Oil vs Communities: Peruvians Turning a Dream into Action

Oil vs Communities: Peruvians Turning a Dream into Action


By Hwaa Irfan


When forces dictate a one way track, a track that is bereft of one’s essence – one’s being, far too many go under, swim with or ride the tide. In the process, without realizing one is overwhelmed and under pressure having lost the agility, the imagination, and the love that will help one to stand one’s ground despite the odds, and come out feeling more alive. It helps when there are others to share that dream, in fact it helps a lot, especially when that dream is about who one is.

For the Quechua of Northern Peru, sustaining the dream, and going against the tide took many years of not giving up. They seized facilities, captured airfields, blockaded roads, and rivers, and enforced talks with the Peruvian government, a government that was going to close the Murunahua Reserve.  Actions not becoming of uncontacted tribes were what were needed if their self worth, their being, their way of life was to be respected in a globalized world.

The Murunahua Reserve located on the Peruvian-Brazilian border, over time was being whittled away by illegal logging, of course without the permission of the indigenous owners. With the support of Survival International and their Twitter campaign, a first ever for uncontacted (voluntary isolation) tribes was achieved, demonstrating how anything is possible, when done by the willing. That achievement was announced by the Peru’s Culture Ministry, who publicly declared that the Murunahua Reserve would not be closed. However, as the Peruvian government said it would work with Brazilian authorities to explore how to best to protect the reserve, the Peruvian Indian Affairs Department, INDEPA announced that it would close the reserve using the argument that there are no uncontacted tribes there (many had fled to the Brazilian side of the border as a result of the illegal logging).

However, the good news that still remains is that the Quechua have won a landmark agreement with the local government of Loreto, which has resulted in the implementation of the “Pastaza Act”. Pastaza is a River that is fundamental to the way of life of the Quechua, which has suffered much degradation and pollution from the activities of the Argentinean oil company, Plus Petrol. It took 18 Apus, chiefs of the Quechua to simply walk into a government building wearing face paints, flanked by lawyers, anthropologists, and of course the media who demanded to see the governor Iván Vásquez. After three days of talks, the 18 elders walked out with a contract for their blood to be tested, the river to be tested and cleaned up, new schools to be built along with other infrastructure , to be given doctors.

This all happened without the previous incidents of violence to the great surprise of the elders who three years previous would have ended up on prison with possible torture!

The Quechua

The Quechua are frequentally referred to as being the descendents of the Incas, but they are not like many indigenous tribes of the region, the Incas were their first colonizers before the Spanish. Traditionally, the Quechua farmed cocoa, and corn in the highlands, but as a result of colonization, they have been pushed  into limited land resources, and survive in watersheds. They see themselves as a part of the environment, not separate from the environment, so likewise, the environment should be cared for and respected as humans and the earth reflect each other. Yet, they view anyone not of them as ‘other’ and therefore dangerous, but they view themselves as one and within that everything is either male or female (and within that everything is male-female), and each has its mate down to cabbage that is being sold/bought.

They do not see the world in opposites, as is the nature of the Western world, but as compliments with each part contributing to the whole. A man becomes a man through his work, and that work traditionally for the Quechua is in farming, whereas for women it is in nurturing, including the nurturing of animals as in pasture. A child is the responsibility of the mother’s until weaned, and thereafter, the child becomes the responsibility of the household.

Means of social control centre around shame, which plays a strong role in behaviour modification when the behaviour steps outside societal norms, and mores. Family loyality is all important, and they are far from being materialistic, which erases many bonds, and they are uninterested in politics, however they are a target group for evangelizing Christians to make the Quechua think, and behave as  Christians do.

Uniting with Other Tribes

Petty tribal feuds were put aside as a new pact was made acknowledging a real enemy, the multinational oil companies with the tests are to be used as evidence for a lawsuit against Plus Petrol, but it does not end there, as the Peruvian government plan to lease blocks totalling 75% of the Amazon rainforest for oil and gas explorations to add to the current allocation which affects 25% of protected areas/nature reserves. Forty years of oil exploitation have accumulated with waste water flowing into the Pastaza River, a river that is the only source of water for the uncontacted tribes.

Another tribe, the Achuar were successful in winning a suit against Plus Petrol previously. In 2006, the Achuar seized the company’s operation for a week, costing the company millions of dollars. The Achuar succeeded in making a contract with the government, which inspired the Quechua’s Pastaza Act. The Achuar sued not only Plus Petrol, but the U.S. based Occidental Petroleum in a Los Angeles court. They forced Plus Petrol to reinject the toxic sludge back into the ground so that it would not end up in the streams. The Achuar did not stop there, as currently they are pursuing a campaign against Canadian Talisman Energy.

Referring to the inter-tribal pact, Macushúa, an Achuar elder told Truthout reporter Darrin Mortenson:

“Each one of us feels more like part of a single struggle, a struggle in the defense of the Amazon, in the defense of the environment, for the lives of our children and the generations to come.”


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Morenson, D. “Peru: Landmark Agreement On Amazon Oilfields Shows Indigenous Movements’ New Power.”  http://www.truth-out.org/bereft-drama-amazon/1307632808

“Peru in Shock Move To Abolish Uncontacted Tribe’s Reserve”. http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/7337?utm_source=Survival+International&utm_campaign=16478a62a1-Enews_June_2011_6_8_2011&utm_medium=email&mc_cid=16478a62a1&mc_eid=50c683857e

“Quechua.” http://www.joshuaproject.net/people-clusters.php?peo2=274

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