Inside the Fight to Save the Peruvian Amazon From Big Oil
I was trying to do something I never do: take a two-day vacation.
I had been in Peru for a month, deep in the Amazon, documenting the Achuar Tribe’s epic battle against the oil industry for my new HBO Documentary on climate refugees. I was exhausted, but I listened to that little voice of impending regret: “If you don’t see some Incan ruins, you’ll be sorry!” So I did it. I bought the ticket, got up at 4 a.m. and flew down to Cusco.
I was going to see the city sights, pop down to Machu Picchu for a few hours on Tuesday, and scramble back in time for my Wednesday morning flight back home.
Within 24 hours I was completely trapped.
A good friend of mine back home in New Orleans had suggested I book a shamanic ceremony when I got to Cusco. Nothing too intense — no “plant medicines” involved — just a humble thanking of the Earth and nature up on a hill with a shaman and a guide named Coco. My friend gave a slight warning: “The elevation is intense, but they will give you coca leaves to chew, so it will be OK.” We were to meet at the Plaza de Armas at 9 a.m. and head up the mountain, just me, Coco, and an Incan shaman and a bag full of coca leaves.
But as soon as I got to the Cusco airport, my heart started to race. I was dizzy and I couldn’t breathe. I could barely walk up the block, my feet and hands were tingling, and I felt like I was going to pass out. I hadn’t done my research. Cusco is at nearly 12,000 feet elevation. The air felt like a veil that passed over your face and vanished. I couldn’t suck enough of it into my lungs to lose this queasy vertigo.
At the Plaza, Coco took one look at me and canceled the shamanic ceremony. He said, “You can’t go further up the mountain. I’ve seen this happen before, I’m going to rush you down to the Sacred Valley, from there you can rest and go to Machu Picchu tomorrow morning on the 5 a.m. train.” A mild panic was setting in. I had to get lower. I had elevation sickness before — at the Sundance film festival in Utah, which was at 7,000 feet, and it lasted more than a week. And yet the lowest I could get was the 9,000-foot high village of Ollantaytambo. Panic is never a friend to any illness. Anxiety, exhaustion, and paranoia don’t make it any easier to breathe. I was cold-sweating gobs of fear. At this point I had no idea why I wanted to go to Machu Picchu in the first place.
And so I spent much of the next oxygen-starved day sleeping, with a pause for a coca leaf-aided walk with a two-strides-then-rest cadence. I decided to eat dinner early (chargrilled alpaca with a side of quinoa soup) and go to bed. It was 4 p.m. I Googled elevation sickness and I found I had at least three of the four most dangerous symptoms listed by the CDC — profound lethargy, with drowsiness, confusion, and mild ataxia — I couldn’t walk a straight line. If I was going to be able to wake up for the 5 a.m. train, I was getting in bed before the sunset.
I woke at 11 p.m. to a text from Coco. “All the trains have been canceled, the airport is closed and there is no way in or out of any town. The protestors have taken over all the roads.”
Roadblocks everywhere, 9,000 feet elevation, couldn’t walk down the block without feeling dizzy, stuck in a political conflict that I had no ability to influence with no reliable information and no clue as to when this would all end. I had turned to the wrong page in the choose-your-own-adventure book. Everything and everyone I knew was like a receding dream on the horizon, slipping further away with each alert from the American Embassy or Delta Airlines. I was trapped and no one and nothing could help. Out of reach and out of luck.
Multinational oil and mining companies have stretched their poisonous grasp deep into the Amazon and the Andes for decades, spilling, contaminating, and despoiling the landscape. And Peru’s dozens of indigenous nations who have clearly marked territory and languages have battled against them for what seems like eternity. The natural habitat they have preserved for thousands of years is the most diverse place on Earth. And yet, most of the time, the Peruvian government and the urban elites in Lima are firmly on the side of “development.” And development usually means extractive industry raping and pillaging the country’s natural beauty and history, poisoning the water and land and leaving a trail of displacement and cancer in its neoliberal, neocolonial wake.
Of course, I was in Peru to cover this deepening existential conflict. But I thought I was in for more of the slow burn that characterizes the degradation of the forest and the human rights of its defenders. Instead, I was caught in the middle of an explosion that feels more and more like the beginning of a revolution.
On December 8, 2021, President Pedro Castillo, who had run on a populist leftist platform was arrested and deposed. He had just lost a power struggle with the Peruvian Congress and was being replaced with his vice president, Dina Boluarte.
Some U.S. media outlets, focusing on Castillo’s efforts to dissolve Congress, have portrayed the struggle as something akin to Peru’s Jan. 6. Here on the ground, it is not so simple. Castillo had his faults, but whether he was more corrupt — or less committed to democracy — than the people who ousted him is a matter for history to debate at this point.
What is clear is that for the country’s indigenous tribes and leaders, this is a profound loss. Many saw Castillo as the first campesino president — and many indigenous tribes and leaders identified with him. He was in deep negotiations with indigenous tribes across the country and he was seen as, if not their ally, their kin. When he was arrested by the usual coterie of the rich urban elite and centuries-old oligarchy that holds power in Peru’s Congress, the poor erupted. The protests were immediately supported by the country’s largest indigenous associations, labor unions, and farmer’s associations.
I call my buddy Ricardo Perez of Amazon Watch for his take. “You really have to understand that the Peruvian indigenous people have never had any state working for them,” he says. “They know they have to fight for everything they have. This has been the case for the last 500 years. Right now, what we have is 20 years of people asking for change, asking for institutions, asking for the presence of the state in their territories, asking for stopping oil spills, asking for education, asking for the most basic stuff. And throughout their history everything they have won, the very little they have, they have gotten through protest. So this is why they are always protesting. And that’s why they’re good at it, because that’s the only thing they have had for 500 years. This is the only thing that the people running the country since forever understand.”
So in spite of the fact that I was trapped in Ollantaytambo with no way out, couldn’t breathe, walk straight or think properly, I was squarely on the side of the protestors.
ACHUAR TERRITORY in THE AMAZON, one month earlier
Lucas Tarir Jiyukam, the president of Chuintar, has malaria and a 102-degree fever, but he’s taking us upriver anyway. Specifically, he’s bringing us five hours by boat up the Pastaza River to his village, a small community named Chuintar in the Peruvian Amazon. No sickness or discomfort is going to stop him from showing us the mysterious underground oil spill that’s been contaminating his village for more than a decade.
We are deep in the territory of the Achuar, an indigenous nation within Peru that has been fighting tooth-and-nail to keep the oil industry from drilling in their territory.
The Achuar know the oil industry well. They have seen the apocalyptic effects of drilling all around them and they have a major pipeline running through their lands that spills and erupts constantly. But now it’s not just transport that the oil industry wants, they want to drill. The Achuar have fought off five different oil companies trying to enter their territory in just the past four years. Nelton Yankur, the Achuar Federation’s president has used every trick in the book to keep them out. He has mounted a full-on campaign of shame against the country’s oil company, PetroPeru, traveling to New York City to try to convince financiers not to set foot in his territory. If he loses this battle and international finance gives PetroPeru the money to drill, his tribe is in for decades of contamination, sickness, degradation, and despair. If he wins, he preserves the most diverse place on Earth, and we all get to breathe the oxygen that his way of life has provided for centuries.
Every battle they win is only the latest battle for this place. If they lose, it is the last one. Nothing could restore what thousands of years of fecundity created if the oil industry gets in here, it will ruin one of the last and greatest forests on the planet.
And as you read this, PetroPeru is begging all their favorite funding sources: JPMorgan, Bank of America, Vanguard, Goldman, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, BNP Paribas, Santander, Bank of New York Mellon, and the like, to secure investment to drill in Achuar territory. Without further financing, Petroperu might collapse, an outcome that the Achuar would celebrate.
Nelton has invited me and Ricardo of Amazon Watch to their annual assembly to help document their struggle. It takes four to five days to get there from Lima, so very few people who are not Achuar make it there. These parts of the Amazon are both fiercely protected and challengingly remote. The tribe has maintained and cultivated the dense jungle for 7,000 years, making it one of the most spellbindingly beautiful and awe inspiring places on Earth.
This is the headwaters of the Amazon — hundreds of tributary rivers along which dozens of indigenous tribes have communities. Electricity is scarce, a cell phone signal is even more so. But somehow, it is home in a way that I can’t explain. You get the unshakeable feeling that this rainforest is home to the human race on a cellular level; the forest breathes out so that we can breathe in. So it is physically and emotionally harrowing to witness the hell that Petroperu, the state-owned oil company, has wrought on this territory.
Lucas, the president of his village, rides the entire way with a towel over his face because he’s freezing and he can’t handle the wind with his fever. But as soon as we reach the village he trudges up the trail with purpose. He starts to tell a tale that is familiar to anyone who regularly observes the oil and gas industry and their penchant for destroying paradise. “Petroperu’s pipeline began leaking underground,” he says. “That’s when the trouble started. We started to see animals dying, and our children getting sick. At first we didn’t know that the oil was causing it. For years we just didn’t know that the oil was causing the sickness.”
Petroperu’s pipelines have caused more than 500 oil spills in the Amazon rainforests of Peru in just the last 20 years. Chuintar is just one more tiny unremarkable place that has been ruined, possibly for generations. The villagers have rampant health problems — everything from a constant intestinal malaise afflicting the children to cancer and other deadly diseases. Such spills and pipeline ruptures are commonplace along the aging pipeline, which has been corroding for decades. And no one has come to clean up the oil.
Even though health studies have shown significant health problems, and communities along the route have lost their fisheries, drinking water and livelihoods due to deadly contamination from spills, Peru’s government has consistently pushed for more drilling and more investment in the oil industry.
Ricardo is the connective tissue between Amazon Watch, the well-heeled San Francisco-based NGO, and the Achuar, who are fighting to keep PetroPeru from further sinking its claws into their homelands. He is their communications director, but he has never been to an oil spill before.
Ricardo is a fucking angel with an acid tongue. He’s been to the jungle enough times that you know you won’t sink in quicksand or get bitten by a snake. His justified leftist rage is tempered by a cynical sense of humor, which you get the feeling is necessary in the Sisyphean struggle for justice in the Amazon. He looks me in the eye on our hour-long trek into the jungle. “Do everything exactly the way that the Achuar do it,” he says. “If they step on a log, you step on that same log. If they go around that tree, you go around that tree. Exactly the way they do it. OK? And don’t lean against any trees. The ants will come to defend the tree right away and you’ll get fifty bites in a few seconds.” I try to keep his Amazonian survival lessons at the front of my addled brain, but it doesn’t take long before a poisonous spiny black-and-white caterpillar gets in my shirt and bites me seven times. He says, “Do you want us to relay any final wishes to your family?” He finds a tree full of them and says, “Just kidding. These aren’t so bad. It’s the neon ones you have to worry about.”
Ricardo knows that the entire world depends on who wins the fight for the Amazon, and so we can’t lose. And yet these fights are chronically underfunded and ignored. Even though he works with a 30-member team at Amazon Watch, compared to the oil industry which has virtually unlimited money and power, they are fighting on a shoestring budget.
The Amazon rainforest is the lungs of the world. Without it, we all die. That’s the realpolitik of the indigenous struggle for the integrity of the jungle. Without the rainforest taking in all of the carbon of the world and spitting it back out as oxygen, we would simply not have enough oxygen in the atmosphere to function. And yet no place is more under attack. It’s as if we are all in the intensive care unit and hordes of unseen corporate stooges are trying to yank out our IVs and rip the tubes out of our noses. It’s amazing to me that there isn’t an international effort to support the tribes that are keeping all of us from suffocating to death, but, as far as real international political action goes, there isn’t. The Achaur and their whole assembly know that this is an uphill battle and it has been for 500 years.
As we walk along the sun-dappled path of Palm, Sangre De Grado, and Kapok trees Lucas points out black globules of oil that have accumulated on the path. They seem to be everywhere, like dog shit or deer droppings. Little black turds of crude oil that have bubbled up from the ground. This spill is more of a continuing rupture: Oil is pouring out in some subterranean strata, permeating the land like it’s a sponge and saturating the underbrush and streams.
We hack our way towards a small swamp. The black globs of oil paint the surface of a small pond. “PetroPeru says there is no oil spill here,”says Lucas. But look. He dips a leaf into the water and pulls it out, it is flecked with black oil stains. Ricardo takes a huge glob of oil from the pond and puts it into a Ziplock bag. “Evidence.” He says. Lucas looks on the verge of tears, he has that thousand-yard stare of the contaminated, the brutality of neglect and poison that threatens his family from below rippling across his face. “We can’t fish here anymore. I won’t let my children near here,” he says. “All the children in the village know they are forbidden to walk near the streams here.”
There is abandoned oil machinery scattered throughout the village. Relics of decades of oil drilling from decades past, never dismantled, never properly decommissioned. PetroPeru clearly just sees these people as collateral damage — people who are living in the wrong place at the wrong time, never mind the fact that they’ve been there for thousands of years and their traditions predate Columbus. “Is this neocolonialism?” I ask. They say, “Yes of course. First the Spaniards wanted gold. Then copper. Now they want the oil. We have been fighting them for 500 years.”
We are in Block 64 — a block of land in the Loreto region recently subdivided by the Peruvian government for leasing to oil companies: millions of hectares of Amazon rainforest, which encompasses all of the Achuar’s ancestral territory and much of the territory of the Wampis, a neighboring tribe. I’ve been to Loreto before, in 2014, investigating a huge oil spill in Cunninico. Fisheries had been poisoned, sources of clean water contaminated. Locals were paid to clean up oil in rubber boots and jeans, no proper safety equipment, some of them were even given toxic chemical dispersants to take home and wash up with after a long day’s work.
Several years ago, the Achuar forcibly occupied rigs and pipelines and shut down the oil industry all over their territory, demanding that the government clean up pipeline contamination and provide assistance to the people whose fisheries were destroyed. Eight years later, in 2022, there still has been no official cleanup or progress.
But now it isn’t just the pipeline — PetroPeru wants to drill. The company is primed to “explore” here, oil industry code for taking over an area and extracting its oil, a process that never fails to contaminate and destroy wetlands and forests. No matter what the oil industry seems to say or do, they always seem to leave a trail of destruction and toxicity. And in spite of the fact that there has been five decades of consistent neglect and oil spills in the Peruvian Amazon, they are close to persuading the West for more funding.
But in 2022, the Achuar have taken a slightly different tone — less militant but just as adamant. In October, Nelton Yankur, Amazon Watch, FENAP (The Achuar’s governing body) and a delegation from several other tribes traveled all the way to New York City to try to plead with the masters of finance, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Chase, and Bank of America to abstain from funding oil development in their area. They went to look the bankers square in the eye and say, “Don’t do this. This is our territory. We can’t live in a contaminated oil zone.”
They said in no uncertain terms that they would not tolerate oil drilling and that any investors financing PetroPeru’s would pay the price in bad press. Their threat was simple: If you try to drill here you will be stopped, blockaded, and protested, and you will be lambasted with as much public shaming that these tribes were capable of. Bad PR for the banks is the Achuar’s trump card, and they wanted to let the financiers know that they would be held responsible in the media. So far Nelton’s strategy has been successful. He has fought off five different oil companies during his tenure as president, creating connections with sponsors, NGOs, lawyers, and allies local and far flung.
The strategy of shaming the financiers, governments, and citizens of wealthy countries has worked with varying degrees of success in the past, but stakes may be higher this time around. There is little in the activists’ warchest that seems to override the constant drumbeat of the oil supremacy of this moment. Blame the war in Ukraine, blame the United States’ constant penchant for bigger SUVs, or its total inability to envision carless cities and towns, blame the relative lack of media coverage, blame all of these ills put together. But Big Oil wants to drill and export no matter what the track record of consequences for the people in the Amazon or for the rest of the world. And if you happen to be in the way of what the oil industry wants, get ready for the battle of your life against the most wealthy and protected industry on the planet. From Peru to Brazil to Standing Rock, fighting for the forest can get you killed, or maimed, or branded a terrorist. And as we head into the mid-2020s the resources wars grow and grow, especially in Latin America, the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmentalist.
So far at least, it seems that banks are still afraid of bad PR and of the trillions of dollars pulled out of fossil fuels thanks to worldwide divestment campaigns. So yes, if you’re in the West and you have a Citibank or Wells Fargo bank account, be loud and proud when you tell them you’re taking your money out if they drill the Amazon.
The day after we return from Chuintar, the Achuar federation will pick a new president, or perhaps Nelton will run for re-election. Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen.
We get back late at night and the assembly is in a heated debate over education. The delegates from dozens of villages are speaking passionately one after the other on the floor of the main assembly hall. I feel like I am watching a great democracy in action. Real debate, real passion, deep dialogue, and transparency. The budgets are projected onto a screen behind the dais. The tribe’s business and relationships are all there for everyone to see. The debate rages deep into the night.
Every morning at 4 a.m. the Achuar men take part in a ritual purging. They drink an herbal brew that encourages them to throw up, cleansing their digestive tracts of parasites and other bodily and karmic ills. It’s a sacred time of communion and gathering, the time when they get together and discuss policy. It’s no different on the morning of the election. We meet with Nelton as he is preparing for the day, discussing policy with other delegates and painting his face. He seems primed to be re-elected. “Empathy is the greatest of all human qualities,” he says. “Empathy has to rule our world. Now. We are just trying to keep our territory pure, not contaminated any further by PetroPeru. We fish, we farm, we hunt. We live a peaceful life and balance with nature … “and we believe in democracy.”
Nelton describes this as a conflict that has gone on since the days of Columbus. “We are 7,000 years old as a nation. We existed before the Peruvian state, so as a people we have to have our own nation within the state. We have a totally different system than the Peruvian state — in health, in education, in the way we eat, grow food and live. Our land and our forest is our life. Everything we live by and everything we think about comes from the forest. This is our wealth. That is what we want to preserve and leave uncontaminated for future generations, it is the bounty that we received from our ancestors. The state has been hindering us. The state has been violating our rights. And we will do what we must for our territory.”
Later that day, at the assembly, Nelton’s re-election bid is challenged by another faction of the tribe. They are saying that the next president must come from a different part of the river which is dictated by a disputed passage in the constitution. It is clear that some members of the Achuar tribe feel adamant about this, and that the nation’s solidarity could splinter if Nelton is re-elected. Rather than create a crisis of legitimacy, Nelton stands down and doesn’t run for re-election. His peaceful abstention is a noble move and is accepted by the whole tribe. The election happens that night with incredible positivity and solidarity among the factions of the tribe. As an American that just lived through the 2020 election and its aftermath, it is a jaw-dropping and inspiring thing to witness. Ricardo leaps towards me and points at the assembly voting one by one: “This is true democracy.” The Achuar are unified to fight again. Nelton’s belief that solidarity and unity are greater than his own personal leadership is a remarkable display of restraint and a stark difference from the political crisis that is about to engulf all of Peru.
I reluctantly leave Achuar Territory. A part of me is left there.
LIMA, a city that could be anywhere in the world
Back in Lima, in the more affluent neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco there is an ease and an affluence in the air. Well-lit streets, glistening supermarkets, gourmet restaurants abound. Fancy-shmancy mixers for expats, tourists, and locals wanting to co-mingle with the international backpacking jet set are common.
I dropped in on a mixer, mostly to try the city’s famous Pisco sours and found, much to my gut-wrenching disappointment, many members of the Lima intelligentsia held what can only be described as totally fucked up ass backwards classist views of the indigenous people that made up so much of their country’s population.
“Oh the indigenous people in this country, they are just greedy. They block our mines left and right, but really they are just trying to get more money. ”
“We offer them development and they fuck it up over and over again.”
“Those tribes in the Amazon, those spills are all their fault. They cut the pipelines themselves, deliberately. To cause problems and then they try to squeeze money out of the oil companies.”
I stagger out of the bar reeling. I might have expected this kind of talk at CPAC, not at a Lima mixer full of Tinder dates.
My friend Dedeé, a radical Afro-indigenous artist, offers some context: “Miraflores is a gentrified bubble. So many people live here in this affluent neighborhood with tourists and shopping malls and great restaurants and they think that everything is OK.” She winces with a kind of regret and continues, “But in reality, the world outside of here has big problems. The poor are suffering greatly at the hands of industry in this country. But in the more affluent sections of Lima, it’s easy to not see it.”
It’s true, like everywhere else, development is a set of blinders, a refusal to acknowledge where resources actually come from-places that have been dominated and exploited. Even worse is that we are blind to what the system is building, truly ugly places of affluence. It’s happening all over the world, gentrification erases the truly unique. This system loves building gleaming, vapid, impersonal cities like they’re minting brand new airport terminals. Placeless trappings of the international globalized mega consumer empire. The nowhere-ville that sources shoes from Vietnam, phones from China, wine from California, Europe and Chile, shrimp from Thailand, capital from the mega banks, and, of course, oil from somewhere that is probably being decimated by it.
In the middle of this dismaying conversation, news comes over the phones. The president of Peru, Pedro Castillo, is trying to close the Congress. As a counter attack, the Congress has voted to impeach him. Fifteen minutes later, the president is arrested. Fifteen minutes after that, the new president is being sworn in. The government of Peru has once more gone up in flames. Five presidents in six years.
I call Ricardo for his hot take. “The president was trying to flee to the Mexican Embassy, but he didn’t even make it to Downtown Lima. It’s over. It’s being called the 20-minute coup. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But now we have to start all over again, all of our year and a half worth of negotiations with this government for the indigenous people, all wiped away.”
Five days later, it was clear that the indigenous people of the country, the poor campesinos and the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, were not going to wait for new negotiations and meetings. They were locking down the country, demanding new elections immediately. They are basically calling out the whole system, and asking for a restart of democracy. Close the Congress, shut it all down and let the people vote for an entirely new bunch.
OLLANTAYTAMBO — Fifth day of the lockdown, a week later
And that’s where I found myself trapped, locked in by what increasingly looks like a revolution. There is no sense of how long this is going to last, and at the time, I was getting increasingly worried at my lack of ability to deal with the altitude and no idea if I was actually going to make it home.
After Day 5 of being trapped in this tiny mountain I still can’t make it up the block without having to sit down. Huge trees and boulders block the main arteries all throughout the mountain, all the way to Cusco. Coco, feeling guilty for bringing me down there, has tried to reach me down in the valley but he texts me and says it’s impossible. “They threw rocks and oil at my car,” he writes. “There was 20 minutes of gunfire outside of my house when I got home.”
But getting to Cusco wouldn’t help me at all. Aside from being another dizzying 2,000 feet higher in elevation, if the airport is still shut down. I’ve been sent numerous videos of smoke and flames on the runways. One of the first things the protestors did was to set the tourism authority on fire and seize the airports in Cusco and Arequipa.
The protests in the main square of the Ollantaytambo happen daily. I go to observe, and sometimes to chant alongside them. They are demanding that the new president, Dina Boluarte, resign immediately, as well as that the Congress — who overwhelmingly support the kind of “development” that the urban elite are calling for — should be closed and new elections should happen immediately. Boluarte has become the ultimate symbol of the oligarchy who have long exploited the indigenous.
Boluarte responded by declaring martial law. Police and military cracked down, not just with rubber bullets and tear gas and mace, but with live rounds. Seven of the protestors were killed on the first day. The death toll from military violence has risen to more than 55. Now the protestors are calling Dina Boluarte Peru’s first female dictator. Protest signs that say “DINA ASESINA” (DINA THE MURDERER) are everywhere, a response to the dozens shot down in cold blood. With much of the news media influenced by the government, popular Instagram accounts like Wayka.pe detail the daily repression against the movement, a constant barrage of tear gas, stun grenades, military vehicles, shootings, and beatings.
And the pro-extraction government agenda has never been more clear. Boluarte has come down squarely on the side of increased extractivism, appointing a major leader of PetroPeru as her cabinet’s secretary of the ministry of energy. Her pro-business and extraction stance is at the top of the list of the grievances of the campesinos and indigenous tribes marching against her. “Food prices are sky high. So are prices for fertilizer,” says Leopoldo, a local Andean workers federation leader. “Now they want to come in and destroy our fields and farms with their mines. This is a struggle of the indigenous and the campesinos against the extractive companies.”
The battle lines are drawn. For the Andes and the Amazon — and for the whole Earth.
This type of injustice makes me sick. It’s in my blood. Love the people, hate the elites. Love the land, the mountains and the jungle. Love the chakras, the small farms that poor campesinos in the Andes tend and love the yucca and Sangre De Grado trees for herbal medicines. Love the mud under your toes, the mountain streams that sing the infinitely varied sounds of running water. Love the dancing, and the singing, and the total lack of an internet or cell phone signal way up the winding Pastaza river. We march for these things that we love.
And hate, with all your might, the oil companies, the mining companies that rape and despoil the land. Hate the chemical runoff from gold mines. The poisons that kill the land. Hate with all your might, the pipelines that burst in the Amazon, the pits filled with crude petroleum that destroy the streams and the land. The cancer that rots the people and steals their lives, their stories, their bones and blood. Hate the live rounds killing our brothers and sisters in the streets.
There are more than 3,000 species of fish in the Amazon, and yet, in Cunninico, the indigenous population there is eating canned tuna because their fisheries are contaminated, their culture degraded and blackened by decades of oil spills and neglect. We march against these things that we hate.
Indigenous people have been protecting 80 percent of all the biodiversity that’s left on Earth. In my lifetime alone, 70 percent of all wildlife has disappeared, paved over, extracted to extinction, ripped apart. It’s the indigenous that keep what’s remaining of the wild earth alive. It’s a war that’s been going on for 500 years, and if the indigenous people of this earth lose that war, we’re all fucked. This may just be the final chapter of a 500-year war of colonialism and extractivism and capitalism. If they lose the remaining battles, the climate tanks, ecosystems crash, and it becomes impossible for all of us.
My vacation doesn’t matter and neither does yours. We should be inconvenienced by this. Over and over. It is unfair that the lockdowns only happen in Peru. They should be happening everywhere in response to this crisis. Because that would look like justice.
This isn’t your Ayahuasca healing retreat. This isn’t your family vacay to Incan ruins. This is a 500-year war between “development” in the name of extractive mega corporations and the indigenous protectors of all life. Between neocolonialism and those who are protecting the forest and our future. And there is a constant war in what is left of the intact ecosystems of the world from the Amazon to the Congo to the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, to rob us of those territories, to rip to shreds and contaminate the last of the rainforest and the highlands, for the profits of the urban political and corporate elite.
A nationwide strike has been going on since January 4, with all protest organizations vowing to shut the whole country down. Ricardo leaves a message on my WhatsApp saying, “I hope it’s a big one.”
The Peruvian protestors remind us, the world economy is based on forms of resource extraction that are so brazenly unfair, destructive and contaminating that it is basically legal theft, or worse, genocide and annihilation.
But they hold the trump card. They know that this kind of unrest means it will be really hard for PetroPeru to court new investment to drill in the Amazon. They know the miners can’t get in through their blockades. So hell yeah. Shut the fucking roads down. Shut all of it down.
I am reminded of Nelton’s words about extractivists as he stepped down voluntarily to make way for democracy: “They call us poor. But they want what we have. We have a sustainable life. We are not poor. Our medicinal plants got us through covid, thanks to our ancient wisdom, to our medicinal plants that are only on our lands. And so we say to the people of the world — nature must be preserved, because it is life. We can see 500 years into the future.”
And to give this report its proper anticlimax, I will just say that on the seventh day, I magically found a way out. I got a tip from one of the protesters that I was interviewing that the roads would be open for two hours that evening. As usual, the only way out was through. As luck would have it, the airports reopened for a few days and I found the right local contact and bribed my way into the airport and I got out. No doubt my foreigner privilege didn’t hurt. And as my plane landed in Lima at sunset all the hardship and asphyxiation of a week of powerlessness vanished as sea-level oxygen flooded my thankful capillaries once more.
But I am not out of this and neither are you. None of us are.
The battles of the 21st Century, it turns out, are not much different than the battles of 500 years ago. But now, because of climate change, they involve all of us. Ricardo observes, “I think that’s what’s really interesting about climate change is that it really puts all of us, not in the same boat, but maybe in a more equal starting point.”
To view Peru’s current chaotic political morass without the history would be a mistake. And as the country heads towards further confrontation, it seems clear to me that this is the shape of things to come. That the system is breaking and there will be more and more of this kind of conflict, which is necessary, in my view, if we are going to survive the coming decades. Because the colonial world is still operating its power structure under a different name: development.
And to understand what is going on in Peru today means you have to have some kind of basic working knowledge of the horrors of the last 500 years of colonialism, genocide, theft of land and resources that characterize the last half millennia of history in the Western Hemisphere. And you have to feel it. It traps everything in our morality and puts the lie to the development that any comfortable person relies upon.
To view this struggle as separate from you would also be a mistake. When you use the fossil fuel extracted from the Amazon, when you burn the resources that someone was exploited, disenfranchised and displaced for, will you take action? Or will you conveniently believe that you have no stake in this? When you breathe in deeply, without getting dizzy or sick, will you understand that the oxygen making your brain work comes from these indigenous protesters who are being shot in the streets? Will you contribute your voice to the struggle that is giving you enough breath to speak?