November 26, 2012

Shipwrecked: The sorry state of development in the lower Urubamba

The shipwrecked hospital boat at the mouth of the Camisea River is an apt metaphor for the sorry state of social development in indigenous communities of the lower Urubamba impacted by the Camisea Gas project in southern Peru.  
A $150,000 hospital boat shipwrecked at the mouth of the Camisea River.

Donated at a  cost of $150,000 by PetroBras as part of its negotiations with native communities, the boat was supposed to serve as a fully equipped aquatic hospital and ambulance.  Instead, due to poor coordination between the company, the Peruvian Health Ministry and the community, the boat lies on its side filled with silt like a beached whale: an expensive eyesore, a dangerous jungle-gym for native children playing by the river, and a reminder of where good intentions can lead.

The Camisea region is home to a great diversity of indigenous peoples including the Matsigenka, Piro, Ashaninka, Nahua, Nanti and perhaps others, some of whom remain in isolation to this day.  With 25 years of experience working among the Matsigenka and other native groups in the region, I was called on to take part in an independent advisory panel set up by the Import-Export Bank of the United States as a condition of their loan to Hunt Oil for building a pipeline that brings Camisea gas to the Pacific coast of Peru for export. My preliminary analysis of the situation of social development in the Lower Urubamba has now been published in the most recent report of the South Peru Panel.  The report also includes analysis by other panel members of Peru's energy matrix, environmental impact assessments and community-based monitoring of mining and hydrocarbon projects. 

In this posting I summarize the results of my contribution to the report based on field research in ten indigenous communities in the lower Urubamba.  During the two-week visit, carried out in November-December of 2011, I interviewed community members and leaders about their perceptions of the changes brought about Camisea Gas development.  One indigenous federation leader summed up the situation in this way:

What is happening in the lower Urubamba isn’t development.  It’s confusion.  Everyone has their chain saw, their boat motor, their zinc roof… The rivers are contaminated, the young people who have jobs don’t plant crops… People have money but malnutrition and illiteracy are on the rise.  There is no food, just cans of tuna.  When there’s no tuna, there’s always beer.

Gas development in the Camisea region involves multiple companies and consortia including Hunt Oil, PlusPetrol, Repsol, PetroBras and others.  Camisea has attracted the largest foreign investment project in Peru's history.  Through the "Canon" royalty law, approximately $1 billion dollars in gas royalties were transferred between 2007 and 2011 directly to local and regional governments for social and infrastructure spending.  In addition to these government royalties from the gas contracts, individual communities also receive compensation packages directly from the myriad companies operating in the region.  

The Camisea pumping station  at Malvinas (photo source: Panoramio)

During my visit I was left dizzy by the casual way indigenous leaders discussed astronomical  sums of money received through government and company social programs, infrastructure projects, and compensation packages.  One community president noted as follows:

Repsol gave us 80,000 soles compensation, PlusPetrol gave us 300,000 dollars direct compensation plus 400,000 for the pipeline right of way.  The community meeting center was built with indirect compensation funds, but that project failed:  mismanagement of funds… In 1999 the municipality put in a water project but it never worked, every summer it dried up and now it doesn’t work at all.  Two years ago they began an expansion project, 2 million soles, but they still haven’t finished it.  It’s been a year and a half, almost two years, and no result yet. 

Given the huge sums of money being invested, I was shocked at the meager results and overwhelmingly negative perceptions of local people about the pace and direction of development in their communities.  

All of the ten communities I visited had been provided with house-by-house tap water systems by the Municipality or other sources over the past decade.  Of these, eight were currently inoperative, apparently due to incompetent execution or inadequate planning.  Neither of the two communities with functioning tap water had any sort of filtration or purification, meaning that contaminated stream water is piped directly into households without treatment.  

After my brief visit to these communities, treating my own water with chlorine pills but consuming food and the occasional cup of fermented manioc beer at the invitation of community members, I came down with a severe case of dysentery that included three different kinds of amoebas and protozoa.  

1 billion dollars in investments:  failed tap-water systems, filthy toilets, a dilapidated school house.
"Such are the mathematics of indignation."

1 billion dollars in development investments over 4 years, 10 days in the lower Urubamba, 3 kinds of amoebas in my gut:  such are the mathematics of indignation.  

There is no excuse for such incompetence and waste:  in nearby Madre de Dios and Manu National Park, moderate NGO investments have resulted in successful, socially sustainable water projects that deliver clean, treated water to household taps in remote Matsigenka native communities.

Some conservationists have touted Camisea as a promising example of eco-friendly, "road-free" development that preserves forest cover.  Yet people in the region universally complain about the reduction of fish and game stocks.  

One man noted:

Fish have really disappeared.  There are no more big fish.  They’ve gotten skinny, sometimes they have an illness on their skin.  Fishing has really gone down since PlusPetrol came.  Both fish and forest game have gone, we are suffering from hunger.  The fish are really skinny, they’re all head, no body!  
A woman I spoke to was frightened in July of 2011 by the unusual die-back of a species small catfish known as koryo in Matsigenka.  She showed me photographs of the dead fish and expressed distrust and disbelief of the explanations provided by PlusPetrol's environmental monitors:

Last July the koryo all died, they were all over the place, it looked like someone had scalded their skin with hot water.  PMAC [PlusPetrol’s environmental monitoring team] said it was that the river water got too warm.  And the boquechico fish had a strange smell, acrid, like chemicals.  They said it was from the plankton.  I have never seen anything like that.  

"Last July all the koryo died, they were all over the place, it looked like someone had scalded their skin with hot water."

Local people gave a number of explanations as to why fish stocks are declining, the most common being gas spills (seven spills have been recognized by the companies since 2004) and greatly increased river traffic (according to one man, “thousands of boats passing”).  A few of the people I interviewed suggested that human population increase and the growing use of gill nets might also contribute to fish scarcity.  Commercial overexploitation by booming regional markets may also be a factor. 

The most often mentioned negative social change was alcoholism.  As one woman noted:

The men who work for the company buy beer and get drunk.  They get into fights with one another.  They beat their wives.  My son went to work for the company.  He started getting drunk on beer and fighting with his wife.  

Alcohol-related social problems have become rampant in communities newly flush with cash income.

Most of those interviewed mentioned the greater availability of jobs and cash income as being a notable change brought by the gas project.  And yet 75% of those interviewed mentioned negative changes brought about by the cash economy:  loss of interest in agriculture among the youth, price inflation, monetization of social relations, envy and greed, the loss of qualified school teachers to higher-paying “Company” jobs, and the emergence of prostitution.  
Health is one of the main areas that indigenous communities expect and demand improvements as a result of development and modernization.  Nearly half of the people interviewed mentioned improved medical attention as a result of Company interventions, mostly the transportation of gravely ill patients back and forth from communities to distant health clinics.  Certainly these interventions have saved lives.  Yet some complain that the quality of care at the local health posts has shown little improvement.  

75% of those interviewed mentioned the arrival of dangerous new illnesses in the wake of development.  A few noted the appearance of venereal diseases including HIV/AIDS, previously unknown in the lower Urubamba.  According to their statements, there are 6 cases of HIV/AIDS in the lower Urubamba, an unusually high rate of infection for such a small population.  The coincidence of new illnesses, social unease and economic tensions has led to a virtual epidemic of sorcery accusations in Matsigenka communities.[1]  

Ominously, the Sendero Luminso guerrilla movement, long thought extinct, re-emerged in 2012 and took Camisea pipeline workers hostage in an episode that humiliated the Peruvian armed forces.

The municipality of Echarate is currently among the wealthiest in Peru in terms of per capita income due to huge Canon royalty investments, yet this wealth has not produced sustainable results in the communities most affected by gas extraction. There is no reason why native communities in the Lower Urubamba shouldn't have the most modern, ecologically and culturally appropriate bilingual schools, water and sanitation systems, resource monitoring and management, intercultural health care systems, aquaculture, permaculture and silviculture projects in the Amazon. 

As one community leader noted:  

The gas well is 5 km from here… They are taking gas out of our territory... At least we should have clean water and a sewer!

People in this community near the main gas well get untreated water for drinking from a tube inserted into the holding tank of a failed water project.

An indigenous federation leader concluded:

This isn’t development.  Development is education, health:  in other words, living well.  True development happens in relationship with our worldview, with nature. 

After completing my trip to the Camisea I went to visit the adjacent Madre de Dios river basin.  While there I ran into an old Matsigenka friend who was originally born on the Manu River, was later raised on the Camisea, and then came back to Manu as an adult to marry and start a family.  He had just returned from visiting family members on the Camisea where he observed the same devastation, confusion and futility I had seen.

His comment was simple and direct:

There is no life for living ['No hay vida para vivir'].  No fish, no game.  The water is contaminated.  There are many illnesses.  Envy, sorcery.  There is only work and money. But there is no life for living.

In 2009, Hunt Oil begun prospecting activities and community negotiations in the upper Madre de Dios region despite legal protest by local indigenous federations and tour operators.  The region is especially sensitive due to the small but internationally famous ecotourism industry that has built up around Manu National Park, and the presence of isolated indigenous populations like the Mashco-Piro.  The drastic social, economic and environmental impacts observed in Camisea should give pause to anyone considering a similar development strategy for Madre de Dios.


[1]  Izquierdo, Carolina, Allen Johnson & Glenn H. Shepard Jr. 2008. Revenge, envy and cultural change in an Amazonian society. In Revenge in the Cultures of Lowland South America. S. Beckerman and P. Valentine, eds. Pp. 162-186. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.


  1. Glenn, I'm sure the work you do is hard, but I am envious. I long to do something that will help the environment or work for people who do. I wish you health and happiness in you work. Catherine Bond

  2. Dear Catherine,

    Thank you for your words of support. There is always room to fight the good fight, the most important thing is to stay informed and inform others. If you keep your mind focused on issues that are dear to you, and stay in contact with people who care about similar issues, I'm sure you can find ways to contribute.

    Check out the website and FaceBook page of Rainforest Flow / House of the Children. They are involved in helping communities in this region develop clean, sustainable tap water systems. This is an organization you can support knowing that 100% of your contribution makes a difference:

    Thanks again for your comment and never give up! -- Glenn

  3. I just came across that report. It is a very interesting and important observation. It gives a lot of question to programs like REED or fast tourism development, where, like in Western Serengeti, huge amounts of money are flowing into rural communities in short time. It is very important that communities participate - but this needs a well structured and managed development.

    1. Dear Christof,

      Thanks so much for writing. Yes, the situation in Camisea is quite shocking, while Peru's economy booms, the people who are bearing the brunt of the environmental and social consequences receive minimal benefits, and indeed are ultimately being harmed more than helped. The silence of the press on these issues is disturbing, while every new sighting of the Mashco-Piro goes viral. While Camisea has indeed limited deforestation, which is a good thing, there are so many other levels of social and environmental impacts that are simply ignored. Sorry for the delayed response, I've had a busy past few months and didn't notice your comment until now. Hope to see you in Manu next time, Glenn