Discover more from EarthCrew
The astounding Amazon rainforest – and Indigenous peoples campaigning against polluting oil (#2)
On the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction, communities are speaking out for their rights, the rights of their rivers and forests – and our global climate.
A huge welcome to all my new subscribers. Thanks for being the very first. I am honoured so many people have signed up, especially since many of you are experts in your fields! Today’s issue is a long read inspired by my recent travels in the Peruvian Amazon. There’s an audio version if you’d rather listen.
This astounding Amazon city is surrounded by green forest, but choked by pollution
Iquitos, in north-eastern Peru is the largest city in the world with no road access. You must fly or travel days up the Amazon River to get there.
The river is gob-smacking. It flows in huge serpentine curves from west to east, from where I stood in Iquitos to the Atlantic Ocean, draining parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela. Globally, it releases 20 per cent of all freshwater that flows from rivers to the sea. No bridges cross it.
President Pedro Castillo was thrown in jail the day we arrived and protests erupted around the country led by rural people. Many felt Castillo, the son of farmers, represented them. Others demanded new elections and a constituent assembly. The new president, Dina Boluarte, declared a state of emergency.
On Saturday night, the Iquitos Plaza de Armas filled up with couples sprawling on benches scrolling their phones, and families throwing fluoro light toys into the sky, which somehow magically returned to their hands. I watched a small, peaceful protest with teachers union banners and candles.
As I tried to translate their chants, I noticed the Christmas tree in the Plaza de Armas was sponsored by a Canadian oil company – itself the subject of protests and river blockades by local Indigenous communities, including Kukama Kukamiria people, who say the corporation is polluting the river and forest and their drinking water and crops with oil spills, and that they enjoy no benefits from the wealth extracted from their forests.
Being from Australia, the third largest exporter of fossil fuels in the world, I’m no stranger to the corporate capture of politics and public spaces, but I was still a little shocked to see the PetroTal sign among the twinkling lights.
PetroTal is typical of fossil fuel industries that are headquartered in wealthy countries, while their impacts are felt the most acutely by people in places on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction.
The benefits go one way, and the burdens go another.
But after five decades of pollution, oil spills and buck-passing, in the forests of the Peruvian Amazon, patience is wearing thin.
Two weeks before we arrived, a PetroTal barge carrying oil to Brazil was seized for 48 hours, part of a river blockade that continued while I was there, severely disrupting PetroTal’s production.
A renewable-powered Iquitos?
Despite Iquitos being in the middle of the Amazon forest, the pollution feels thick and grimy. It stinks as soon as you walk out the door, thanks to thousands of three-wheeled moto-taxis burning dirty fuel and whirring like agitated mosquitos.
The city of over half a million people also runs on electricity generated by burning heavy fuel oil and diesel. It’s not connected to a national power grid. The cost of Iquitos electricity is among the highest in Peru.
My friend wanted pink glittery nails before we headed into the jungle, so we got our nails done at the Aldany Salon and Spa, which was where the cool kids were early on Saturday night in Iquitos. (It was actually the first time in my life I’ve had my nails done.)
Scrolling local news with my one free hand, I was relieved to learn a renewables company has signed a 20-year deal with the state-owned power distribution company to provide Iquitos with clean electricity cheaper than diesel by 2026. A microgrid on solar and batteries will replace half of the dirty fossil fuel generation.
To really breathe cleaner air, Iquitos will also need electric motorbikes and a battery-swapping network like the one now taking off in Nairobi. Rising fossil fuel prices driven by Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine are hurting Peruvians, so a shift to cheaper energy would make a huge difference in people’s lives.
Peru’s largest Amazonian city may be on the cusp of change, but the rising prices also mean oil companies see an opportunity to eke out more profits from the forest and pocket the spoils of war. And that’s bad news for the Amazon.
The frontlines of fossil fuel extraction – and the movement rising up against it
The toxic legacy of fifty years of pollution from oil extraction in the forests around Iquitos is documented in devastating detail by Earth Island Journal – pipelines and platforms rusting and abandoned, heavy metals from oil spills, and children poisoned.
State-owned and private oil companies dumped polluted water directly into rivers and wetlands people rely on for drinking, fishing and hunting, taking advantage of Peru’s lack of legislated environmental protections. When regulations were made, they were not enforced.
When communities demanded clean-up and remediation, oil companies passed the buck, blaming each other, delaying, and even blaming the community for “sabotaging” pipelines the companies failed to maintain, according to Oxfam.
This is the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction. As always, it’s complicated, as oil sporadically brings income to some people, and communities find themselves forced to trade off basic services like electricity and healthcare for a corporation’s right to trash their ancestral lands.
Oil companies may pay for a cheap banner on the plaza Christmas tree, but they have not paid to clean up the heavy metal contamination of forests and rivers that Amnesty International says have left a majority of people in some Indigenous communities with elevated lead, arsenic and mercury in their bloodstreams.
PetroTal was singled out in a report by Civicus that found as the climate crisis intensifies, so does the crackdown on environmental activism. Environmental protests are being criminalised and met with repression on all continents, and state authorities and private companies are common perpetrators of violations to civic freedoms. The report cites the three Indigenous people killed and 11 injured in protests against PetroTal on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in October 2020.
Communities are fighting back. Here, as in other parts of the Amazon, Indigenous peoples are organising and leading campaigns to defend the sovereignty of their ancestral lands.
People are winning important victories, as the Civicus report also notes, and there’s a new wave of successful climate litigation, much of it led by Indigenous peoples.
Can rivers have rights?
We walk down the steep ramp from the fancy new Iquitos dock to board a long, battered metal boat with green vinyl seats like an old bus that will take us to the Heliconia Amazon River Lodge. The river is mighty, huge, gushing with brown water. I’ve never seen so much water in a river before. It’s more like a brown sea flowing all one way.
Our skipper expertly dodges branches and logs floating in random places. The rusting barges and littered riverbanks of Iquitos give way to tall green trees lining both banks, and I stare, longing to walk out into the forest and explore. Occasional clusters of small wooden buildings appear, with steps and ramps down the steep muddy bank. Our guide tells us in places the river is seven kilometres wide.
The main source of the Amazon is the Marañón River. Kukama women have filed a legal action asking the Peruvian government to recognise the river’s intrinsic rights.
They assert that the river has the right to exist, to flow, to live free from contamination, to feed and be fed by its tributaries, and to be protected, preserved, and restored. They also want the Peruvian government to recognise Indigenous organisations as guardians, defenders, and representatives of the Marañón River.
Another coalition, the National Organization of Indigenous, Andean and Amazonian Women of Peru (ONAMIAP), is campaigning for the Peruvian government to recognize the rights of nature in national legislation.
“We demand nature be recognized as a living entity because it is a living entity. Everything that exists on the planet has life. All that exists on Mother Earth is alive. That is why we humans are alive. We are part of nature.”
– Melania Canales Poma, president of ONAMIAP, in Inside Climate News.
They’re part of a hot trend of Indigenous-led legal cases to recognise the rights of nature and rivers – notably the Whanganui River in Aotearoa / New Zealand and the Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River) in Québec.
“The Indigenous movement in Peru is strong and well organised and has a track record of fearless activism,” according to the Rainforest Foundation. “Indigenous forest monitoring also has a long tradition in the country and has succeeded in denouncing illegal activities, tackling forest destruction and defending rights.”
For people who live far away from the Amazon, there are things we can do so that the forest communities don’t have to face this alone.
How we can protect the Amazon from oil corporations
Support Indigenous land rights and self-determination
Lands under the stewardship of Indigenous peoples contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. In the Amazon, Indigenous Territories are santuaries for intact forest, preserving it even better than Protected Areas. Yet Indigenous Territories do not have budget allocations from their governments.
Respecting traditional knowledge systems is key to creating a future where life thrives – and this means respecting and supporting land rights, self-determination, consent, and listening deeply.
The people and leaders of Sarayaku do not want to be left behind in a static conformist way just waiting for solutions. On the contrary, we have decided to be part of the global solution by contributing with our experience, thought, knowledge and philosophy of life from the belly of the living forest.
The peoples of the native communities of the Amazon are those in closest contact with the earth and communion with the beings of the Living Jungle, and the Sarayaku are among those peoples.
Climate change will only be resolved if we actively seek solutions. Global citizens must undertake a long road to resistance and peaceful struggle, towards a different perspective that we call Tiam. By itself this philosophical thought is only a form of knowledge, but it can be made reality if each and every one of us participates in the minga (collective community work).
– Sarayaku resistance leader José Gualinga
Amazonian Indigenous organizations representing 511 First Nations are calling for a global pact for the permanent protection of 80% of the Amazon by 2025 as an urgent measure to protect their land and water and sustain the fundamental role of the Amazon as a global climate regulator. We can support their demands.
Push companies to clean up oil pollution
The Peruvian government and the companies responsible should fund the remediation of polluted sites. Thousands of sites have been mapped by forest communities and international organisations. Only a small fraction of these have funding for remediation, and only a fraction of these have seen any progress.
It’s a fundamental principle of climate justice that if you made the mess, it’s your responsibility to clean it up.
Get big international banks to pull out of funding Amazon oil
State-run companies need help from international investors to finance their operations. This means we have a powerful leverage point to stop the flow of money that funds the destruction.
And banks are feeling the pressure. Some international oil companies have withdrawn from blocks in Peru over the years because of protests by Indigenous communities. And some big banks have already made public statements that they will not fund oil extraction in the Amazon.
Banks need to know that there is no social license for funding oil and gas in the Amazon and violating forest communities’ consent.
JP Morgan Chase, HSBC, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup are at “very high-risk” of funding the destruction of the Amazon according to a scorecard report by Stand.earth and Amazon Watch.
Banks must not finance new oil and gas expansion. They need to phase out their current financing. And they must adopt strong, binding policies to respect Indigenous rights to self-determination.
The Amazon forest and river are iconic in the global imagination. Despite serious oil threats, much of the forest is still intact. It is entirely possible to hold accountable the corporations that would destroy it, and support the communities who will protect and defend it. This gives me heart.
Walking into the forest
When I finally get to walk out into the jungle, I feel my awarenesss lighten, quicken and expand. I slow my gait and drop into the stillness of my breath, padding with soft, elastic steps so I don’t startle the birds. Even though I’m a lover of forests, I’m a little scared of how encompassing the green is, and how strong the pulse of life feels. Multiple harmonics of insects and frogs thrum and tone.
I crane my neck to see past the thick bushes into the high canopy. Then I see them – huge old trees with hundreds of ferns and orchids and mosses and bromeliads growing on them, all kinds of plants all over the tree. I feel joy surge up.
Epiphytes are “air plants” growing in the nooks and crannies of their tree hosts. Unlike parasites, they don’t suck from the tree, but nurture themselves with nutrients from the air, falling rain, dew, mist, and from the canopy compost of decaying leaves.
I see Oropendola nests hanging like three-foot sacks, intricately woven from vines and leaves. One of the birds calls. It’s an extraordinary sound, like cascading slow-motion water drops into a deep, resonant, operatic pond.
A black butterfly flutters by and lands momentarily. Wings closed, it’s dull, brown, hidden. Wings open, it’s suddenly glossy black with iridescent green and blue flashes like lightning. Wings closed, I can’t see it. Wings open, it surprises me. “Huh!” I think, “It’s that easy to transform?”
I scan my imagination out to the whole forest and try to feel how vast it is. I wonder if the trees, whose breath we depend on, love us as much as we love them.
Support Amazonian Indigenous organizations who represent 511 First Nations and their allies who are calling for a global pact for the permanent protection of 80% of the Amazon by 2025.
Let’s stop banks financing Amazon destruction. Sign on to tell the major banks to adopt an Amazon-wide exclusion policy for oil. You can also use your own bank’s “Contact us” feature to ask them how they are divesting from fossil fuels.
Check out the Kukama women’s federation who are building capacity in their community and taking on decades of neglect from big oil.
Ask the Peruvian government to support the self determination and land rights of tribes in Peru who choose to remain uncontacted, but are threatened by oil and logging companies.
Thanks for reading. The next issue will have a round up of more bite-sized pieces. Until then, be well.
“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”
– Terry Tempest Williams
Subscribe to EarthCrew for free and join thoughtful, determined, creative people building power to solve the climate crisis.