Advice | A River’s Rights: Kukama Indigenous Women Lead the Way with Historic Legal Victory

Here’s one of the most powerful pieces of good news you probably missed this year: A group of indigenous women in Peru succeeded in winning the legal right to integrity and protection of the Marañón River, a sacred waterway that flows from the Andes to the Amazon. to apply. This is an important victory for the conservation of nature, water, forests and biodiversity; in other words: life itself. It is also a big step forward in the fight against climate change and for the rights of nature, both topics debated last week on the 11th. Pan-Amazon Social Forum in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia.

The female warriors behind it this legal victory– the second of its kind in Latin America after the case of the Atrato River in Colombia– come from the Huaynakana Kamatahuara Kana, a Kukama women’s federation in the lower Marañón River basin.

108 oil spills in 40 years

The Federation began its struggle in 2021, when Kukama women from 29 communities, led by Mari Luz Canaquiri, filed an injunction against Petroperú (a Peruvian state oil company), the Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies. The women were outraged by the way the ecosystems of their rivers, forests and sacred plants were being poisoned and systematically destroyed by more than forty years of oil spills. According to an article published by the Citizen movement against climate change (MOCICC, in Spanish), at least 108 oil spills have occurred along the route of the North Peruvian Oil Pipeline (ONP) since its creation in 1977, with little to no reaction or outcry from national and international opinion. These spills are ecocidal, and yet the Peruvian state has thus far enjoyed near-total impunity from the consequences.

The most scandalous aspect of this fact is that ONP violates the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as enshrined in ILO Convention 169, nor has it implemented environmental protection measures and proper maintenance of the pipeline. Only meIn 2014, due to a major break in one of the pipelines the Kukama became aware of the impending danger that the oil spill would flood their forest ecosystems and water bodies. Since then, they, especially the residents of the community of Cuninico, have been forced to consume this polluted water, with serious consequences for women’s reproductive health (with an increase in the number of miscarriages) and general immune, respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. . Even now, due to the permanent pollution of the Marañón, fish and other river species essential to the livelihoods of local communities are disappearing.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian state has not bothered to provide these communities with even basic services such as drinking water or health care. Health problems among indigenous peoples still remain unresolved, while staggering profits from the sale of crude oil are reaped by a few foreign companies. This includes Pluspetrol, with Argentinian capital, in lot 8; the French Perenco, in lots 67 and 39; and Frontera Energy in lot 192 (ex1Ab) and PetroTal in lot 95 of Canadian capital.

“In our culture, the Marañón River is a living being”

After years of struggle, Kukama’s women leaders succeeded in getting Judge Corely Armas Chapiama, of the Joint Court of Nauta-Loreto, to rule in favor of their demands in March 2024. It was so clear that more than four decades of oil spills devastated the livelihoods of the Amazon communities living along the tributaries of the Marañon River. In the words of one of the women leaders, Emilsen Flores: “When spills happen, our forests are polluted, our plants and the space (territory) we live in are polluted. The spills threaten to kill our fish, our fauna, our flora (…) Our health is at risk, our education and everything related to food, because the food is contaminated.” In court, Emilsen was also the voice of her living and sacred river. As the words of leader Mariluz Canaquiri of the Shapajilla Native Community make clear: “in our culture, the Marañón River is a living being. The Kukama have a close bond with the rivers, that is where the Purahua lives, the largest boa in the Amazon, which for us is the mother of the rivers. For the Kukama people, the river is the heart of life, pumping blood to the entire body.”

The ‘voice’ of the river

Since the establishment of the colony in Peru until almost the 1970s, public spaces such as courts have mainly privileged and listened to the voices of men, generally white, with formal education. Women’s voices were considered ‘gossip’ because they were deemed incapable of testifying rationally and coherently. Women were even excluded from access to legal proceedings and trials. When called to testify as witnesses, the testimony of three women together was considered equivalent to the testimony of one man (see Vera Delgado 2011, p. 54).

This makes the facts of the ruling of the Joint Court of Nauta on November 12, 2023 almost transcendent; a female judge of indigenous descent, who listened attentively not only to the testimonies of the Kukama leaders, but also – through the leaders – to the ‘voice’ of a vital and animated entity, the Marañón River and its tributaries. Judge C. Armas Chapiama understood that not only the rights to a healthy and fair livelihood of local communities are being violated by the oil companies, but also the inherent right to life of the Marañon River. These rights include the right to flow freely and without contamination to ensure healthy forest ecosystems, water resources and biodiversity; the right to feed and be fed by its tributaries; the right to be protected, preserved and restored; and the right to the restoration of its natural cycles.

No reparations or compensation

Although Judge Armas Chicama ordered ONP authorities to update their environmental management instruments and respect the FPIC, she did not rule on paying reparations to the total of 69 communities affected by the oil spills for more than 40 years. Nevertheless, it is expected that ONP authorities will comply with the court ruling, as similar rulings and subsequent implementation in the Amazon countries have followed not only the letter of the law, but also its spirit.

The victory of the Kukama sisters is of enormous significance for the country, as it provides monumental inspiration for the struggle of the Amazon peoples against the many extractive activities that are destroying their territories. For example, on April 22, 2024, the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation mobilized for the first time in rejection of illegal mining and logging encroaching on their territory, activities endorsed by the current Peruvian government. In this context, the commercialization of indigenous peoples’ forest lands has become a daily practice, with various consequences for the local population, especially for women in all their diversity and for young people.

It is also important to note that years of abuse and violations of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon by the oil industry, including assassinations of indigenous leaders, have so far gone unpunished.

Because this is not enough, the Peruvian government approved it in January 2024 Law 31973a change of Forestry Act No. 29763 – the new law is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, opening the door to, among other things, intensive livestock farming, monoculture plantations of oil palms and genetically modified soybeans; which is promoted by large corporations and conservative religious organizations such as the Mennonites.

The fight for justice continues

Amazonian peoples’ organizations and environmental and human rights defenders have stood their ground massive national mobilizations against Law 31973. Under the motto “La selva no se vende, se defiende“, (“The jungle is not for sale”, a well-known slogan that appeared in one of the first indigenous struggles against oil in 2009, known as Baguazo) Peruvians are keep on fighting for the repeal of this harmful law that threatens the Amazon ecosystems. However, the members of Congress who promoted Act 31973 are not only turning a deaf ear to the people’s demands, but are also – allegedly – trumpeting the benefits of the new law small and medium-sized illegal agricultural activities.

While the assassinations of indigenous leaders and defenders of the Amazon go unpunished and invisible, entire ecosystems of our forests are being cut down and destroyed, water sources are being polluted and biodiversity is being preyed upon, according to the UN organization Green Climate Fund spends nearly $200 million on monocultures of palm oil, cocoa and rubber, and on unsustainable industrial livestock farming in places like the Amazon. Agribusiness giants such as Brazil’s food processing company Marfrig, which has been linked to illegal logging, livestock “laundering” and extensive deforestation for monoculture oil palm plantations, are the main beneficiaries of these policies.

Legal victories like the Kukama women’s successful fight to defend the Marañón River are rare. This is because transnational corporations are given power and are protected by legislation such as the Peruvian “Anti-Forestry” Law 31973. In fact, powerful groups that exert influence in the current Peruvian government are already trying to overturn the historic ruling, arguing that an anthropocentric view is a fundamental principle of the Peruvian Constitutionand that the rights of nature have no value.

In the face of these monumental challenges, the world’s ecofeminist, environmental and climate justice movements must unite so that the grassroots struggles like those of our Kukama sisters continue and do not disappear.