I recently returned to Thailand from Peru, where I had the opportunity to travel deep into the Amazon to the remote cities of Pucallpa and Iquitos. For two weeks I, and several colleagues from our Washington DC office, met with Peruvian lawyers, anthropologists, activists, and leaders of Amazonian indigenous federations to listen to their stories, learn about their work, and gain a deeper understanding of Peru’s indigenous, human rights and environmental movements.
I’ve had lifelong ties with Peru and its people, but every visit still teaches me something new and deepens my connection with the country. I’ve learned about the intricate cosmologies of some of the region’s diverse ethnic groups, and I’ve seen firsthand the cultural, environmental and health effects the oil, gas, mining and logging industries have had on Amazonian communities. During this latest visit I was especially impressed by how committed the communities and civil society of the Amazon region are to preserving local knowledge, traditions and beliefs while pursuing sustainable and equitable models of development.
I was also impressed by the optimism we encountered, especially because my previous trip to Peru had been quite different. Last year I was in Lima when communities throughout the Peruvian Amazon rose up to protest new laws that aimed to open up the region to increased mining, oil, natural gas and hydropower development, with little benefit to local communities. I had been waiting to travel to Iquitos for two months while these communities sent a strong message to the rest of the country by cutting it off from their jungle resources by barricading roads, blocking waterways, and shutting down an oil pipeline. These protests culminated in the violent clash between police and indigenous protesters on a highway in Bagua Province which resulted in numerous death and injuries on both sides, and shocked the rest of the country.
Visiting Peru one year later, I was surprised both by how much and how little had changed in Peru since the massacre in Bagua. Everyone we met with spoke of the events with sadness, but they also spoke with optimism about the advances of Peru’s indigenous movements and the changing perceptions of what it means to be indigenous in Peru. Nonetheless, the environmental and human rights threats posed by the oil, natural gas, mining, hydropower and logging companies have not disappeared. Achuar communities along the Corrientes River continue to live with the cultural, environmental and health effects of more than 30 years of oil exploitation on their territory. Other Amazonian communities are just beginning to feel the effects of natural resource exploitation on their territories, while still others look to the example of the Achuar from Corrientes and wait with uncertainty for what the future will bring their communities.
Even so, this latest trip reminded me that there are extremely devoted and strong people working tirelessly to defend the land and people of the Amazon, and I have high hopes that the future of the jungle won’t be decided by oil, mining and logging companies.