Indigenous Peruvians have deployed drones to show the world the truth about toxic pollution in the Amazon. This is an amazing story that demonstrates the potential of the fourth industrial revolution to deliver social benefits and its immediate deployment in the remotest areas of the world. Read it carefully!
For years indigenous federations and other civil society organizations in Peru and abroad have worked for the territories of indigenous peoples in “isolation” to be made off-limits, citing Peruvian and international laws, emphasizing their rights to self-determination, and stressing their vulnerability to contact because of their lack of immunological defenses and the risk of epidemics and fatalities.
The biggest dangers – in terms of outsiders entering their territories, exploiting resources and/or actively seeking contact – are oil and gas companies, loggers and logging roads, narco-traffickers, evangelical missionaries, Catholic priests, artisanal miners and highways.
There are more indigenous peoples living in “isolation” in Peru than any country in the world except Brazil. All live in the Amazon – the majority in poorly-protected reserves, or areas where reserves have been proposed but never established, or “protected natural areas” such as national parks. In 2006, Peru’s health ministry found more than 90% of Achuar community of San Cristobal located in the Corrientes basin had levels of toxic-heavy metals in their bloodstream well above safe norms. These Amazonians still collect aguaje palm nuts and hunt peccary in a patch of wetland which has been concessioned to Pluspetrol, the largest oil and gas producer in Peru, for the last 15 years. Pluspetrol, which has run the nearby oil block since 2001, has blamed a previous operator – the US-based Occidental Petroleum – for the pollution. In 2015 the US company paid an undisclosed sum to the Achuar people in an out-of-court settlement, marking one great victory for indigenous Peruvians.
This time drones fly to protect Amazon, not to deliver Amazon parcels!
In 2006, Pluspetrol signed an agreement pledging to reinject production waters laced with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and barium deep into the ground so they would no longer enter the water cycle. But locals and NGOs report that toxic contamination has already run its deadly course. “Almost 80% of our population are sick due to the presence of lead and cadmium in our food and water from the oil contamination,” said Carlos Sandi, president of Feconaco, the federation of native communities in the Corrientes River. Following Sandi’s lead, in 2014 around 500 Achuar indigenous protesters occupied Pluspetrol’s oil field in the Amazon rainforest near Ecuador to demand the clean-up of decades of contamination from spilled crude oil, because the company Pluspetrol has not complied with a 2006 agreement to clean up pollution dating back four decades.
Conditions are starting to emerge which can have no other cause than the pollution; cancer cases, deformities in newborn babies, congenital diseases, low cognitive development in children. Several scientific studies show the build-up of heavy metals in soils, as well as fish and animals consumed along the Corrientes, is potentially carcinogenic. Locals have lived to see their children die, while no one ever informed them of the dangers these drillings would bring; children were born with deformities such as wounds or inexplicable pains, some were even born dead while others died early, painful deaths vomiting blood. But the cause of this tragedy was never officially confirmed to their relatives. “To this day there is no national assessment of how many people have been exposed to lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury … and many other toxic metals which we know cause disease,” an expert on toxic-heavy metal pollution told The Guardian.
After a visit by the locals’ delegation, Peru’s health ministry said it would coordinate with the environment, housing, finance and energy and mines ministries to control and reduce the causes of the contamination. But Peruvians, rightfully, have not been convinced. Seeing how incapable governmental forces were to confirm the self-evident correlation between drillings and health hazards, they decided to take matters into their own hands and let no one claim to be uninformed. Armed with territorial knowledge, rubber boots, smartphones and drones, they are doing what state and private oil companies have long failed to do: report oil spills that have been polluting their corner of the rainforest for decades. Using their smartphones, they gather geo-referenced photographic and video evidence to report to Peru’s environmental supervision agency OEFA. They use drones to detect and record oil spills with much greater accuracy and speed. They use the Internet to get their material from the depths of the Amazon right into the boardrooms of companies in a matter of seconds. Environmental monitors have come from all these places to San Cristobal to learn how to use this technological toolkit with a team from the International Institute of Social Studies at Holland’s Erasmus University and the NGO Digital Democracy, whose members insist that “the modern world is already here in the shape of the oil companies. We believe that indigenous people need to be able to fight on equal ground”.