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Shredding injustice: The fight to hold the powerful accountable in the Amazon

JEFF DEUTSCH & ASH KOSIEWICZ, Oxfam

Heavy metal rockers are joining indigenous peoples to try and save a generation of children and families from the devastating effects of heavy metal poisoning.

It’s 4:30 on a sunny afternoon and I—Jeff Deutsch, a heavy metal junkie who grew up on a steady diet of Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Megadeth—am about to meet a couple members of the Peruvian metal band M.A.S.A.C.R.E.

(Before I left Boston, I gave these guys a listen. Whoa. This is no ‘80s hair band. They actually opened for Maiden and Judas Priest! They’re the real deal.)

Adrián, the lead singer, greets me—all smiles. We chat a bit as I get ready to take a few photos in their jam room. But as soon as I look through the camera... BOOM.

_______

He and Coqui, the guitarist, transform into instant heavy metal gods. Smiles? Gone. It’s all stern eyes and power stances, complete with devil horns. Guitar head inches from the lens. The best part though? I’m interviewing them for Oxfam, a global movement of people working together to end the injustice of poverty.

"We fight against mindless power," Coqui tells me. That’s why M.A.S.A.C.R.E has joined a chorus of voices from urban Lima to the rural Amazon, belting out in unison one simple refrain.

Metal doesn’t hurt. Heavy metals do.

What is going on at Block 192?

Block 192 is the site of one of the worst environmental disasters you’ve probably never heard about on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. Extending across four large river basins in the province of Loreto, it’s the largest oil field in Peru.

The area accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s oil production. And ever since the lucrative liquid was discovered there more than 45 years ago, oil companies and their conglomerates have extracted it from the ground, leaving the area and its rivers heavily polluted.

And that’s a big problem. Because people live there.

A map of Block 192 in the province of Loreto in Peru.

The Achuar, Kichwa, Kukama, and Quechua indigenous peoples have called these sacred lands in the Amazon home for centuries. But many have come in contact with a toxic cocktail of heavy metals most people only read about in high school chemistry textbooks. Almost 400 communities have been affected by oil spills, and the poverty rate in these remote forests is three times that of Peru’s urban capital, Lima.

"We have not come here to speak for ourselves because our lives are already contaminated," said Aurelio Chino, president of FEDIQUEP, an indigenous federation that represents Quechua and Achuar peoples. "We have come here to speak on behalf of our kids and future generations."

In 2015, the Ministry of Health decided to investigate. Blood and urine samples were taken from 1,168 individuals in 39 different communities across the four river basins. Specialists also took samples from the air, agricultural soil, drinking water, fish, and the floors of their homes.

The preliminary results released in 2018 were breathtaking.

  • More than half of the residents have dangerous amounts of lead in their blood.
  • About 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 children have too much mercury.
  • One in three residents have too much arsenic.

Health studies link overexposure to these heavy metals with depression, developmental delays, and other life-threatening complications—including damage to the heart, the kidneys, and the nervous and reproductive systems.

Ander Ordoñez, a monitor with the Peruvian Assessment and Environmental Control Agency, examines the impact of oil spills inside the Marañon river basin in 2013.

Ermilda Tapuy, a Kichwa indigenous leader of the Tigre river basin, says oil extraction activities at Block 192 have devastated her livelihood. Her harvests of papaya and cocona, a fruit native to the Amazon, have suffered, while her plantains and yuca grow halfway and then die—rotting from the roots.

"Just as my seedlings die, maybe my children will die without knowing development," she said. "Oil brings development to the government, not to our communities."

In response, the Peruvian government has levied fines or taken investigative action against those responsible: US-based Occidental Petroleum Company (1971-2000); Dutch-Argentinian oil conglomerate Pluspetrol (2000-2015) and Canadian-based Frontera Energy (since 2015). But many have gone unpaid, and Pluspetrol and Frontera Energy deny wrongdoing—thrusting the government and issue into the courts.

Sounds like mindless power to me. I ask Adrián, M.A.S.A.C.R.E's lead singer, what he’d like to see happen. After all, his government plans to continue oil production at Block 192 for another 40 years.

“You cannot surrender to power,” he says. “You cannot surrender to injustice … which is a difficult thing, by the way. That’s why we are here.”

¿Quién Manda? (Who Decides?)

In solidarity, M.A.S.A.C.R.E joined national and international heavy metal bands in partnership with Oxfam and its local partners to launch the “Metal Doesn’t Hurt, Heavy Metals Do” campaign to highlight the health crisis.

The band played a huge role in finding other musical groups to draw attention to the situation at Block 192, driving social media exposure and playing a concert last December that featured testimonials from the four federations of indigenous peoples who live in the area.

The campaign brings together Peruvians, artists, and international supporters at a critical moment.

Ermilda Tupuy, a Kichwa indigenous leader, talks about why indigenous peoples must be consulted about the future of Block 192 in 2017.

Last September, thanks to their work with Oxfam partner PUINAMUDT (or the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon United in the Defense of Our Territories), indigenous groups reached an agreement that requires the Peruvian government to facilitate "prior consultation" with them about who will manage Block 192 when Frontera Energy’s operating contract expires in January 2020. The Ministry of Health has also agreed to include Amazonian communities in their heavy metals action plan, allocating $6 million for provision of health care in the region.

This agreement—an important victory in the long fight for human rights that Oxfam supporters like you help make possible everyday—recognizes fundamental rights enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It also complies with a 2011 national law that states the Peruvian government must seek input from indigenous peoples before proceeding with any development project that might affect them.

In other words—it puts some degree of power back in the hands of those directly impacted by this unchecked devastation. It’s one step closer to ending the injustice of poverty.

__________________

When I ask Adrián and Coqui what they’d like to see happen when indigenous groups meet with the government and Frontera Energy to discuss who should manage Block 192, they tell me it comes down to basic respect for these communities.

“Be gentle,” Coqui says. Involve them. Make the companies go through the proper steps. Not just in Block 192, but throughout the Amazon.

Additional credits: Lead image: M.A.S.A.C.R.E. lead singer Adrián del Águila and guitarist “Coqui” Tramontana pose inside their band’s jam room in Lima, Peru. Photo: Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America

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