“WATER IS LIFE” Why Amazonian Indigenous Peoples In Peru Continue To Defend Their Rivers, Forests And Life

The sun is setting over the Peruvian Amazon in an indigenous community. The river reflects the sky’s mesmerizing colours as if an embrace, it is a beauty and mystery that only the Amazon knows. Life seems harmonious and peaceful. Yet life for this indigenous community - which could just as well be called Cuninico, Vista Alegre or Santa Rosa, has been irrevocably transformed by the impacts of nearly half a century of irresponsible oil exploitation on their ancestral lands, like so many others across the region of Loreto in the northern Peruvian Amazon rainforest.

Photo: Sunset on the Maranon river. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni
“Water is life, not just for us, but for everyone."

“Water is life”. From the global North to the South, these words have become something of a rallying call uniting indigenous peoples and their allies on the frontlines protecting their lands, and the rivers and forests which we all depend upon for life.

For Amazonian indigenous peoples who live in the largest remaining tropical forest and the largest river system in the world, life is deeply intertwined with the river. Rivers are the main water source providing for everything from drinking, fishing, bathing to washing, as well as being a cultural and spiritual territory. “Water is life, not just for us, but for everyone. Water is a mother, the mother of all nature. Water has a spirit”, says Flor de María, an indigenous mother from Cuninico, a community devastated from the consequences of 7 000 barrels of oil being spilled on its territory in 2014, and whose inhabitants now carry toxic levels of heavy metals in their blood as revealed by a study by Peru’s Ministry of Health.

Photos (from top of page): Indigenous people at Saramurillo; Sunset on the Maranon river; Indigenous mother Flor de María and her husband Cesar at Cuninico. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

Since oil extraction began in the 1970s in Peru’s Amazon – a hotspot of biodiversity of fundamental importance to our climate and global water resources - rivers, streams, lagoons, lakes, soils and pristine rainforest have been poisoned with crude oil. Hydrocarbons have come to form part of Peru’s aggressive extractive development strategy benefitting only a handful of high level interests and mostly foreign companies without calculating the real cost for Peru’s own inhabitants and ecosystems.

Photo: Oil Station at Saramuro. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni
Photo: Oil spill at Cuninico. By Silviu Dimiutrache/Chaikuni
Rights have been systematically violated and ignored, including fundamental rights such as the right to clean water.

It is certainly not to the benefit of Amazonian peoples in Loreto who have suffered from the impacts of pollution on their territories owing to Peru’s leaking 854 km North Peruvian pipeline and two oldest Amazonian oil fields - oil block 192 (ex 1AB) and oil block 8, and the host of companies such as Occidental Petroleum, Pluspetrol Norte S.A., Frontera Energy (formerly known as Pacific Stratus Energy) and state company Petroperu which are responsible for spilling oil and dumping billions of barrels of highly contaminated waste waters. Rights have been systematically violated and ignored, including fundamental rights such as the right to clean water. Indigenous territories became sacrifice zones, with livelihoods destroyed and communities drinking and bathing in toxic water for decades. Indigenous peoples have known this for years as never before seen illnesses and many deaths struck their communities, and it was finally confirmed by the Peruvian state itself. Since 2013, multiple environmental and health emergencies have been declared for whole areas.

Photo: Indigneous protest in Saramuro. By Alex Kornhuber

“We used to have fish in abundance, now they are gone. We used to have plenty of water to drink, now we don’t have enough. No one is attending to our needs, we are forgotten”, says Flor de María. “We are asking the state to improve this water. There is so much contamination, why does the state not do anything?”, says Lindaura Cariajano Chuje, a Kichwa leader from the Tigre river.

Photo: Indigenous peoples from five river basins during the protest at Saramuro-Saramurillo. By Sergi Rudgrand/Amazonia Resiste

Indigenous Organizing In Loreto In The Peruvian Amazon

Photo: A high level commission from the Peruvian state and Petroperu officials arrive at Saramuro. By Alex Kornhuber

For over a decade, Amazonian indigenous peoples in Peru’s Loreto region facing these terrible impacts have been organizing to present their demands to state authorities and companies through peaceful protests and participating in dialogues, roundtables and negotiations. Indigenous coalitions and alliances have been made and unmade, and different processes have been instigated, one of the most recent and significant of which began during a 117-day protest at the native communities of Saramuro-Saramurillo on the Maranon river in fall 2016, uniting Achuar, Kichwa, Kukama, Quechua and Urarina indigenous peoples hailing from the watershed of five major Amazon tributaries (Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes, Marañón, and Chambira). This uprising resulted in a high level political intercultural dialogue on indigenous territory, where 39 agreements were signed between indigenous peoples and the Peruvian state.

little has been done in the way of addressing indigenous peoples’ demands for justice.
Photo: Kichwa leader Fernando Chuje Ruiz. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

“We want the government to solution the problematic in all of the river basins. To this day, the oil spills continue and this is our big worry because we don’t want any more deaths. We need the state to resolve the entire platform of demands. All of Loreto is affected by this contamination. We will continue to fight until we see our grave”, says Fernando Chuje Ruiz, Kichwa leader from the Tigre river.

Little has been done in the way of addressing indigenous peoples’ demands for justice. A multitude of different promises and commitments have been signed by the state, only to remain mostly on paper. “Like previous processes and attempts, the Sararmuillo case reveals once again how strategies are put in place to demobilize the movement and to not really solve the problems”, says Sarah Kerremans from Peruvian non-profit association Chaikuni Institute, which partners with indigenous federation FECONAT. In effect, a conscious strategy for the delay of the implementation of agreements can be observed from the state: tactics involve endless dialogues, roundtables, bureaucratization, and attempting to fragment the movement through divisionism, defamation, criminalization and the spreading of false information by different actors.

Photos in Saramurillo (top left, clockwise)-By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni: Dialogue; Achuar leader Daniel Saboya; Dialogue; Kichwa leader Jose Fachin. Ex-Presidential Advisor for social conflicts, Jorge Villacorta. Photo Alex Kornhuber
Photo: A high-level commission pledges alliance with the agreements, Saramurillo. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

Add to this the obstacles on local and regional levels to implement politics, a lack of articulation between different levels of the government, and Peru’s severe political crisis, and the past year has worsened an already unfavourable context where indigenous rights are seldom regarded. “The advance of agreements is paralyzed, and things are much worse with this political crisis”, says Jose Fachin, a Kichwa leader from the Tiger river. “There is no political will”, says Daniel Saboya, an Achuar leader from the Corrientes river.

“A clear strategy to discredit the indigenous movement can also be observed on a local level”, says Jose Fachin. Public discourses against indigenous peoples have alarmingly intensified, aggravated by negative portrayals of indigenous peoples in national and regional media, which regularly accuse indigenous peoples of being “extortionists”. Although the contaminated waters of rivers in Blocks 192 and 8 drain into the Ucayali River to become the Amazon just east of Iquitos, Loreto’s capital, few members of urban society acknowledge that most of the problems which indigenous peoples face are also affecting their quality of life on the short and long term.

Photo: Indigenous community of Cuninico. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

The links between the petroleum industry, socio-environmental conflicts and the violation of indigenous people’s fundamental right to clean water in the Peruvian Amazon cannot be underestimated. Over 80 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon has been concessioned off to international oil companies without consulting with affected indigenous peoples and with no adequate measures taken to ensure the fulfilment of the basic human right to live in a healthy environment with water tables and food chains safeguarded. As contamination and abuses are left unresolved - and even more worrying, that they carry on in total impunity, it is no wonder that so does the probability of new social conflicts and protests.

Photos: Indigenous communities around the Marañón river. By Sergi Rudgrand/Amazonia Resiste

More than a year has passed since the signing of the Saramurillo agreements in December 2016 between the state and indigenous peoples from the Maranon, Pastaza, Corrientes, Tiger and Chambira river basins. Although indigenous leaders have been working patiently with national authorities within a so-called Multisectorial Commission over the past year to formulate a special investment plan for projects in these five river basins, many of the projects remain proposals with no budget assigned. The state’s announced investment nearly 186 480 000 dollars is the sum of different social programs and other state contributions which do not reflect a specialized contribution or compensation which indigenous peoples call for as justice for the four plus decades of serious rights violations and abuses on their territories. Beyond the work of the Multisectorial Commission, indigenous peoples argue that little advance has been made for the most important agreements.

Photo: Indigenous women at Saramuro-Saramurillo protest. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni


1. INDEPENDENT STUDY OF THE North Peruvian Pipeline

The North Peruvian pipeline, Saramurillo. Photo Sergi Rudgrand/Amazonia Resiste

The leaking and rusty North Peruvian pipeline operated by state company Petroperu stretches a massive 854 km from the Amazon to the coast to transport oil and was built in 1977. Four-plus decades in the acid waters of the Amazon have corroded the pipeline and increasing ruptures warranted the pipeline to be shut down in 2016 for over a year. One of the most important Saramurillo agreements calls for an independent investigation of the North Peruvian Pipeline as well as for other pipelines that cross Blocks 192 and 8, with the participation of indigenous representatives. It was due for the first half of 2017. Little advance has been made.

Photo: The North Peruvian Pipeline near Cuninico. By Sophie Pinchetti /Chaikuni

Important evidence supports this demand and came to light at the end of 2017 in an investigation led by a parliamentary commission from the Peruvian Congress on the latest oil spills from the North Peruvian pipeline. The report highlights “evidence of possible crimes and acts of corruption or at least intolerable incapacity of Petroperú officials” and that “no reasonable indications have been found to establish native communities as being responsible for the oil spills”. It concludes that “to continue with the current state of things will only guarantee the failure of the pipeline and other important investments being made […] it will also continue to contribute to the serious issue of corruption in the country.”

Photo: The North Peruvian Pipeline. Instituto Chaikuni Archives

2. Remediation of Oil Blocks 192 & 8 / Oil Spills From The North Peruvian Pipeline

Photo: Oil spill, Indigenous community of Nueva Alianza. By Alex Kornhuber

Who is responsible for cleaning up the thousands of contaminated sites across oil blocks 192 and 8? No effective remediation has yet taken place despite the urgent necessity. Many remediated sites have been covered with a layer of dirt, and in the Amazon lowlands, the oil spreads to the surface sooner or later. While the state promised “remediation of sites impacted by oil operations to begin in 2017”, consultancy companies are only just beginning to work on remediation plans for a couple of sites. The initial seed funding of 50 million soles is hardly enough to start making 32 remediation plans for 32 prioritized contaminated areas in oil lot 192. Affected indigenous peoples have also demanded to be included in participatory mechanisms but nothing new has been implemented.

Photo: Oil Spill, indigenous community of Monterrico. By Alex Kornhuber

Every few months, a new oil spill hits the headlines and 2016 scored the highest on record with over a dozen oil spills. Indigenous peoples are also worried about uncertainties over an upcoming negotiation round for a new 30-year contract in oil block 192.

Photo: Oil Spill near the indigenous community of Santa Rosa. Photo Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

3. Revising Oil Company Pluspetrol Norte S.A.’s OBLIGATIONS

Photo: Protest at Saramuro. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

After 15 years of appallingly irresponsible activity in Peru’s largest and most prolific oil block 192, Dutch-Argentinian-Chinese oil company Pluspetrol left in 2015 in total impunity and noncompliance with its commitments. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2009, Pluspetrol dumped 1.1 million barrels of toxic production waters a day directly into the rivers of block 192 (former block 1AB). Despite the awful track record, Pluspetrol was granted a free right to land use. Indigenous peoples affected by oil block 8 where Pluspetrol has a contract until 2024 demand transparency and more importantly revision of the company’s current obligations in order to ensure that collective and individual fundamental rights are not being violated by the company or state decisions.

Pluspetrol handed over the contract to indigenous groups and revision is pending.

Photo: Indigenous women at Saramuro. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni


Photo: Kichwa environmental monitors in the Tigre river. By FECONAT

Indigenous peoples know their territories better than anyone. Due to the large distances in the Amazon, the remoteness of communities and lack of attention from the state, many indigenous groups have organized independent community-based monitoring programs to gather evidence of contamination. In Saramurillo, indigenous peoples demanded a law to recognize this work, in order to enable them to hold authorities and companies to account and to advocate against further pollution.

Law proposals have been presented but there is still no recognition of the monitors’ work.

Photo: Kichwa environmental monitors in the Tigre river. By FECONAT

5. Compensation From the State to Indigenous Peoples Affected By Oil Activity

Photo: Indigenous women at Saramuro. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni

Looking towards the future and a post-oil period, indigenous peoples’ claim to their right for compensation to reflect damages caused by 4 decades of oil exploitation comes in the form of an extraordinary investment plan integrating projects for infrastructures, water, sanitation, health, education and sustainable projects such as fish farms “in order to replace oil activity and end our economic dependency”, says Kukama leader Miguel Manihuari.

So far, the state has pledged an investment of 186 480 000 dollars in order to provide basic services such as water, electricity, sanitation and the building of schools for the districts of Urarinas, Parinari, Andoas, Trompeteros and Tigre in Loreto. Indigenous peoples stress that that normal state obligations and contributions cannot be included nor considered as part of the extraordinary attention that affected people demand.

Photo: Oil barrels at Saramuro on Petroperu's station. By Sergi Rudgrand/Amazonia Resiste

6. Truth Commission

Photo: Saramuro. By Sergi Rudgrand/Amazonia Resiste

Truth Commissions are part of a larger process for justice and truth, and arise when systematic and serious violations of human rights have taken place, promoted or tolerated by the state against a particular demographic. One of the main objectives should be to guarantee this does never happen again. This important Saramurillo agreement aims to investigate, report and analyze the impacts of over 4 decades of irresponsible oil activity in oil 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.

To date, little advance have been made to implement the Truth Commission.

Photo: Kichwa mother Julia Chuje Ruiz. By Bryan Parras

7. (No More) Criminalization of The Protest

Photo: Marañón river. By Sergi Rudgrand/Amazonia Resiste

Criminalizing protestors is a conscious strategy of the state to silence spokespeople, dismantle movements and stifle opposition to big businesses. The U.N recently called out Latin America for abusing indigenous rights, and the region is now one of the most dangerous parts of the world to be an environmentalist.

Despite the Peruvian state pledging to not unjustly persecute indigenous protestors, at least two indigenous leaders are facing criminal charges since the 2016 protest of Saramurillo.

Photo: Saramuro. By Ginebra Penya

Over a year has passed since the Peruvian state pledged to comply with its agreements. “We can’t continue to be in this state of paralysis”, says Daniel Saboya, an Achuar leader. “We can’t carry on signing more acts, more agreements. We have waited patiently for over a year, we hoped to see something different from this government but once again we are forgotten, we don’t even have water fit for human consumption.”

“We hope people around the world think about us and where oil comes from”, says Flor de Maria.

As 2018 unravels, let us not forget that Peru is the fourth largest rainforest country in the world, with over half its territory being forest, and much of that land indigenous territory. The Amazon and its indigenous cultures are irreplaceable and yet ever more on the brink of being lost in the name of profit and greed. We must remain on the watch and continue to stand for justice, for the Amazon and indigenous peoples, for the health of our environment, climate and interconnected web of life.

Photo: Painting at Saramuro. By Sophie Pinchetti/Chaikuni



A Documentary By Sophie Pinchetti for The Chaikuni Institute


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A Web Page Designed With The Technical Support Of The Chaikuni Institute. Text by Sophie Pinchetti. With Special Thanks to Photographers: Alex Kornhuber, Ginebra Penya, Sophie Pinchetti, Sergi Rudgrand.

Photographs may not be reprinted or republished without prior permission from the photographer(s). For more information, please contact: sophie@chaikuni.org

Map of oil blocks 192 and 8 in Loreto. Credit: Chaikuni


A Web Page Designed With The Technical Support Of The Chaikuni Institute. Text by Sophie Pinchetti. With Special Thanks to Photographers: Alex Kornhuber, Ginebra Penya, Sophie Pinchetti, Sergi Rudgrand.

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