across a vast tropical rainforest floodplain, where the rainy season lasts six months and parks a 10-foot tide, complicating transport, construction, and maintenance.
The village of Andoas, with its several thousand inhabitants, feels like a metropolis after days passing riverside wilderness on the Pastaza. Electrified homes extend outward from a central plaza lined with supply stores and cafes and bars built with concrete floors. People pass each other without greeting. Oil workers from around Peru provide what passes for diversity. On the dirt paths leading to nearby villages, colored lights advertise curtain-door brothels.
“Oil has made Andoas a hell,” Aurelio Chino Dahua, a Quechua chief, told me not long after my arrival. “Occidental changed the Quechua way of life. There is no peace in this place. Noise, bars, prostitution. People are sick.”
I met Dahua at a community assembly he was directing as president of FEDIQUEP, the Quechua Peoples Indigenous Federation of the Pastaza River. Several hundred Quechua had traveled to Andoas by canoe, in some cases for days, to meet in a large school building in Nuevo Porvenir, a neighboring village. At the front of the hall, the diminutive Dahua directed proceedings in beaded headdress and face paint, moderating debates and presenting slideshows on the past, present, and future of Lot 192. Above the stage hung a banner displaying a photo of two tapirs, the region’s largest jungle game, drinking from a pool of produced waters. The audience sat in wooden straight-back chairs and passed gourds of fermented yucca juice, buckets of which lined the back wall.
In March 2008, two years after the protest over Pluspetrol’s dumping of produced water, Dahua helped lead a protest against Pluspetrol’s plans for the drilling of new wells (and its ongoing illegal dumping of produced water). He was at the runway blockade when national police from a division known as Special Operations stormed the airport. The resulting clashes left one Quechua villager and one police officer dead. Fifty protesters were arrested and imprisoned for weeks in Iquitos; some reported beatings and torture while in the custody of national police.
During a break in the assembly, I sat down with Dahua in a white-walled classroom and asked him about growing up with oil on the Pastaza River.
“In the 1970s, when I moved from my small village to attend secondary school in Andoas, I saw oil for the first time,” he said. “It was in the river and lakes. I saw dead fish, turtles with oil on their shells. It was hard to hunt. Everything was expensive. The indigenous communities started to think of themselves as ‘poor.’”
When Pluspetrol announced plans for a new round of seismic testing in 2006, Dahua argued for a new kind of resistance.
“I told my brothers, ‘Look at the reality. It’s a disaster. We must stop the expansion.’ I was nominated president and we joined the other federations to make the big strike in 2008. It was a violent conflict that ended when the state and the company made promises they did not keep.”
Not all Quechua support Dahua, and community opinion is divided on strategy and goals. Some locals see Dahua as a threat to the jobs and small gifts the oil company provides, which they say are needed because pollution has made traditional ways of life impossible.
“We can no longer rely on our forests and rivers for food, so we have become dependent on the industry that created this hell,” said Dahua. “This is the same industry that made us ashamed of our culture. The oil workers call us ‘nativo’ and ‘indigena’ in a derogatory way. It was the same with the caucho period [the rubber boom]. My family was treated like savages to make rubber. Oil is a new kind of slavery. They give us rules, take the resources, and leave contamination.”
When tribespeople talk of the rubber boom, it is not an archaic reference. It lives close by in the collective memory. The rubber trade of the Upper Amazon was a brutal, slave labor economy that lasted well into the 20th century. It wiped out and traumatized indigenous populations across the region, particularly in Loreto’s northeast, near the borders with Colombia and Brazil. Just as the atrocities of the Second World War inspired the human rights conventions chartered at the United Nations, the horrors of the caucho era shamed the world into its first formal recognition of indigenous rights worldwide. The Forced Labor Convention, adopted in 1930 by the International Labor Organization, centered on the legacy of slavery in the Amazon. It took another six decades for the ILO, a specialized U.N. agency, to adopt the landmark 169 Convention recognizing the cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples. Multiple U.N. Special Rapporteurs have concluded that the oil industry overseen by the Peruvian government, which ratified ILO 169 in 1994, has routinely violated the treaty.
After completing his studies in Andoas in the early 1980s, Dahua returned to his native hamlet of Loboyaku, several hours downriver. There he lives today with his wife, Rosa, and their youngest son, Erudito, a toddler. One evening at sundown, I sat with them by a stream. As Erudito played in the water, Rosa talked about how oil has changed life in Loboyaku and a thousand other villages like it.
She says, “When I was a young girl in the 1980s, I remember the shock of visiting Andoas and seeing children scavenge garbage outside the Occidental building. But in Loboyaku, you could still find healthy fish. Now, you have to travel hours in a peke-peke” — a motored canoe — “to find healthy fish. And the soil is not the same. Every rainy season, when the water rises, the land is contaminated. Yucca, plantains, tomatoes — they are dry, dark, and boney. My parents talk about the days when they’d farm so many fruits, they would waste them. Now, we have a lack of fruits.”
When I ask about oil’s health impacts, Rosa lowers her eyes. To talk about this subject is difficult. The state has conducted little research on the decline of human health on Loreto’s five rivers, leaving only suggestive data — 98 percent of Achuar children tested positive for high levels of lead and cadmium in a study published in 2007 — and the recurring themes of indigenous testimony. I press Rosa on what she sees and hears when she travels the region with her husband.
“The impacts are most serious for the children,” she says. “There are a lot of deformations and development problems. The young are underdeveloped and skinny. Quechua used to live until they were quite old. Now, some pass away very young. Some are too weak to get out of bed. There are new diseases. When someone looks sad and pale, a little yellow, no appetite, a big belly — that is the end stage of cirrhosis. You can send them to Iquitos. But it’s too late. You can only wait for them to die.”
When asked about life before and after oil, elders in the region often begin here, with the “new illnesses.” Many of the conditions plaguing the five rivers were, until recently, extremely rare or unknown. At the assembly, I met a wrinkled Achuar woman named Ines Arahuandza who recalled the traditional medicine of the pre-oil era, which ended for her in the early 1970s when Occidental explosives teams arrived in the woods behind her riverside village of Titiyaku.
She says, “When I was a child, there were no doctors. The shaman treated us after taking ayahuasca” — a ritual hallucinogenic healing tea — “with the patient. We only used medicines from the forest. Now, there are new sicknesses. My whole family is sick from the contamination. I’m worried about my grandchildren. The company must repair the pipes and pay us for the disasters. If I get reparations, I can feed my family and buy medicine to recover our health. Where can I bring my children when they are sick? To the shaman? The shaman cannot heal them.”
From Andoas, I traveled southeast across Loreto to the Marañón River, where, in 1969, the state oil company, Petroperu, placed a drilling block from the concession known as Lot 8. That sub-block, called 8x, is located inside the northern part of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, described by the late Peruvian ecologist Antonio Brack Egg as “one of the most important areas for the reproduction of hydro-biological species in the Amazon.”
In the years since Petroperu transferred operation of 8x to Pluspetrol in 1996, a series of major spills and pipeline ruptures has poisoned the fishing grounds and drinking water of tens of thousands of local indigenous people. Three of these events have resulted in official declarations of health and environmental emergency.
A few years ago, in Lima, I met an influential Kukama chief from the Marañón, Alfonso López Tejade, after one of the biggest pipeline ruptures. We were sitting in the Indigenous People’s Pavilion built for side events during the U.N.’s 2014 climate summit, when I asked what he thought of the morning’s panel discussion.
“Twenty-two children in Kukama villages are vomiting blood right now after drinking water contaminated by oil,” Tejade said. “We’re sitting here eating nice food with diplomats and my brothers are dying. We come here full of pain. We have no faith in the government or these international talks.”
This exchange was on my mind in the village of San Pedro this July, where I witnessed the impacts of another pipeline break on the Marañón, not far from Tejade’s village.
My guide in the spill zone, a 28-year-old Kukama fisher named Elmer Castillos, departed the village in his motored canoe at sunrise. We headed to an inland estuary, known as a cocha, which until recently had served as the primary fishing grounds for a dozen local villages. Located a few miles into the forest, the cocha is reachable by boat from the Marañón through a lush landscape of streams, swamps, mangroves, and lily-padded lagoons.
But we arrived at the entry stream to find the water unusually low, even for dry season. Castillos grabbed his machete and, with hardly a break in his stride, spent the next two hours hacking a path through the forest. When we paused to rest midway, he described what oil had done to the fish of the Marañón.
“Their livers are sick, their insides often discolored and gray,” he said. “Sometimes the meat is tasteless, sometimes you can taste the oil. Sometimes the gills are full of oil. To find healthy fish, we travel far into the forest. It’s not like living in the city. Nature is our supermarket. The pipelines are breaking and leaking all the time. When we report the spills, the government and the company blame us for sabotaging the pipes.”
As the day grew hot, the forest opened at last into the cool and high-canopied cocha. Sun-dappled and still, the banks of the waterway spread into grassy clearings like little parks. A lovely spot that hinted of paradise. Then I looked down. The water was a swirl of brown and black, marbled with the greasy rainbows of petroleum in water. Everywhere floated dead and dying fish; I counted a dozen without trying.
“Petroperú has already collected two tons of dead fish,” said Castillos. “More are dying every day, especially armored catfish. They float to the surface, too sick to swim.”
Entering the lagoon, we came upon a camp of workers hired by Petroperú to repair the pipe and remove the oil. Some were local Kukama who’d grown up fishing these waters and were now skimming oil for collection in enormous yellow canvas tanks. The workers gave us fresh filtered water to drink and lent us a canoe. As we floated through the spill, Castillos pulled more dead fish from the water.
“I have four children,” he said. “I want them to be educated and healthy. My nephew just tested positive for high levels of lead. I know how it happened. We were ignorant for a long time. But now I can tell you about the chemical composition of oil. Toxicity. How the poison gets into our blood. Now we know too much.”
In late October, as the occupation on the Corrientes, Tigre, and Pastaza protest entered its second month, a delegation of chiefs and mothers traveled to Lima for meetings with Peru’s Minister of Energy and Mines, Cayetana Aljovín. For everyone involved, it was a familiar ritual. As a young Quechua resident of Andoas explained it, “When the protest goes more than one week, they send someone to quiet us with promises. The high-level people always say, ‘Andoas is in our hearts.’ But we’re in their hearts only when we stop the oil. When nothing changes, there is more conflict.”
Lima’s recent promises include a basket of treaties signed after last year’s four-month blockade of the Marañón River at Saramurillo. Forced to the negotiating table, the government and Pluspetrol agreed on paper to a number of longstanding federation demands: an independent audit of pipelines, remediation for spills, a review of Pluspetrol’s contract, a regional Truth Commission, compensation for impacted communities, and an end to the criminalization of protest.
These have yet to be fulfilled, and indigenous faith that the assurances will be honored, by the government or the oil company, is low.
Representatives from Peru’s Ministry of Culture, a key player in the consultation process, Peru’s Office of Sustainability and Dialogue, the main government go-between with the indigenous federations, and the Ministry of Environment either declined or did not respond to interview requests. Porter Novella Peru, the PR agency handling Pluspetrol’s Peru operations, requested The Intercept send questions by email, but did not respond to them.
Because so many promises have proven empty over the decades, a deeper questioning of oil and extractive industry has begun to animate Loreto’s indigenous politics. Despite the growth of the oil industry, Loreto remains one of the country’s poorest regions, with many of its traditional hunting and fishing grounds pushed to the brink of permanent ruin. Now some indigenous leaders are growing more radical, looking beyond demands for remediation and consultation.
“The viability of oil is now being questioned,” said José Fachin Ruiz, a member of the Kichwa federation FECONAT, who was jailed for months following the bloody 2008 protest in Andoas and currently faces criminal charges related to his role in last year’s action on the Marañón River. “During last year’s blockade at Saramurillo, the indigenous peoples of Loreto began to unify behind a post-oil vision of development.”
This vision confronts a government in Lima that, like other governments in the region, is pushing an aggressive strategy in the other direction — to expand extractive industry in the Amazon wherever it can. A map of every oil and mining project in the nine Amazon countries would reveal a dense continental grid of new concessions and related infrastructure, from a proposed “Mining Arc” in Venezuela, to highways through Bolivian nature and indigenous reserves.
These projects fit into a long-term regional infrastructure and development program, led by Brazil, known as IIRSA, or the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America. The idea is to facilitate the expansion of industry on the continent, including the Amazon, by building an interlocking network of dams, rail lines, power stations, airstrips, and roads in remote and formerly unreachable rainforest. “No attempt has been made to assess the cumulative impacts of this massive scheme,” according to a report from International Rivers, an NGO. “As a result of IIRSA, illegal logging along new roads and waterways will also impact extensive areas of the Amazon, affecting indigenous and other traditional communities. The communities that lie in harm’s way have not yet been informed about the planned projects, nor have they been asked what they think of these plans.”
The indigenous peoples of the region, too, have begun to think in terms of supranational coordination. Federations from the five rivers work with others from around the continent through the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, or COICA. The organization, based in Lima, declared September 22 a Day of Action for the Amazon and its peoples, with events held throughout the Americas.
The clash between these visions and agendas — embodied by IIRSA and COICA — has grown beyond fights for remediation, consultation, and justice in isolated patches of rainforest. It is increasingly a clash of worldviews that holds everything in the balance. At least, this is the view of Loreto’s indigenous leaders.
“The Western culture looks at the forest and sees money, resources to sell,” Aurelio Dahua, the Quechua chief, told me in Andoas.
“The government and company officials are very professional and have studied in the cities. They think they are going to teach us poor nativos how to live. But what kind of knowledge lets you destroy the lungs of the world? Why don’t they find another way to develop this country? Why not help us protect the forest? They know nothing. They are building their own graveyard.”
María Guadalupe De Heredia contributed reporting.