Cocamas Unify in “Defense of Territory, Life, Culture and the Environment”

A visit this week to the riverside community of 2 de Mayo for a morning minga, or communal work party, found people there talking about how important such traditional community events are for strengthening identity and unity. People also said the community remained energized by another series of gatherings built around the Cocama Association of Development and Conservation San Pablo de Tipischa – ACODECOSPAT – which recently held its 10th Congress in 2 de Mayo.  The Oct 21-22 congress was attended by representatives from 53 communities of the 57 communities that now form part of the Association, which was a great showing considering the long distances traveled by cash-poor people who had to pull together the money on their own to buy the fuel to arrive in 2 de Mayo for the Congress.

The theme of the Congress this year was “For the Defense of Territory, Life, Culture and the Environment,” and indeed this theme served as the focus of the presentations of the many federation leaders and guest speakers.

On the first day, federation president Alfonso Lopez Tejada presented on the many milestones for the federation this year, including:  the February meeting in Solterito that kick- started the federation’s re-solidification efforts and reaffirmed plans to denounce oil contamination;  advances on legalizing the books and leadership boards of all of the base communities of the federation, which is a necessary part of the process to join a legal complaint denouncing the June 2010 oil spill by Argentinean driller Pluspetrol near Saramuro; the appeal of this complaint having to do with the June 2010 spill in the penal system after it was tabled by a judge a couple of months ago; and the federation assembly in Iquitos in early July, where the community leaders (apus) elected the new leadership board for the federation, met with the notary to legalize their books, and participated in a public forum about indigenous territory and oil activities (all of which was supported by Alianza Arkana).

Alfonso also spoke of the exciting new efforts at coordination between ACODECOSPAT and three other indigenous federations including FEDIQUEP (Quechua from Pastaza), FECONAT (Kichwa from Alto Tigre), and FECONACO (Achuar from Corrientes) under the guise of “PUINAMUDT” – the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples United in Defense of their Territories.  As part of PUINAMUDT, they developed an agenda in June, and then went on to present that agenda in September. Alfonso noted with a mix of pride and humility, for example, of the time that the delegation of indigenous federation leaders went to speak at the Congressional Commission on Andean and Amazonian peoples, Afro-Peruvians, Environment and Ecology, and how each of the five federation leaders were given three minutes each to present, yet instead of each presenting individually, the other leaders all allotted their time to Alfonso so that he could speak a full 15 minutes about their concerns and requests.  He noted that this was a big responsibility (“una carga muy grande”), but that he took the opportunity to discuss the issue of contamination, and to call for the formation of a high level multi-sector commission to visit the zone and investigate the impacts from 40 years of extraction in this region – requests that continued to be followed up today by the federation leaders, congress people in the aforementioned Congressional commission, as well as officials in the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

Finally, Alfonso also spoke about his July trip to Ecuador (which was also funded in part by Alianza Arkana).  He spoke about the permanent oil spills in those bodies of water and massive contamination, yet also the strength of the indigenous movement resisting new oil concessions, and how in one situation a single community (Sarayaku) was able to shut down an oil well – a feat that he emphasized has never been accomplished in Peru – neither by a single community, nor through the efforts of many communities.

Alfonso’s key message and refrain throughout was that “we are advancing” (“estamos avanzando”).

Following Alfonso’s opening speech were then a long series of interventions that reinforced the need to unify in order to defend their territory, life, culture and environment.  For example, the apu from Victor Raul relayed the classic story of how it is easy to break one stick, but difficult to break a bunch of sticks, and noted that even in Nahuapa, which many people consider to be pristine and far from oil, that the fish taste of petrol and water contamination comes in from Tigre when the water is high.  A leader from the community of Belo Horizonte also spoke out against water contamination, noting that fish do not live in just one lake or river – just like us they move around, and just like us they are contaminated (“peje no vive en solamente una cocha o un rio.  Igual que nosotros.  Vivimos andando y andando contaminado.”).  Finally, the apu from Tarapaca affirmed:  “we will be fighting united with you – for defense of territory, life, culture and the environment.  We are beginning to unite with more force and we can achieve that what we seek.  I’m not separate from you all – every day I’m closer to your side.  I’m going to fight for you all because we are a family.  We can unite to struggle against the oil company – just as they have power, so do we.”

The first day of the Congress ended with group work to prepare their agenda for dialogue with government officials at the local, regional and national levels.  On the second day, the group work was presented to the plenary, with time following each presentation for additional comments and additions.  The local group was largely focused on the issue of education and healthcare – with clear deficiencies pointed out in both and calls for solutions.  The regional group also discussed needs for improvement in education and health care, while also raising additional issues, such as the need for improvements in land titling – the need to title indigenous territories that still do not have title and to amplify territories for communities that have title, which may mean modifying the Law for Natural Protected Areas so that communities may receive land titles even within national parks like Pacaya Samiria. The national group raised even more issues to be tackled, such as the need for regulation of the consultation law (developed in participation with AIDESEP and ACODECOSPAT, among others), a call for national support for the formation of bilingual teachers, and finally that the government assures that the water of the rivers are apt for human consumption, which also requires that a series of analyses be carried out to test the water and human health in the zone.  These series of demands were then written up in letters, drawing on the support of technical allies, signed by apus of each community, and will be delivered to government officials at the local, regional and national levels.

In the afternoon of the second day, the floor was opened up to guest speakers, including a lawyer and anthropologist from the non-governmental organization, CAAAP (the Amazonian Center for Anthropology and Practical Application; Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica), speaking about the newly passed Consultation law, among other things;  a priest from Santa Rita de Castilla who focused his presentation on threats stemming from IIRSA – an initiative to integrate infrastructure at the regional level that according to him is driven by big interests and big business; a judge from Nauta speaking about indigenous administration of justice; and the governor of Loreto.  The presentations by these various guest speakers were often thought-provoking, and, furthermore, their presence served as an indicator of how people from outside of the federation also viewed the Congress with importance.  For example, the governor of Loreto noted that he had been in office for less than 24 hours, so it was telling that he chose this as one of the first actions of his administration, and that he spoke highly of Alfonso and his role not only for the federation, but also for the region.

On the whole, the Congress can be considered a success, especially for the work it accomplished toward continuing to unify and fortify the federation, which just a year ago was vulnerable for dissolution.  They also came away from the Congress with letters directed to policy makers at the local, regional and national levels, based directly off of the concerns and demands of the community leaders themselves, which indicates that the Congress was not only a step forward, but also has helped to set the priorities and activities for the coming year.

Deborah Rivett, Saturday, 03 December 2011

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