The Indigenous mother

Flor de María points to the moment in her community’s history when there was a change in the roles of women. She proudly describes how they were the ones who protested when the first consequences of oil pollution became evident: respiratory diseases, skin infections, diarrhea and even spontaneous abortions. It was the women who organized themselves to establish dialogue with the government.

“My mother used to tell me that before, women had no presence at meetings and were not valued,” Flor de María says. “Because they were women, they did not have the right to have an opinion, go to a meeting or be authorities. Only the men got ahead.”

She says things are different now.

“We are no longer the silent women of before. We have told our reality: how we suffer from the damage to our water, to our food; because as women, as mothers, we have suffered from what we have to feed our children.”

Flor de María’s role in leadership stems from an innate talent, forged over many years. From the age of 17 she was trained in the parish of Santa Rita de Castilla, a Catholic mission an hour from the community that trained women and men from Cuninico in health issues. She recalls that the nuns were decisive in her life to recognize her rights as a woman and shape her political role.

Months after the oil spill, Flor de María was designated as Cuninico’s “Indigenous Mother,” a position that highlights the role of a woman who fights for the human rights of her community. The Indigenous Mother has the same decision-making power as the apu, the leader elected by the community.

In Cuninico, in short, Flor de María’s word is the law.

Flor de María became known on the public stage in 2016, when she brought a bottle of contaminated river water to the hearing held by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Chile. Photo: Sophie Pinchetti / Chaikuni Institute.

An example of her tenacity was on display in Chile in 2016, during a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) dealing with the case of the Cuninico oil spill. When she spoke, Flor de María explained that, after the spill in her community, she had to drink rainwater due to the contamination of the water sources. She also warned about diseases in children and adults, and a lack of food.

At one point she held up a plastic bottle containing oil-contaminated water before the rights the commissioners.

“This type of water runs down our stream,” she stated. “This is water that we cannot drink. Why do we have plenty of water if we can’t drink it?”

At that meeting, attended also by Germán Velásquez, Petroperú’s president at the time, Flor de María reported that some children worked to clean up the spill without protection. Petroperú denied hiring children for cleanup work.

“Dogs do not smell pollution, only meat,” Flor de María jokes when she remembers how she got the bottle of water to the hearing in Chile without being detected by airport security. “It was necessary to take it to teach them what type of water passes through our body,” she says now. She recalls the indignation of some IACHR members. Thanks to her efforts, in 2017 the commission strongly recommended that the Peruvian government attend to Cuninico and three other communities affected by the spill.

To get to Cuninico you have to travel at least two days from Lima. The closest town is Nauta, eight hours away on a speed boat. Photo: María Eugenia Ulfe.

Three groups for all voices

The spilling of crude oil into the waterways and land around Cuninico impacted every aspect of community life: from its food systems, to its economy, health, and education. Out of these tragedies, Flor de María says the courage of residents was revived. Women, in particular.

“The courage of the women of Cuninico has inspired everyone, those who live here as well as those who came from far away,” she says.

This need to speak and be represented led several women to organize around a clear political agenda, which helped them establish a presence before the government. These efforts led to the establishment of not one, but three, grassroots organizations in response to the spill. They include the Organization of Indigenous Women of the Marañón (Ordemim), the Organization of Native Women of the Marañón (Orgamunama) and the Association of Indigenous Women (Admic).

Every group has leaders, all women, from Cuninico.

Agnita Saboya Vásquez, 38, is president of Ordemim, created in 2017, three years after the Cuninico spill. Agnita Saboya says the needs of communities impacted by the spill drove the birth of her organization. Thanks to Ordemim, action items were established to be carried out by the executive branch and other government institutions as part of a larger agenda.

“Before the spill, we did not go to meetings and we were afraid to assume a position, we were afraid to speak, we were discriminated against, violated,” Agnita Saboya says. “Do you know what men said to us when we wanted to talk? Go give your opinion to your kitchen! But after the spill, when the apu Galo Vásquez” — the former communal leader of Cuninico — “took office, he told us not to be afraid, that we were going to be heard. This is how we are encouraged to take on a position.”

Agnita Saboya had already been president of community work with other women and children, including the educational center. A busy mother of five, she divides her time between her hectic home life and her duties as a leader. This is not something she regards as a hindrance. She says she’s convinced that the responsibility that Indigenous women have in their communities provides them with the privileged perspective to guide the urgent demands of the population.

“In all my meetings I always tell them that if I had known what consequences oil would bring to the community, I would have done more. Now we want remediation to have a decent and healthy life for our children,” Agnita Saboya says.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which in Peru began in March, took Agnita Saboya by surprise while she was in Iquitos, the Loreto region’s capital, along with her children, while coordinating Ordemim’s work. A few weeks later she contracted the virus and since then has had to remain in Loreto. Although she has still not fully recovered and speaks with difficulty, Agnita Saboya maintains contact with more than 100 women from Cuninico, including from the communities of San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Alianza and Chanchamayo in Urarinas.

Personal decisions over community battles

There are many leaders among the women of this land.

The river is a vital element for the community. When it was contaminated by oil, it meant a radical change in their customs. Photo: Sophie Pinchetti / Chaikuni Institute.

“I have made the decision to fight, to defend the needs of my people and the rights of children so that they have a good education and a good way of life. Whatever it costs me,” says Sara Vásquez, 53, the first president of the Organization of Native Women of Marañón (Orgamunama). It was also formed in 2017.

She says that, after the spill, one of the most dramatic changes in Cuninico was the loss of food security, including damage to local fisheries and crops, the traditional source of subsistence of the Kukama Kukamiria people.

Since 2017, the women have managed to open up a space to be heard through Orgamunama. They have even managed to make their organization part of the working groups with the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (PCM) and other ministries, Sara says.

“We started with 50 members and we registered with the National Superintendence of Public Registries [Sunarp],” she says. “After that, I formed bases for the organization in nearby villages, and now there are 500 women from 24 communities working in the organization.” She adds that they work on corn and rice cultivation, as well as in productive development projects, making handicrafts and fabrics.

Sara says that at first there was a lot of resistance from the men in the community. In Cuninico, as in most Indigenous communities in the Amazon, the role of women is typically limited to the domestic sphere. But the culture of machismo, which relegates women to the role of taking care of the home, has begun to be dismantled as more women demand to have the same rights to participate in leadership.

Sara Vásquez is 53 years old and was one of the creators of the Organization of Native Women of Marañón (Orgamunama). It is one of the three women’s organizations that was born after the 2014 spill. Photo courtesy Sara Vásquez.

Talita Paraná, 53, is another of the leaders and protagonists in Cuninico. She has been president of the Cuninico Indigenous Women’s Association (Admic) since 2018. Twenty years ago, she recalls, the nuns of the Santa Rita de Castilla parish had already warned them about the risk of living near the ONP due to a possible spill.

That is why, she says, she knew about the danger of oil contamination. It was one of the reasons they insisted that the National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health (Censopas) and the Regional Health Directorate (Diresa) of Loreto carry out medical examinations on the population. In 2016, studies confirmed that some residents of Cuninico population had high levels of heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium in their bodies.

“Since the spill, there are people here who have throat problems, who are underweight and we have tested positive for heavy metals,” Paraná says.

She adds that the women of the community have suffered particularly severe consequences. For one, there was an increase in alcohol consumption among men that led to more cases of family violence, she says.

“I do not have higher education, but I do have the directive to help my people,” Paraná says. “I want women to have confidence that they can work the same as men, under the same conditions.”

Telling their own stories

Last year, a team from the social sciences department of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), led by anthropologist María Eugenia Ulfe, traveled to Cuninico to document the government’s relationship with the community by way of the contamination produced by the oil spill.

Roxana Vergara, a member of this team, is a lawyer and graduate of the PUCP’s postgraduate program in anthropology. She wrote her master’s thesis on women’s organizations created in Cuninico. She describes how, starting with the 2014 spill, the women of the community managed to consolidate the leadership that was already being formed at the level of public health and parenting initiatives stemming from training given by the Santa Rita de Castilla mission.

Thanks to the three organizations, a stronger leadership role was promoted among these women. There’s also been a diversification of their demands for productive projects, advocacy for the development of public policies, and also a presence in judicial processes, through legal support with the Institute of Legal Defense (IDL) and the Vicariate of Iquitos.

The women of Cuninico had all their livelihoods affected, including their medicinal plants, the basis of their medicine. Photo: Roxana Vergara.

“Women are beginning to enter organizations, they are gaining attention and gaining more security and awareness of the rights they have,” Vergara says. “When the spill occurred, they started the claims in the Cuninico square for the feeding of their children, water, the treatment of diseases and even the safety of the men’s work. They did it for many months and even confronted the Petroperú officials.”

They also came out with a podcast called “Our stories from Cuninico,” where Indigenous women and men relate, in first person, their daily life marked by the oil spill and now by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The podcast is intended for them to talk about the needs that affect them and how they cope with adverse scenarios. The episodes usually start with the women’s stories and the men also contributing. The three episodes they have produced so far feature Flor de María Paraná, Agnita Saboya, Talita Paraná, Lidia Guerra, Natalia Teagua and Marita Salinas.

Ulfe, the PUCP professor and anthropologist, says her team’s interest has always been to work with the women of Cuninico. This is because they are in charge of caring for the family, now in a contaminated environment. They are also in charge of getting the water, a task that has been complicated because they now have to travel longer distances due to the oil pollution.

“It is important to rescue part of this history: the relationship of the communities with the church, through the Santa Rita de Castilla parish; the entry of the Augustinian fathers in the ’70s was vital to train promoters,” Ulfe says. “There is a formation of many years that the spill activated and that produced these leaders.”

Alicia Abanto, the deputy for the environment, public services and Indigenous peoples at the office of Peru’s Ombudsperson, tells Mongabay Latam that oil spills exacerbate an existing challenge in many Indigenous communities: deep inequality between men and women. “The lack of safe water or food that families suffer affects women more. They are the ones that have a greater psychological burden, because they are rooted in their role to provide food for their family and not just any food but to provide a good life to the community,” Abanto says.

She says that when an oil spill occurs, there are not only environmental consequences, but also social problems, with a heavier presence of outsiders entering Indigenous communities. This has a social impact through increased alcohol abuse, which can lead to sexual assaults against women and minors.

“Women must be supported, accompanied and the importance of their voices noted,” Abanto says. “Obviously, this does not release from responsibility the actors who must contribute to reparation, such as the state and the company, but the role of the community is key to rebuilding itself. It is essential that a community give women a voice so that they can exercise their leadership role.”

The oil spill not only affected the Cuninico community, but others along the Marañón River. Photo: Sophie Pinchetti / Chaikuni Institute.

The legal earrings

Juan Carlos Ruiz Molleda, an IDL lawyer and adviser to the Cuninico, Nueva Esperanza, Nueva Santa Rosa and San Francisco communities impacted by the 2014 spill, tells Mongabay Latam that, after a long legal battle, in September 2019, the Loreto regional government approved the first health plan to address the fallout of the disaster. Over the course of three years, the government plans to implement nearly $700,000 in health measures for the four communities.

“The health plan was announced at the hearing to follow up on the execution of the court order, in August 2019, and sets a very important precedent,” Ruiz says. “In January and February of this year, the order was to have been carried out, but due to the beginning of the pandemic, the Loreto regional health directorate argued that it was overwhelmed. Two or three weeks ago we met and decided to return to the subject.”

He says the plan calls for epidemiological and health surveys in the native communities of Cuninico, Nueva Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Nueva Esperanza through 2021, paid for entirely by the 10% in oil royalties that the Loreto government receives annually and that must be invested in the communities by law.

“Because the Loreto authorities said they had no funds to execute the plan, the judge ordered that the money come out of the royalty funds,” Ruiz says.

The women of Cuninico organized and met with the team from the Social Sciences department of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Together they created the podcast Our Stories from Cuninico. Photo: Roxana Vergara.

When it comes to oil spills, Petroperú has tended to blame them on sabotage. But in the case of Cuninico, the evidence provided by the Energy and Mining Investment Supervisory Agency (Osinergmin) led the Environmental Assessment and Enforcement Agency (OEFA) to determine that there was negligence on the part of the operator, due to the lack of maintenance of the pipelines, and that, therefore, an administrative sanction was warranted.

In February 2018, a court in Loreto upheld an earlier ruling ordering the Ministry of Health, through its General Directorate of Epidemiology, to design and implement an emergency public health strategy, including reestablishing a program of medical care and conducting environmental and sanitary epidemiological surveys in the population to understand how it has been affected by the oil spill within a period of 30 days.

Ruiz noted the role of the Indigenous mothers and women of Cuninico and the other communities in the legal proceedings: their testimonies and follow-up of the issue, done for the good of the community, have been among of the most decisive things to influence the course of justice that they hope will finally be theirs.

“Now we feel more strengthened not only as leaders, but as people,” says Sara Vásquez from Orgamunama.

Amid the chaos of the oil spill, the women of Cuninico have found their rights and their voices — and that’s something that cannot be undone.

Hear more via Mongabay’s podcast: “In the Amazon, women are key to forest conservation” here:

Banner image: Original illustration of Indigenous leaders of Cuninico as created by Los Angeles-based artist Marlene Solorio for Mongabay. (l-r) Talita Parana, Sara Vasquez, Flor de María Parana, and Agnita Saboya. You can find out more about the artist on Instagram at @m2rl3n3.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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