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Climate justice for the indigenous people of Peru

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Representatives from nearly two hundred countries are gathering in Lima, Peru this week for the annual United Nations climate summit. This Latin American Conference of the Parties (COP) presents an opportunity to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change on the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon and the context in which they are fighting for their lives and livelihoods.

Extractive industries and illegal activities

Indigenous people are the front line witnesses of climate change and development pressures in the Peruvian Amazon. Until today, they have received very limited attention from the government – they have been basically fighting alone, in some cases in very isolated areas with no weapons or tools other than their hands and voices.

Their livelihoods are threatened by pressures placed on the environment and natural resources upon which they rely. In some cases, matters are made worse by a lack of support from the government indigenous leaders often are arrested, and jailed. They are not provided due process – justice really – because they lack the resources defend themselves and their lands in the current Peruvian legal system.

So, the potential for social conflicts has grown dramatically in the last few years. The pace of expansion of oil and gas activities in the Peruvian Amazon is accelerating and already high – currently, at least 70% of the territories of indigenous people overlap with oil and gas activities. In most of cases, those activities are conducted without their permission, without their knowledge, and in other cases, they are even affected by the problems associated with such activities.

Fossil fuels in the rainforest

Amazon oil

In one example of extractive activities and their impacts, a small oil spill that happened last year (2013) was supposedly remedied and controlled by the company concerned. However, the company simply covered the oil spill with dirt, leaves and some dried matter—an entirely insufficient response. Sometime later, the rain washed away this makeshift bandage away. In the intervening period, the indigenous people living there had been fishing from this water, drinking, watering their animals and conducting other activities around this highly contaminated area.

This is not fair. This is not just. We must keep a watchful and wary eye on other similar development threats in the Amazon.

In general, the Peruvian government has been unable to provide the necessary conditions for formal development in the Amazon, not only because of the lack of logistical capacity, but also because of some lack of willingness to tackle these problems head-on. In many cases, while there have been announcements, and visual displays and media stands, there has been very limited outreach where it matters most – in the field.

A very emblematic case is the killing of four indigenous leaders in September this year (2014). Those leaders were killed by illegal loggers. It is a tragic chapter in our collective story. Leader, Edwin Chota, who was presenting claims to the local justice system for almost two years without receiving any attention or protection died along with his three colleagues — people of different communities fighting against illegal loggers.

Four months have passed since then and the bodies of two of these leaders have still not been recovered. The wives of those four indigenous leaders can’t return to the community because they don’t feel safe. They don’t have the opportunity to return without being threatened by the same people that killed their husbands.

This is not fair. This is not just. This is something that we have to correct if we want to have a future in which all are treated equaly, and proper respect and rights are given to indigenous people. They are owed that. The Peruvian government must take action. It should have the tools and ability to address these issues in a very practical and urgent matter. This is not only about people or the indigenous rights. It is also about the national capital of the country, it is about the opportunities to control climate change, to prevent deforestation, to prevent the extraction of highly contaminant hydrocarbons and oil and gas.

There has been some talk of starting fracking in the Amazon. This technology (as everybody knows) is very controversial – it has a lot of risk due to the use of different chemicals to obtain the gas from under the ground. We just have to imagine the conditions those practices will be conducted under, if regular oil exploration has these kinds of problems. What kind of problems can we expect from fracking in the Amazon if we already have these situations with regular oil extraction?

The Peruvian government and the authorities must keep an eye on this and have a clear plan about how we can reduce the impact of these industries and illegal activities all over the Amazon.

Lives depend on this.

Juan Carlos Riveros is the director of conservation for WWF Peru. He is based in Lima.

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