By Paolo Moiola
Miguel Ángel Cadenas and Manolo Berjón are Spanish Augustine missionaries. They work in the Santa Rita de Castilla parish near the Marañón River, several days away by boat from the river port city of Iquitos in the northeastern Loreto region. The parish serves 100 communities of almost 20,000 people, mostly Kukama indigenous. This people has faced abuses by Argentine oil company Pluspetrol since a June 2010 oil spill from one of its shipments of crude, which has affected the health and quality of life of the communities living along the river’s banks.
Latinamerica Press collaborator Paolo Moiola spoke with Cadenas and Berjón in Jan. 2011 in Iquitos about their work defending indigenous communities.
You are priests at an indigenous parish. What do you do?
For many years we have been preparing community leaders so they know how to evaluate and tackle land-related problems. We accompany indigenous associations that consider us their advisors, especially when there is a dispute with the government or companies. We can’t do any of this without accepting that we are in a conflict zone and that we are a part of the conflict.
What is it like to live with the Marañón River communities?
For those coming from abroad, the first problem is understanding where you are. At first, you think you understand because the people speak your language, but there is an indigenous language behind this, and, above all, a completely different cosmovision. You have to dedicate a lot of time to studying and listening to understand what is behind this world.
How would you explain the concept of “indigenous cosmovision”?
The cosmovision is the form in which an indigenous culture sees how the universe is organized. This organization is what life is based upon. For the Kukama people, for example, not only does the world in which we live exist, but there is a world under water, and another one that’s even deeper under the water. There’s the world in the heavens, and another one farther than that. There are five levels in the Kukama universe. The inhabitants of different worlds relate to one another through the shamans, special individuals who are able to communicate with higher beings through dreams, ayahuasca and other rituals.
The understanding of other worlds is fundamental. For example, the Western world’s worry with the environment is all well and good, but it is a secularized concern that excludes the spirits. The indigenous worry about the environment because this is inhabited by the spirits of the other worlds. Any imbalance has consequences: floods, fires, destruction. One cannot live in the Amazon without understanding the indigenous view of life and the world.
How do the inhabitants along the river banks live?
The indigenous live off of farming and fishing and forest products such as the aguaje [highly nutritional Amazon fruit]. But because natural resources are depleting, the poverty level has increased. According to our statistics, at least 30 percent of the children suffer from malnutrition.
Is it true that the degradation of the Amazon started with the arrival of oil companies?
The companies arrived here 40 years ago, but the problems have gotten worse in the last decade. That is to say, during the [2001-2006] government of Alejandro Toledo and the [2006-2011] government of Alan García, both of which always sided with the oil companies.
In June last year, one of Pluspetrol’s shipments of oil spilled into the Marañón River. Is that when the Kukama protest began?
That’s an issue that needs to be cleared up. The biggest problems do not come from the spills, but the industrial use of water from Amazon rivers. That has meant high levels of water contamination in the rivers that people use daily to bathe and wash their clothing. The first thing that needs to be done is to change the  Water Law, which is absolutely disastrous for indigenous peoples.
There are also the so-called production waters — hot, salt waters with heavy metals like lead, cadmium, nickel and others — which have been dumped in the rivers in recent years. Those waters have had a devastating impact on fishermen’s resources, but also, according to the indigenous cosmovision, on the spirits that live there.
Sadly, what is happening in the Amazon rivers is not understood by the politicians in Lima, not even in Iquitos and Loreto, who are overly interested in their personal benefit. The very population of Iquitos, even though it benefits scarcely from the oil industry, doesn’t want to consider this situation.
Pluspetrol has said it has cleaned up the spill.
Pluspetrol is very influential. Former Energy and Mines Minister Pedro Sánchez [from García’s government] said in a radio interview that in comparison with what happened in the Gulf of Mexico [the oil spill caused by British Petroleum in April 2010], the incident on the Marañón River was very small. That was true, but we were impressed to see that the principal concern of the minister was to defend the company and not the Peruvian citizens. For its part, the Health Ministry said that there were no serious health implications. Later, it authorized a visit [the spill site] by one of the company’s doctors. Now there’s no official information about the health impacts of the spill. We have been the only ones to document and photograph how the people have suffered.
The fact is that there are many companies and they all follow the same very simple reasoning: there are no local populations and if they do, the company can always offer a small gift to resolve matters. When Pluspetrol offered 2 million soles [US$720,000] in damages [for the spill], we opposed it.
The children of Santa Rita de Castilla have drawn incredible pictures of the pollution in the river. How did that idea come up?
The company and previous governments had done everything possible for the people to forget what happened. We said: we cannot forget. It’s important that the people remember the things as they happened on their own land. We thought that an intelligent way to do this was for the indigenous children to draw what they had seen in the Marañón River. With that, we registered the event in the population’s memory and, through the parish, disseminated this as much as we could.
What are the main health problems for the Marañón River populations?
There are skin problems, parasites, malaria and malnutrition. But I think that the biggest problem is the Health Ministry, which never understands where we are, because it has a Western vision and it doesn’t know anything about the indigenous cosmovision. In the last 15 years, the ministry has come to this year with medical outposts, but many things do not work. In our experiences, the new motorboats used to go and vaccinate the population in the villages die immediately and the health workers don’t vaccinate in time.
Are things any better for education?
There is something good in Peru: in any community, as small as it may be, there is a school and a teacher. Another question is that the teacher understands where he or she is working and if the Education Ministry has given him or her the appropriate material. That is not happening. The teacher provides a Western education, and the jungle does not appear in the textbooks, and if it does, it is described in a folk way.
Poverty, incomprehension, an uncertain future: all of this paints a depressing picture.
It’s true, but we can conclude with hope. A double hope. First because we are Christians and God is with us. The second is because the indigenous peoples have resisted more than 500 years. They won’t die so soon. From the 17th century, they’ve said that the Kukama people were disappearing. But they’re still here. To resist.