The Road and the Wilderness - Beauty & Destruction in the Peruvian Amazon

At the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 2003, I was introduced to a shaman from the Peruvian Amazon.

At the Burning Man Festival in 2003, I was introduced to a shaman who lived in the Peruvian Amazon who was conducting ceremonies involving the healing powers of plant medicine.  Through what I learned, I became interested enough to visit Iquitos, Peru in 2006, the largest city in the world you can't drive to. There are no roads to Iquitos; one can travel there by air and boat only. Exploring the area reminded me of the freedoms and liberties I had as a child, exploring the woods steams and ponds around my family home in the Sandhills. One of many attractions to the area was that I could live in a city yet be in the jungle in a few minutes.

I began to hear references to Chullachaqui, Yacumama, Runamula. The people spoke of these unseen forces in common daily life, legends and myths of the jungle, which while perhaps (arguably) not “existing” in the material physical realm existed in non-material spiritual realms. In these I found a rich source of inspiration for my work, visuals and subjects I began to incorporate into my art.

As were all lands, South America was originally part of a immense, universal proto-continent that became defined when the waters of the new earth condensed from the steam of creation, filling the oceans. The titanic forces of plate tectonics and continental drift have caused an unknown number of sunderings and collisions of the land masses of the old and new worlds which have brought us the present map of the world, in process and unfinished. Once flowing west into the Pacific, the Amazon along with predecessors of her present ecosystems may possibly predate the division of the continents.

The vast river systems, rain forests and high, jagged mountains of the South American continent kept the interior and people for the most part uncontacted and isolated, often by their choice. I spoke recently with a friend who accompanied her husband back to the US in a new airplane the couple purchased in Brazil back in the eighties. She described a lengthy flight across the Amazonian interior, hours and hours of unbroken jungle canopy. The people and the interior remained in a pristine, unspoiled state until the seventies when oil exploration began in earnest with the arrival of Occidental Petroleum.

A revealing mistake gave the Nahua their name. When asked who they were, one of the people responded “Nahua” meaning “people” in the language. The questioner took Nahua to be the tribal name and this simple mistake rendering to them their external identity. Beyond obvious characteristics, gender and color, there was no need for the people to differentiate between human beings. To “the people” living in such a sparsely populated area, tribal designations are meaningless. They had very little contact with others, even other indigenines as transportation is mostly with boats specialized for fishing, hunting, transporting people and food. The bulk of their diet is what they forage, hunt and fish. Yucca is boiled and eaten like a potato or made into Masato, a naturally fermented beverage. a staple for jungle nutrition. Most of the biomass is held up in the vegetation instead of the soil which does not support life nor agriculture as can be seen from the effects of deforestation which bare the sandy, low nutrient earth. As the people cannot grow the amount of vegetables or fruit needed to live, they feed themselves and their families from with what they forage, hunt and fish. Millennia of living in the tangled, low light have honed an ability to spot food prey. Where “civilized” eyes see only trees and plants, animal life abounds: fish, monkeys, wild boar. Any animal becomes potential food.

As to where these folks came from first no one can really say. The dominant consensual speculative theory is that of the disputed and unprovable Bering Land Bridge. Certain natives and traditions elsewhere in the Americas assert strongly that the people were simply always there. The science and cultural indicators, practices and cultigens, plants grown to support human life, are inconclusive at best. The only thing one can say and not risk ridicule is simply no one really knows. Fed by realities such as blue eyes in the jungle, there are enough possibilities to keep a lively debate boiling in academia indefinitely. The only certainty is Columbus didn't discover America.

The people live what are among the most detached, natural lives on planet earth, similar in remoteness to the Inuit of the northern latitudes, reliant on the unspoiled Amazon, home to half of the species of flora and fauna on earth. They employ their world for sustenance, healing and spiritual purposes in a direct manner that allows an approach to the mysteries of eternity without the usual suspect interpreters, clergy and churches, which form so much of the spiritual life of the west, very like the “patent” on the new world issued to Sir Walter Raleigh by Elizabeth and the proprietary mindset that pervades commerce.

The more important factor is that however and from wherever these folks came from, they have lessons that we in the sickened, industrialized world can learn from. They were able evolve and maintain a lifestyle complimentary and reciprocally balanced with the resources of the area without having to extract from her that which sustains the ecosystems. The cultigens, DNA and molecules that interchange across the kingdoms, the plant world and the world of animals, protozoa, demonstrate a central paradox of life, the unity of the multiverse. Each entity lives in it own realm, yet these multiple, very different realms are connected with a sublime thoroughness that can be observed and experienced first hand in the jungle, available to the world through modern inventions, the airplane and motors, the same factors which make the region achingly vulnerable at this juncture.

My experiences included shamanistic cleansings, ceremonies, involving the diverse multitude of plant medicines. Foremost among these would be Ayahuasca, or the spirit vine, an ancient visionary plant medicine which Shamans (healers) use for whole mind, body and spirit healing. The visions Ayahuasca induce would be enough to make the plant valuable beyond measure, but Ayahuasca cleanses the whole body, the organs. I'd never experienced such a cleanse, psychologically, physically, and spiritually. As I was vomiting, a part of the experience shared by all who partake, I could see psychic energy that I held onto ten years prior, coming out of me. All I could say was, “why did I hold onto that.'”

As I traveled around the area talking to locals, I began to hear of a darkness coming to this hauntingly beautiful, physical realm. To its crossed fortunes, Amazonia is a point source for what could well hasten the end of the native way of life as well as the residents very lives, no figurative speaking needed. The region is amply possessed with a natural resource “essential” to how the first world lives – petroleum. A supreme, dangerous irony is seen in the maps illustrating a shattering coincidence. The very areas up for oil exploration and extraction are the homes of the last on earth who choose to live in isolation as well as creatures and plants never seen in civilization. In the last few years, an area the size of California is already signed over or up for auction to oil companies. The state-run agency Peru Petro, is hoping to attract US oil companies to buy 11 drilling concessions remaining in the jungle covering an area the size of the state of Maine. With the multinational oil companies will comes contamination of the most pristine land remaining on the planet.

Formerly the petroleum deposits were off limits, Zona Intangible, but with agreements signed during the waning Bush Administration in 2008, the whole of the region is now squarely in the sights of petroleum development, far afield and out of sight of western media who have their own reasons to tread lightly on disclosing the reality of what is happening via shared interests of interlocking corporate directorships. One may notice that US industries frequently seem to operate with a single mindedness. A major reason is that often the same people serve on the boards of multiple corporate entities, manufacturing, media, petroleum and so forth.

We all need oil to make our world tick. This film shoot would be impossible without it. But living in the West, we seldom see the damage caused at point of extraction. This was a devastating illustration of what oil production can to to a remote indigenous population and their traditional way of life. The river is polluted, the animals are contaminated, the children get sick. I'm glad we saw it and filmed it but I am also glad to be leaving. I feel desperately sorry for the people we are leaving behind. It is not somewhere you would want your children to grow up.”

BBC Foreign Correspondent Bruce Parry

"Occidental did not care about ruining the environment for 30 years. All they cared about was making money. The Peruvian state just wants to extract as much oil as they can from our land. They have made billions of dollars, but we have not seen it here." Toma Maynas

With the public outcry that comes with petroleum exploration and extraction, oil companies and investors have practical reasons to conduct their operations quietly. In the jungles of the Amazon, out of sight and not subject to US law, the lure of money frequently leads oil companies to be sloppy and careless. The Indians are barely a help nor a hindrance, just another critter somewhat in the way of the profits. Despite the pretty propaganda governments and oil companies paint their operations with, the very different, more complete picture of the destruction is concealed from the ordinary person, unknowing but complicit nonetheless to what would in the US would be crimes along with the destruction of what sustains a huge percentage of the very life of our little ball of earth.

Some of you may know of the School of Americas in Georgia, where Latin American military go for training. It may not be a surprise to learn that Muskogee County, Georgia, where Fort Benning is located and Muskogee, Oklahoma were the poles, the beginning and end of the Trail of Tears. As a sort of a model of what is happening in Peru, besides the fact that Columbus is the name of the city where the post is, Fort Benning is on what was sacred land for the Cherokee. In 2001, in Ridgeway Hall at Fort Benning, Joel Cassman of the US State Department was asked about oil companies and their operations. Cassman responded:

“The US companies in Latin America are the ones that respect the environmental laws more than any other company. And I think a lot of the American oil companies are the ones who are funding the environmental programs in Latin America. They are the ones who are doing more to try to protect the environment than anyone else. They're funding environmental groups, surveys.”

Joel Cassman, US State Department, transcript, press conference, November, 2001

This is a type of ... one shies from the word “propaganda” but that's what it is. The sort of pretty talk is representative of what one sees in the controlled media of the United States -- if one sees anything at all. A major reason oil companies go places like the wilds of Peru to extract petroleum is that they don't have to spend as much money to keep environment healthy. In remote areas the billion dollar oil business spends less on resistant and safe practices and infrastructure for the simple reason that secure and safe installations cut into profit. The reliance on antiquated, obsolete infrastructure from the seventies and disposal of chemical substances cuts as well -- into the lives of men, women and children as well as the Amazon's forests and rivers.

In the seventies, upon the arrival of Occidental, what used to follow a spill was basically nothing. Today, the same inaction would be the norm, except for the presence of NGOs, non-governmental organizations, serving as liaison between the natives and the outside world. Some of these NGOs are funded by big oil while others are outside agencies genuinely interested in the welfare of the vulnerable. After being informed of spill, these NGOs contact the petrol companies who typically deny the contamination until monitors go to the site and actually test the water or soil. When tests come up positive, the company is forced to admit to the spill and a clean up procedure begins. This can take weeks while the contamination continues to migrate down river. Due to the slow and bureaucratic communication process, clean ups are often initiated only after major contamination occurs and hence become impossible to execute thoroughly. The contamination is often merely concealed.

Lagoons of waste are merely covered with earth by bulldozers, a “band-aid over a bullet wound,” where nothing will grow. Extraction is conducted via the cheapest method known, by pumping water out of the rivers, heating it, injecting it into the earth, sucking it back out, separating the crude oil from the water, now filled with arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, other heavy metals and toxic salts, and dumping the now-poisoned water back into the river.

Pluspetrol was allowed by the Peruvian government to dump one million gallons of contaminated barrels of water per day. Thirty years prior to Pluspetrol, Occidental Petroleum had no restrictions at all. Petroleum seeps into the water courses and ground water resulting in new. sometimes. fatal diseases entering indigenous tribes, skin allergies and stomach infections. Traditional reliable methods and medicinal plants, from the beginning of indigenous cultures cannot cure them. Children, the weak and the elders simply are unable to live.

“The amount of Peruvian Amazon territory open to exploration has risen from 13% to 70% in two years. At a time when scientists have emphasized the importance of the Amazon as the vanguard against catastrophic climate change, the government of Peru is selling off its tropical forest to oil companies at an exponential rate.

“The Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes' river (FECONACO) says that for every barrel of oil there are nine barrels of contaminated water produced as a by-product - a total of more than a million barrels a day”.

“The water contains high concentrations of hydrocarbons and heavy metals, like lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic. A survey carried out by Peru's Ministry of Health found that cadmium levels in the blood of more than 98% of the Achuar exceeded safe levels. And more than 66% of children had levels of lead in their blood, which exceeded the maximum permissible. Yet despite the evidence of its own health ministry, the Peruvian government has been slow to act.”

“Geanina Lucana, a nurse who has been working with indigenous communities in the area for six years says the contamination affects every part of the human body, causing a chronic breakdown of the immune system. The Achuars say high levels of toxins in the water are damaging their health. The toxins affect the central nervous system, causing a complete mental and physical breakdown.”

“In the 1990s, an initial meeting with an isolated group resulted in the death of around half the population who were exposed to illnesses to which they had no natural defense.”

BBC's Dan Collyns

Among the the photos you will see the once pristine lake near Trompeteros. The indigenous people can no longer fish from it. Once a beautiful community by the river Corrientes, Trompeteros is now completely taken over by the oil companies. Electricity, noise, money, alcohol, have broken the peace and brought distress and aggression. Contamination results not only from oil spills of old pipelines but also from airports and roads, the infrastructure needed for the oil business.

The United States would not be what it is without roads. A reason the Amazon is so intact and Iquitos so unique is their absence. Industry relies on roads because they are the cheapest way to transport what is needed for operations but they are death to the jungle because of their devastating impact on the environment and social structure. Roads bring with them habitat fragmentation, colonization, unsustainable hunting and illegal logging. One report states that over-hunting of large primates changes composition and spacial distribution of forests. Primates, given their diet and range, are a critical link in the chain of seed dispersion. The din of roads and heavy equipment disrupts delicate ecosystems and the everyday lives of indigenous people, frequently forcing them out of their territories into locations lacking resources needed to survive. The dislocation breaks cultural traits and skills, an end to hunting and fishing and makes the people dependent on modern culture, a universal industrial phenomena common from Appalachia to China. Other accompanying industrial cultural artifacts such as prostitution, alcoholism and accompanying aggressive behavior and exact a severe toll on the culture.

With the arrival of the oil companies and resultant pollution, indigenous tribes are forced to look for alternative survival strategies. Jobs at petroleum companies foster a dependence on money that had never existed. During the press conference at Ft. Benning cited above, Joel Cassman stated also that “oil companies are the ones that pay the highest wages.” Wages are a new and unneeded concept in this place that never needed money. There is a good argument that in a sense money doesn't make one free so much as it make one a slave, a prisoner to the industrial system. All the diversions and baubles of modernity are tied to money. Industrialization squelches cultural practices and self-sufficiency as seen in the Masato tradition. The Yucca beer of the region is being jeopardized by western beer imported by the petrol companies. That is just one example.

When I found out the plan and results of the oil business, I began collecting concealed information and meeting people in organizations working to inform native communities of their rights. It seemed like colonization, the oldest of games. Nothing has changed. Land rights had been given to the native people by industrial nations and powers who didn't even own it but when resources turned up, the rights were taken away.

The main funnels for information and assistance in these people's struggle are a handful of NGOs. While some of the NGOs operating as gatekeepers, conducting public relations for big oil, there are some like Shinai and FECONACO who are helping indigenous tribes. One of the first tasks is to begin a process of mapping territories. The native do have rights to the land they live on, but there are legal hurdles, most notably establishing “ownership,” a tricky problem for whom ownership of land is an abstract notion. There are few if any maps of these places but they must be mapped in order to make them official indigenous lands. It may seem redundant but there has to be a map before the inhabitants can be legal owners of their own territories they have inhabited forever. There never was any sort of question about this being their land until the petrol and logging companies invaded their lands via Peruvian government's illegal and unauthorized permission.

Due to the tireless efforts of outside solidarity organizers and NGOs, there is a growing international movement to consolidate and organize the locals and affinity groups around the globe in opposition to industry's big plans for the region. Twelve thousand indigenous people gathered in Datem, Loreto in August 2008 and demonstrated in defense of their lives and that of the jungle, the first nationally organized native uprising in the history of Peru. 65 native communities attended, informed and organized through village meetings, 2 way radios and word of mouth.

There are matters at hand connected via geography and money that will have to bring us to a new view of the unassailable US lifestyle. One is the concealed trail left by how we live, the stupendous conversion of materials and energy that render to us a limited number of lifestyle options masquerading as freedom. An examination of that can perhaps render an explanation of the ills that seem to plague our culture without change. The ordinary person is unknowing but nevertheless complicit to what would be crimes in the US, along with the destruction of what sustains a huge percentage of life on this ball of earth.

The only ethical responsibility understood by multinational corporation are profits for them and the stockholders. In the absence of any other consideration it is left for the citizens of the US to become the responsible party, both as the consumer of half of Amazonian oil and as citizen of the nation whose government sanctions the companies' operations. The consumer must be the driving force for change. For that reason alone, along with the safe assumption that there will be no substantive change in how the US live, it is a great hope that the reader become involved with the organizations on the ground in Peru and render what assistance they can. While the situation looks bleak, there are millions of people around the globe, increasingly, who are engaging in the struggle to save this critical, irreplaceable global resource. While the forces of development are well-funded, robust and numerous, legal challenges by interested parties have resulted in courts finding for indigenous peoples' and their rights to control their own lands. If we simply sit on our hands and wait for someone else to act, the western Amazon and her people will be destroyed for a few days worth of oil, a trip to the beach, basically.

Think about what you do during your days, how you live. Begin to adjust your life so as to use less energy. If you can do without that car trip, walk or take a bicycle, do so, every day. It is these simple, little things that collectively can make a big difference. Corporate strategies are all based on markets. If people collectively begin to demand and create sustainable markets, industry will be forced to follow. Money is the only thing business understands.

It is critical for the United States begin to develop a comprehensive plan to developing in-country, nationally sourced energy, gas, oil, solar, wind. Returning oil production to the national boundaries will bring scrutiny to oil projects. But we can't just wish and wait for that. How one chooses to think and live, for the salvation the self and the world, is up to you.

In your later, quiet times, reflect on the shared existence, molecules that make us human and at the same time part of the world, calling across the yawning chasms of millennia and the globe, time and space. Strive to become involved in creating your world instead of acquiescing and living an abstract life. Become an active participant in creating your own existence and in what happens, not just for you, although that would and should be enough, but for the world and for others. There really is no difference, there is no “other.” We are all the world and she us. There is only the one.

David Hewson

Peter Eichenberger