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The Amazon Was Sick. Now It’s Sicker.

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The Amazon <br>Was Sick. Now <br>It’s Sicker.


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The health of the people
of the Amazon was in crisis long
before the pandemic hit.

The health of
the people of the Amazon was in
crisis long before
the pandemic hit.

Opinion This author is a tktk

Peru’s government did far too little to protect its Indigenous people from the coronavirus, just as it has failed to protect them from the health threats of environmental contamination.

By

Mr. Zárate is a Peruvian journalist and an editor.

  • Oct. 2, 2020
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This article is part of the Opinion series The Amazon Has Seen Our Future, about how the people of the region are living through the most extreme versions of our planet’s problems.

LIMA, Peru — When he was a boy in the late ’80s, Elmer Hualinga would go to the nearby ravine to catch some odd fish. He’d see them floating on the water, motionless, covered in a slimy black substance. That didn’t seem to concern the elders of Nueva Andoas, Mr. Hualinga’s Quichua community in the Peruvian Amazon near the border with Ecuador. They would yank the creatures from the dark water, rinse them off and take them home to cook.

Mr. Hualinga, 38, is now a Quichua leader himself. “I’m not going to blame my ancestors,” he tells me by phone, “but that’s how we ate, without knowing that we were contaminating ourselves.”

The Quichua — or Kichwa — are one of 51 Amazon nations that have inhabited Peru for millenniums. And for almost half a century, they have lived in the basins of the Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes and Chambira Rivers, territory they share with Block 192, the country’s largest oil field. The Block holds an infamous record: 155 oil spills in the last nine years.

I listen to Mr. Hualinga from Lima, the capital of Peru — one of the most oil-dependent countries in Latin America — and I contemplate the high price Indigenous people in the Amazon pay so that we can sustain our comfortable lives. “Black gold” from the Peruvian Amazon fuels, along with natural gas and coal, 85 percent of the country’s energy consumption. Building a nation’s economy on the exploitation of its natural resources has a cost, but above all it incurs a debt. In Peru we owe that debt to the environment and Indigenous peoples.

The pandemic — caused by a novel coronavirus that probably spread to humans from a wild animal in part as a result of the destruction of ecosystems in China — has increased this debt.

Peru has the highest mortality rate from Covid-19 in the world. When the state of emergency began in March, Indigenous people who had been working in the cities lost their jobs and returned to their villages, spreading coronavirus to their families.

As of the end of August, at least 37 health centers in Indigenous communities had closed: Their doctors and nurses were infected and there was no one to replace them. This is a death sentence in a region where more than 50 percent of the native communities do not have health centers, and those that do exist often don’t have water, electricity or enough doctors.

At the beginning of September, the Ministry of Health registered more than 18,000 Indigenous people infected with Covid-19 in the Peruvian Amazon. The most affected tribes are the Awajún and the Kichwa. Although there is no official figure, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest registered 387 Indigenous deaths from Covid-19 through the end of August. The actual number is likely higher: Many who died were symptomatic, but no tests were performed.

ImageMembers of an Indigenous community in Peru mourning a victim of the coronavirus. 
Credit…Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Peru’s government did far too little to protect people in the Amazon from the coronavirus, just as it has failed to act for decades to protect them from the health threats of environmental contamination.

Since 2008, Mr. Hualinga has worked in the Quichua territory as a volunteer Indigenous environmental monitor. He sets off at dawn with a GPS, a tablet and a camera to document the disaster the oil spills leave in their wake: lagoons with oil film on the surface, black puddles near yucca and banana farmsteads.

Mr. Hualinga sends the information he gathers to the Quechua Indigenous Federation of Pastaza to alert the environmental authorities. He says he hopes that his people, his children, won’t be sickened by the oil as he has been. The problem is, the spills don’t stop.

Just since the beginning of the pandemic, 14 oil spills have occurred in the Peruvian jungle. Eight of them are in Block 192. Frontera Energy del Perú S.A., the company in charge of that block, has not been operational for months, but the crude from its facilities continues to seep into the water and soil.

“Nobody is containing the spills,” warns Mr. Hualinga. “There are places where oil accumulates and the rains make it overflow.” Environmental authorities are still investigating the causes, but it’s clear that the oil company doesn’t maintain its old wells and pipes, which leak and need constant cleaning.

Between 2000 and 2019, there were 474 oil spills in the Peruvian Amazon: 65 percent were caused by corroded pipelines and the operational failures of companies like Pluspetrol Norte, the predecessor of Frontera Energy, the country’s most polluting oil company.

In Block 192 alone — according to a report by the National Coordinator for Human Rights and Oxfam — about 2,000 sites have been devastated by oil activity. Thirty-two of these areas contain enough contaminated material to fill 231 national stadiums.

Credit…Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press
Credit…Alessandro Currarino/El Comercio, via Associated Pres

The health consequences of oil spills are dire. In 2016, specialists from the Ministry of Health collected blood and urine samples from 1,168 people living in the area around Block 192. Half of those evaluated, including Mr. Hualinga, his wife and their young son, had toxic metals — lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium — at levels higher than those permitted by the World Health Organization. This can affect the nervous system and the brain’s ability to learn, and can cause hypertension, kidney failure and cancer.

This catastrophe is unfolding in a place where seven out of 10 people are poor, where there is no drinking water, and where women and children fall ill with anemia because of chronic malnutrition.

The Quichua people of Nueva Andoas are at high risk for any disease, let alone a pandemic that has already killed more than 31,000 Peruvians, a death toll approaching that of the war waged against the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path.

If before the pandemic it was already very difficult for Indigenous peoples to access vaccines and medicines to treat epidemics like dengue and H.I.V., how will they ward off this new coronavirus?

Six months after the emergency declaration spurred by the pandemic, and fed up with the authorities not listening to them, residents of several Amazon communities are demanding medicine, medical attention and food for survival. Others are organizing to protest, and some have been shot by the police in response.

On the Amazon border, where the Quichuas live, no one has officially died yet from Covid-19. Given the lack of medicines, patients are being treated with medicinal plants and herbal teas. In Nueva Andoas, 60 percent of people have tested positive using rapid tests, including Lucas, Mr. Hualinga’s 11-year-old son, whose blood is contaminated by the oil spills.

Mr. Hualinga dreams of living in an Indigenous nation with its own government and laws that would actually protect his people from the double calamity of oil spills and the virus.

“If such a country existed, perhaps things would be different for the Amazon peoples,” he told me.

“And when do you think that will happen?” I asked.

“When Indians and Westerners have the same worth.”

Joseph Zárate (@jzarate33) is a Peruvian journalist and an editor. He is the author of “Guerras del interior,” a book that chronicles social and environmental conflicts caused by the exploitation of wood, gold and oil in the Amazon and the Andes. Translated from the Spanish by Erin Goodman.

Cover photo by Associated Press. Cover inset photo by Cesar Von Bancels/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

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