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At what price progress?

Update 14

AmazonQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks, a team of scientists and explorers are examining one of the most distinctive and most threatened environments on Earth: the Amazon River basin.

In Sepahua, a boy plays with a soda bottle. The younger generations in indigenous communities often embrace change and covet commercial goods.
In Sepahua, a boy plays with a soda bottle. The younger generations in indigenous communities often embrace change and covet commercial goods.  

In Kirigueti, a small but busy town close to the Camisea gas operations, we'd been invited to a community celebration.

I pictured a clearing in the forest with painted dancers lit by the flickering glow of campfires. The pounding of peccary skin drums would drown out the background chatter of cicadas.

Instead, four teen-age girls did their best Britney Spears imitations, gyrating out-of-sync to Peruvian pop music. The crowd demanded more, and they got it.

Then, an old man shuffled out wearing his traditional cushma, picked up the microphone and began to sing in Machiguenga. His voice was small and feeble. People started talking, drowning him out. Nobody listened.

I shouldn't be surprised that the local Indians of Kirigueti prefer pop music to traditional chants. Indigenous people in this region have a long, grim history of contact with the outside world.

A century ago, ruthless rubber barons enslaved the people to harvest rubber for an exploding international market. Some groups, like the Kugapakori and Nahua, escaped up remote rivers where they remain today, happily isolated.

Then Shell Oil arrived in the 1980s. When the company found the largest source of natural gas in South America right around Camisea, the government hailed the creation of a pipeline as "the key to Peru's development over the next 50 years." Shell pulled out of the Camisea project three years ago when its deal with Peru's government fell through.

People still feel Shell's legacy here, mostly in good ways.

When the company first arrived, it's said by critics to have ignored the concerns of indigenous people and made some terrible mistakes. But the company learned from its mistakes and gave back to local communities.

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Shivankoreni, a small village close to some of Shell's drilling sites, has power for three hours every evening, thanks to Shell. They have wells that provide clean water and a nice school, thanks to Shell.

While in Shivankoreni, we met up with Miguel Chacami, the town's lieutenant governor. I asked him what he thought about Hunt Oil and the new oil consortium that's picking up where Shell left off.

"No one really knows yet whether they'll be good or bad. We've barely spoken with them." He says he worries that Hunt and its partners won't invest in the community the way Shell did, and that so far, the consortium isn't really listening to the people. Mostly, he says he fears change and is skeptical that the communities will get proper compensation for the use of their lands.

"In the end," he shrugs, "it's always the same. The money all goes to Lima and all we're left with are problems." This may overstate the reality, but indeed 37 percent of Camisea's profits are expected to go straight to the pockets of the central government.

I left the Camisea region skeptical of Hunt Oil's claims that they're really looking after the interests of local communities. Maybe the local culture is too fragile to survive the effects of this pipeline?

But this evening, as I wandered the noisy streets of Pucallpa, I ran into a young guy named Raul. Dressed in worker's overalls and boots, he strode up to me with a welcoming smile, eager to talk.

In Sepahua, flattened oil drums are used as a fence, one of many examples of the oil industry's prominence in this region.
In Sepahua, flattened oil drums are used as a fence, one of many examples of the oil industry's prominence in this region.  

Originally from Lima, Raul was on his way to Camisea to work as a tractor driver on the pipeline. With 20 percent of the population unemployed and over 50 percent living in poverty, Raul is lucky to have one of the 5,000 new jobs that Camisea promises to create for Peruvians. I congratulated him, but admitted I was worried about the project's impact on the indigenous people of the area. He thought carefully before responding.

"Look, there will be an impact. But Peru's a poor country. I'm single now, but someday I'll have a family and want to own a home. We Peruvians are desperate for work and Camisea will bring jobs."

I thought about my nice home back in Minneapolis and what it means to my family. It seems reasonable that Raul should have a home some day, a future for his kids. Maybe Camisea is the answer, maybe not.

But when I went to bed that night, the one image that kept coming back to me was of that old Machiguenga man singing. I just hope someone listens to his song.

Diggin' it, John Fox


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