“Lots of people died. Children! Fourteen years and below,” he said. “They took them to Lima and they died there. The doctors came and said ‘It’s not gas, it’s not gas, it’s the bat-illness that bit them.’ I said, ‘What if you’re lying?’”
|Young girl from the community of Camana who died, presumably of rabies, in May 2012. Photo taken by a community member and used with permission.|
“In 2012 the pipeline broke. They said it didn’t break, but it just leaked a little. In the month of March, at the beginning. They said ‘Don’t worry, the water is safe, the contamination isn’t coming downstream.’ But then it started raining and the floods bought all that contamination down here close to the community.
“Ohohoh!," he shook his head and then continued in the staccato cadences of the Matsigenka language, “It messed up the river… At first I didn’t notice it, I was eating armored catfish and they had a strange smell. And then I thought, ‘It has come down here after all. People are going to get sick. We might die.’ And then my wife got sick. And the doctors came and said it was rabies. The bat-illness that bit her. I said ‘No way! It was gas!’ Has a bat bitten my wife? She was never bitten by a bat. I built my house carefully. You don’t get rabies so easily.”
A 600 km pipeline carries natural gas from the Camisea gas fields—among the largest natural gas deposits in all of South America—from the Urubamba region in the upper Amazon, across the Andes to refineries near Paracas Marine Reserve on the Peruvian coast. The pipeline supplies over 40% of Peru's natural gas, representing a contribution to the Peruvian economy of about 28% of GDP. The Camisea gas fields are located in the heart of the territory of the Matsigenka, an indigenous Amazonian people of about 12,000 who live in the lower Urubamba, Manu and upper Madre de Dios rivers; some Matsigenka in the Camisea region maintain little or no contact with the outside world. And yet because of Peru's subsoil mineral laws, the Matsigenka people have no direct ownership stake in the gas deposits, which are leased by the government to private companies.
In March 12, 2012, the pipeline administered by Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP) near the Matsigenka Native Community of Camana on the Rio Picha (an affluent of the Lower Urubamba) leaked into a small stream known locally as Tsirompia. According to the people of Camana, not only did fish die and become contaminated with a strange odor, but also large animals such as tapir and peccaries that drank contaminated water also died and were found lying in the forest or along the river.
Water samples collected on March 13 by a team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate showed unsafe levels of petrochemicals at two of eight collection points, namely, the points closest to the site where the leak was detected. Unsafe levels continued at these two points through March 18, and a final collection on March 22 showed a return to safe levels at one of these points, although no data is given for the second point.1 The health team concluded that, by the date of its return on March 23, the water in the region was now safe.
Yet a number of people fell ill beginning late March through mid-April, and by May 10 five children had died. According to media reports at the time, the people of Camana blamed these illnesses and deaths on contamination from the gas leak.
A health team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate in May concluded that the deaths did not result from water contamination but rather were probably due to rabies transmitted by vampire bats. In all, eight suspected cases of rabies were documented of which seven (all children or adolescents 14 years old or less) proved fatal. The only survivor was an adult woman, the wife of the man interviewed above. One of the fatal cases was confirmed as rabies by autopsy, and two additional cases showed indications of rabies by indirect laboratory results. The exact cause of the initial five deaths could not be confirmed due to lack of blood or tissue samples, however the report classified them as “probable” rabies cases.
However during my visit to the community in April of 2014 as part of an independent evaluation of social, economic and environmental impacts of gas development in southern Peru, many community members suspected that some or perhaps all of these illnesses and deaths were not a result of rabies, but rather consequences of the gas leak in March.
|“We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.”|
As one man said, “There has not been one case of rabies for years and years. There’s a gas spill, and suddenly people start dying. It’s not rabies: it’s the gas. It’s been another two years since then and not a single case of rabies: it was the gas!”
Camana previously suffered from a rabies epidemic outbreak in 1996 that killed nine people. When I visited Camana in 1997, the people there, while accepting the rabies diagnosis, universally associated the outbreak with the initiation of seismic exploration by Chevron Oil Company. Chevron cut a vast network of transects through the forests in the surrounding territory and detonated explosive charges for seismic mapping of gas and oil deposits. At that time, community members as well as local health workers and biologists I spoke to found the coincidence striking, and some suggested that ecological disturbances of local bat or host animal populations caused by transect-cutting or seismic explosions might have contributed to the outbreak. Neither these local interpretations of the rabies outbreak nor the possibility of an actual epidemiological association were mentioned in the baseline health report financed by Shell Prospecting and Development, the initial bidder for the Camisea gas contract.
|A previous outbreak of rabies in 1996 coincided with Chevron's seismic studies in the forests around Camana (Photo: G. Shepard, 1997)|
Is it possible that the die-back of fish and animals in the 2012 gas leak might have caused ecological disturbance to bat populations that could have contributed to this recent outbreak? The coincidence demands a more thorough investigation and explanation. The people of Camana and nearby indigenous communities remain deeply mistrustful of the various gas companies (which they refer to collectively as “La Empresa,” ‘The Company’) that work in the region, the participatory community environmental monitoring teams (PMAC), the municipal government, and the Health Ministry.
As one elderly woman from the region summed it up, “They get their money from the company. They’re not going to criticize the one who feeds them. You don’t get food out of your neighbor’s garden and then complain about it.”
The Picha river suffered a major pipeline rupture in 2005 that killed fish throughout the Picha and into the Urubamba basin. According to one community leader, fish populations took over three years to recover.
Eight leaks or ruptures occurred during the first ten years of the pipeline's operation, and local people have begun to use digital cameras to register incidents of water contamination and fish die-back (Photos used with permission).
“So many fish died! Ohohoh!,” he shook his head in dismay. “Lots and lots. It was like someone had put poison into the river. Big fish died. Tapirs. Peccaries... And I said, ‘How is this possible! You promised the pipeline wouldn’t break and now it has broken!’… Our organization submitted papers and they gave us 75,000 dollars to each community… For three years there were no fish. We suffered, what could we give our children to eat? It took a long time. Three years passed and the fish just started recovering, coming upriver to spawn. And we thought, ‘What are we going to eat?’ And so the Company built us a fish farm. But they gave us hardly any fish, just a few. We eat fish every day! It’s never going to last. But they said you all have to raise them and make them multiply. But they all ran out.”
|"They all ran out": The (empty) communal aquaculture pond at Camana.|
Frightened by this previous experience, and despite assurances by the health and environmental monitoring team that the river was safe, many people stopped consuming fish or game for several weeks or even months after the gas leak in March 2012, and some complained of going hungry. Some were afraid to even bathe in the river for some time after the leak. The community’s piped water system—installed by TGP in 2005 as compensation in the aftermath of the major gas spill that year—brings untreated stream water to only 20 of the more than 140 households in the community. According to their reports, and a photograph they showed me, each family in Camana received a single basket of food assistance containing a kilo or so of rice, noodles, some tins of milk and tuna, and sugar.
|"That's all they brought! That won't even last one day!": Food assistance supplied by the municipal government to Camana in June of 2012|
“They didn’t bring hardly any supplies,” he continued. “You see! That’s all they brought! That won’t even last one day! We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.”
“When the Company first started working here I was a little worried. I said, ‘Maybe the pipeline will break and gas will leak out and lots of fish will die in the river.’ But the Company representatives said ‘No way! They’ll bring really strong steel pipes. It’ll never break. They do very fine work. It will all turn out well.’ But then when they started working and digging the streams got very dirty. Ohohoh! And everything started going bad. Fish of all kinds, shrimp in the streams, they got so skinny. And I said ‘What will we do? Are they lying to us? Maybe later on the pipe will break and the fish will die in great numbers and the Matsigenka will die in great numbers too’… All the companies can spend lots of money to pay for compensation, but how can they pay for a human life if someone dies? How can they replace a human being? They will suffer so much remembering and grieving.”
Traveling throughout Peru, one sees heavy machinery paving highways, cities teeming with new buildings and public works, a virtual explosion of fancy restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, luxury goods and of course, unprecedented supplies of natural gas being put to use in vehicles, cooking and power generation. The system of wells and pipelines tapping into trillions of cubic feet of natural gas located beneath the Matsigenka’s traditional territory has injected billions of dollars into the Peruvian economy and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of royalty payments each year, a large percentage of which are returned through the “Canon” tax agreement directly to regional and local governments. Over 1 billion dollars has been channeled to the Echarate regional government so far, and yet the indigenous communities suffering the most severe impacts of gas exploitation see few long-term benefits, and many complain that they are worse off than before.
|Billboard announcing 6 million sol (2 million dollar) child health project for the lower Urubamba, funded by the "Canon" gas royalties|
|1 billion dollars in investments: failed tap-water systems, filthy toilets, a dilapidated school house:|
"Such are the mathematics of indignation..."
While the pipeline that runs near their village sucks gas out of the ground, sends wealth coursing through the veins of the Peruvian economy, and occasionally ruptures and destroys their fish harvest, the people of Camana languish with their twenty tap stands for 140 houses, their empty community fish-culture pond, the paralyzed construction site of a half-finished school, their grief, their anger and demands for justice, and the spectral image of a two-year old girl killed by rabies transmitted by a blood-sucking bat.
|"How can they replace a human being? They will suffer so much remembering and grieving."|
This posting summarizes findings presented in:
Social And Environmental Evaluations in the Lower Urubamba
first published online in May 2015 by the
Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru
1. Castro de la Mata G., M. Santillana, G.H. Shepard & R. C. Smith. 2014. "Camisea: Emerging lessons in Development," First Consolidated Report (2010-2014). Lima: Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru / Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia
2. Dirección Regional de Salud Cusco. 2012. “Presencia de probable brote de Rabia Humana Silvestre en la localidad de Camana, Distrito de Echarate, Provincia de la Convención, Región Cusco.” Informe de seguimiento No. 02 de alerta epidemiológica No. 002-2012. Cusco: 29 May, 2012.
3. Shepard, G.H. Jr. & A. Chicchon. 2001. “Resource use and ecology of the Matsigenka of the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Vilcabamba.” In: Alonso, A.E., A. Alonso, T.S. Schulenberg & F. Dallmeier, (Eds.), Biological and Social Assessments of the Cordillera de Vilcabamba, Peru. Washington, D.C.: Conservation International. (RAP Working Papers No. 12), 164-174.
4. Toonen, J., G. Ramirez, A. Llanos, P. Campos, F. Samalvides, T. Taype, F. Carbone, R. Figueroa & R. Hurtado. 1996. “A Health Baseline Study in the Camisea Area, Lower Urubamba, Peru.” Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, Peruvian Ministry of Health, Lima, Instituto de Medicina Tropical Cayetano Heredia, Lima & Vicariato Apostólico, Puerto Maldonado. September 1996.
5. Shepard, G.H. 2012. "Shipwrecked: The sorry state of development in the lower Urubamba,"
In: G. Castro de la Mata, P. Majluf, G.H. Shepard Jr. & R.C. Smith, “Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru – 2011-2012 Report.” Lima: Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru / Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia.
6. Shepard, G.H. 2015. "Social and Environmental Evaluations in the Lower Urubamba: Health Status and Fisheries," In: G. Castro de la Mata, M. Santillana, G.H. Shepard Jr. & R.C. Smith, “Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru – 2013-14 Report.” Lima: Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru / Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia