Indigenous Amazonians Reeling From Oil Spills in the Jungle

Local farmers display the contamination of a plantain tree resulting from the recent Amazonian oil spills. Photo by Rodrigo Lazo

By Rebecca Wolff

When I learned that crude oil had started pouring into major tributaries of the Amazon River, it was as if my entire world had been shaken.

After three years spent working with indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon as a National Geographic Young Explorer, I felt professionally, personally, and emotionally connected to the region and its fate. It was during my time in the Amazon that I truly began to understand the role that land and water play in the spirituality, culture, and daily lives of the indigenous communities who live there.

The Spills

On January 25 and February 3, 2016, two oil spills occurred along a Petroperu pipeline in Datam del Marañon in the region of Loreto and Bagua in the Amazonas region of Peru. Over 3,000 barrels of crude oil are believed to have spilled into the Marañon and Chiriaco Rivers in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. The spills will have severe environmental consequences on the local ecosystems, but little emphasis has been placed on how individual livelihoods and in particular local culture will be affected.

The Victims

The Awajun, one of several indigenous Amazonian groups affected by the oil spill in the Chiriaco River, have strong spiritual beliefs regarding the natural environment. Connection to land and the forest plays a key role in their cultural identity and religious practice. The spirits of the forest and rivers are responsible for bringing visions, which are essential in coming-of-age practices where youth learn societal rules for interacting with the environment. Plants and animals have both human and spirit dimensions, thus they live in both the natural and spiritual worlds. Through these beings the Awajun gain knowledge from their ancestors, wisdom and art.

Indigenous Amazonians live in an environment dominated by natural forces. For them, everything is very clearly and impactfully connected. Photo by Rodrigo Lazo
Indigenous Amazonians live in an environment dominated by natural forces. For them, everything is very clearly and impactfully connected. Photo by Rodrigo Lazo

Local practices of subsistence agriculture, fishing, and hunting are all based on respecting spirits and the environment. According to the Awajun belief system, over-harvesting of resources results not only in physical damage to the ecosystem, but in metaphysical harm wrought by the spirits of the plants, animals, and the forest itself.

The oil spills have contaminated the rivers and plants, destroying the link between the natural and spiritual worlds. So what will this environmental pollution and destruction mean for local culture and spirituality?

The Impact

Not only do the rivers and bodies of water contain spirits, they are often the only source of clean drinking water.

Fish, which are being poisoned by the oil spills, are a key protein source, and are necessary to supplement crops like cassava or plantains, which are grown primarily for personal consumption.

Kids bathing in Chiriaco River
The river in indigenous communities is more than just a mode of transport. It is often the main or only source of freshwater,for drinking, bathing, or fun. Photo by Rodrigo Lazo

Those at the spill sites have reported that oil has contaminated many local chakras (family farm plots), destroying food crops. Contacts at the Chiriaco spill site are stressing the need to help communities secure access to materials, water, and food. They tell heartbreaking stories of families forced to eat contaminated fish because they have no other option.

From these accounts it becomes clear the oil spills drastically affect the relationship between land, culture and livelihood when communities can no longer access the environmental resources that are critical for daily life in the Amazon.

We cannot deny that the oil spills are environmental disasters that affect the physical environment and ecology of the Amazon. But it is time we also talk about these oil spills as human disasters with social and cultural consequences as well. It is crucial that any disaster response consider how these types of crises shape local indigenous communities and the cultural practices and beliefs that have guided their interactions with the land and rivers for hundreds of years. The oil spills will not only effect the Amazon itself but also the culture and health of the communities who live on the land and water.

Environmental disasters are also human disasters and we need to ensure that we continue to share the stories of the people who are being affected by them right now.


Changing Planet

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