Indigenous Peruvians have encountered a pervasive and life threatening danger to their communities for over four decades. Extractive industries, such as oil and gold, have left behind various forms of contaminants over the years, with spills of oils and toxic metals, such as mercury, lead and arsenic being found in not only the waterways, crops, and fish that these communities live off of, but in their bodies as well.
Why are there extractive industries?
Peru has a number of extractive industries operating, namely gold and oil corporations. The Peruvian government has allowed oil companies access to numerous regions of the country since the 1970s. However, this permission has extended to Indigenous Peruvian land.
Indigenous communities have been fighting to have their land rights recognized, but they faced setbacks in this process as they don’t have formal land titles, which has granted these industries continuous access to their lands.
Latina Republic interviewed Maria Stephany Calisaya Ramos, a Peruvian Masters student in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development who also studied Political Science and Government as an undergraduate student. Ramos has familial ties to the Aymara people and spoke with Latina Republic about the major forms of exploitation indigenous communities face in Peru.
Ramos points to major exploitation of natural resources, such as “large and small-scale mining and also the issue of oil, which is more related to the Amazon.”
When it comes to Peru and its conflicts, the greatest number of social conflicts are rooted in environmental problems. In Peru, environmental conflicts make up 60 percent of the nation’s conflict rate, which highlights how prevalent these issues are. She explains,
“ …[These conflicts] are always related to the issue of collective rights, individual rights, but also the law and a clean environment.”
In a country of 33 million inhabitants, roughly 22 percent of the population identifies as Quechua, one of the Indigenous groups of the country. Around 2.4 percent of the population identifies as Aymara, another Indigenous Peruvian group. There is also a strong self-identification of Mestizo heritage among the country, which is European and Indigenous mixture, at around 60 percent of the country falling under this category.
Although there is significant racial mixture in Peru and a strong indigenous identity, racism and discrimination towards indigenous Peruvians continues. Ramos details,
“ I believe that for Peru being such a diverse and multicultural place in many languages with various traditions, ideas, backgrounds, world-views, it has been hard to create a general sense of nation, and in this general sense of Peru, there have been exclusions, racial type of exclusions that have to do with a predominant structure which benefits certain characteristics over others and certain phenotypes over others. And that has led to an important issue in Peru, which is racism and [how] it is widely normalized.”
Ramos cites the recent Presidential elections in her home country, adding that racism had been a part of it. Pedro Castillo, one of the candidates and seemingly President-elect, is a public figure who has been the target of derogatory comments based on his rural background and speech. She notes that when it comes to discussing racism in Peru it is key to,
“First, understand that the topic of legislation and the legacy of segregation, racism, and neglect of the State [Peru] is historical.”
Ramos goes on to explain that another related form of discrimination in Peru can be found in the labor market. A study of labor market discrimination uncovered that candidates with indigenous features who submitted a photo along with their CV. experienced a 20 percent drop in chances of being hired.
The Quechua communities have experienced extensive pushback concerning their legal rights over their lands based on technicalities. Indigenous people have rights recognized by the International Labour Organization Convention 169, yet they do not possess collective titles over their ancestral lands.
According to a report by Oxfam, the Ministry of Energy and Mines gave an oil company, Pluspetrol Norte S.A, “free easements.” This measure allowed the company to control and make use of territories, camps, road structures, oil wells, and even airports until their contract expired. This form of land use was allowed from 2006 until 2015, and was justified on the basis that there was “no useful purpose to these territories,” except for the financial gain the company was receiving.
When Pluspetrol’s contract and the agreement expired in 2015, which would have represented an opportunity to return the Pastaza region and return control of the territory to its rightful owners, the Regional Government of Loreto insisted on excluding from communal title the easement areas that had been freely conceded to the oil companies. These areas would then appear in the public registries as “property of the state.”
An extremely harmful aspect of such operations has been that companies are extracting highly valued resources from indigenous lands. These resources include gold, oil, silver and copper. This has been a process facilitated by the Peruvian government in benefit of multinational corporations.
In addition to government-authorized forms of extraction, illegal mining is another source of environmental conflict. Ramos shares that these extractive industries are present in Peru because part of Peru’s economy is based on the extraction of natural resources.
Types and Extent of Damages
Extensive damage has been noted across various aspects of the environment and areas where indigenous communities reside. Common forms of destruction that have taken place are related to environmental degradation and the contamination of natural resources.
According to a report released by Oxfam, contaminated water waste was released by multinational corporations for nearly forty years into Peruvian waterways. This includes thousands of barrels of oil spills, which have harmed crops and agricultural production for local villagers.
Not only has damage been noted across the physical landscape, pollutants have also taken a toll on the health of indigenous peoples in the contaminated zones. In addition to oil spills, significant amounts of mercury have been found in people’s bloodstreams.
According to a study conducted by Peru’s Ministry of Health, over half of the community members from Cuninico, an Amazonian region of Peru, have abnormal levels of mercury in their bodies. It is believed that such long term exposures are responsible for a number of maladies, such as deformities in children, higher cancer rates, liver disease, skin conditions, kidney failure, and even vision loss.
Many of the locals have noted how the rates of such health conditions were likely the result of decades of toxic contaminants being dumped, with over 3,000 tons of mercury making its way through the waterways in the past 20 years, polluting the water and fish that are consumed. This has led to those living in the area to collect rainwater to avoid contaminating themselves from bathing in the rivers or from ingesting any drinking water from said zones.
The extent of damage from pollutants in the environment has been detected in blood samples of members from the Nahua people. Out of the 150 members who had their blood results examined, 78 percent had high levels of mercury.
Additional regions where mercury contamination has been found include Cusco, Puno, areas of Madre de Dios, and Huancavelica. Years of illegal and informal locations gave way to an unregulated setting, and now there are other ways mercury has been found in the local areas, such as through gas projects.
An alarming development made in regards to the level of pollution in Huancavelica has been over housing materials. A report by the Public Defender for the General Directorate of Environmental Health and Environmental Harmlessness mentioned that half the homes in the area are essentially a hazardous setting due to the adobe used coming from contaminated lands. In addition to mercury being a part of the home setting, unpaved roads are another form of exposure.
Oil leakages have been another area of concern that Indigenous communities have expressed concern over. A major spill of 3,000 barrels of oil from Peru’s main pipeline occurred in 2016, affecting 2 major waterways and eight Indigenous communities. The BBC reported that if the spill was found to have had an adverse impact on the health of local communities, then Petroperu would face fines up to $17 million.
Controversy surrounding this event also emerged, with reports of children having been paid to clean up the spill. Reports came out claiming that people were being paid $1 for a bucket of oil they were able to collect. The children were not provided protective white suits that are used for oil spill clean ups, and some fell ill with a fever and diarrhea after spending the day collecting oil.
Major issues have resulted in navigating the health of indigenous communities affected by the various forms of pollution. One problem has been how health services are lacking, notably in Espinar and Cuninico. According to Amnesty International, their only sources of fresh water were found to be contaminated with toxic metals.
For people living in Cuninico, the nearest health center is an hour and a half away, and is only reached through a boat. It also does not have specialists that can treat the level of toxic metal exposure the community faces.
Ramos speaks on the importance of health services. She shares that on the basis of one’s economic background, indigenous communities do not have access to healthcare. She adds that this has been complicated with the current pandemic,
“We can see that now in COVID. One of the main groups affected by the COVID-19 pandemic is the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Also the peasant populations.”
In addition to the impact COVID-19 has had on Peru’s indigenous communities, Ramos also highlights the longstanding issue of reachability,
“Access to health services for example, and intercultural services that are in their [Indigenous communities’s] languages is lacking.”
She shares that along with biomedical medicine, traditional knowledge needs to be taken into account,
“…vertical childbirth has been a great achievement of the people [Indigenous communities] here for the benefit of the towns and communities.”
Without any land titles, these issues are exacerbated, allowing for indigenous communities to continuously be harmed due to the limited control and regulation they have over their homelands. In the past, this has led to calls for reparations over damages caused by extractive companies, as well as for the rights of indigenous peoples to be granted respect for their identity, health, education and development.
A step in the right direction, Ramos suggests, would be the consultation of mining projects with the populations that are directly impacted, given how their consent is often bypassed.
Activism by Indigenous Groups
Technology has become a useful tool for some communities, with drones and smartphones being utilized to provide photographic evidence. Fidel Sandi is a leader among the Achuar people of San Cristobal. He sends photos of oil contamination to OEFA, Peru’s environmental supervision agency. His mother, Anacha Hualinga, has spoken about the impact the oil industry has had on their people, with its presence there for over four decades.
She told The Guardian that one of her sons died vomiting blood, adding that two of her children died as infants. Three of her grandchildren passed away at a young age,
“My children have died, also my grandchildren, because of the contaminants, their bodies could not endure them. Others were born dead because they could not bear the pollution,” shares Hualinga.
In response to the years of damage, many Indigenous communities in Peru have taken part in protests. Aurelio Chino explains,
“In our own country, we were called terrorists when our only option was to pick up our spears to protest against the tainting of our rivers, our land, our fish and our animals.”
Ramos acknowledges the struggle indigenous activists have faced, and how the the threat of death is a common tool for intimidation purposes. She says that at least 5 environmental defenders died within the last year as the pandemic unfolded. The individuals were courageous defenders,
“… leaders who have fought these struggles and were liberating and organizing [others].”
Peru’s indigenous communities have felt the effect of decades of ineffective policies, limited protections and continuous toxic metals forming a part of their daily lives. Peruvian indigenous communities clamor for more than promises. They seek actual progress and committed action to ensure protections and rights. Until then, their lives continue to be dedicated to the fight.
Nohely Diaz is a graduate from California State University, Sacramento. During her education there, she majored in Government with a concentration in International Relations and doubled minored in Criminal Justice and Peace and Conflict Resolution. She is committed to bringing awareness to topics relating to human security and human rights. Her dedication to public service has allowed her to engage in several advocacy campaigns regarding human trafficking, labor exploitation, and Indigenous rights. In addition, she has served her community through census work. Nohely is now looking to continue pursuing justice and equity for others by starting Graduate school.