The Price of Profits

The Initiative for the Regional Integration of Infrastructure in South America is the latest and largest in a series of bank-financed schemes to bring "development" to the Amazon Basin—and more trouble to the region's indigenous communities.

Launched in 2000 by all 12 South American governments with funding from major international finance institutions, the Initiative for the Regional Integration of Infrastructure in South America (IIRS) is a development scheme of biblical proportions. It includes almost 350 major projects, including highways, dams, pipelines, and ports. The cumulative effect of these projects will be opening up new areas of the Amazon Basin to large-scale, export- oriented agriculture and energy extraction.

That, of course, is exactly why the governments want to pursue these projects, but for indigenous peoples of the region, these kinds of infrastructure megaprojects in the Amazon Basin have always led to poverty, displacement, exposure to diseases, cultural erosion, physical threats, and violent conflicts.

To get a sense of how indigenous peoples feel about these projects, I spoke with indigenous representatives in Peru and Brazil about the Interoceanica Sur Highway and the Madeira Hidrovia Complex waterway project. Their comments appear below.

The Interoceanica Sur highway in Madre de Dios, Peru, is one of the 31 first-stage IIRSA projects that are programmed for completion by the year 2010. The road is financed by the Andean Development Corporation, the Brazilian National Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Peruvian government and is currently under construction. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the entire Peruvian Amazon is now opened to bidding from oil companies around the world, including Hunt Oil of Texas, which has acquired the concession for block 76, almost entirely superimposed upon the recently created Reserva Comunal Amarakaeri, which is an indigenous reserve.

In an interview in Puerto Maldonado, Julio Cusurichi, the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize winner and representative of the Federación Nativa de Madre de Dios (FENAMAD), told of the impacts of IIRSA’s Interoceanica Sur highway, expansion of agribusiness, and increased oil extraction for the indigenous peoples of the Madre de Dios region of Peru.

Zachary Hurwitz: Julio, talk to me about the Interoceanica Highway. How is it going to affect the indigenous peoples of the province of Madre de Dios?

Julio Cusurichi: The issue of the Interoceanica for indigenous people is going to be a threat more than a benefit, because the Interoceanica cannot be separated from its larger context, which is IIRSA. And IIRSA contains projects for the entire Amazon basin. But the Interoceanica particularly worries us as indigenous people. One problem is that the regional populations are simply uninformed about the projects. Very few people have any idea of the effects that this Interoceanica highway is going to bring.

One important point is the matter of legal security of indigenous territories. If we don’t guarantee juridical security for our lands, we will be exposed to large waves of migration that will enter through this road with the objective of obtaining lands. So if our regional and national governments don’t have a vision of how to guarantee the rights of the territories of indigenous people, we’re going to have a serious threat.

The other important point is environmental impacts. We have learned that in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Interoceanica, only a few areas are considered. They’ve created a barrier of 1.8 miles from the road to prevent environmental impacts, but the impacts won’t be felt only in those 1.8 miles. Environmental impacts are felt at a regional level. We’re very worried about this matter.

If this highway project doesn’t come with other packages to minimize its impacts, then we’re looking at a much larger problem. The ecological-economic zonification of Madre de Dios hasn’t been finished. In terms of agriculture, specifically cattle ranching, a lot of people have already acquired land titles. If the remaining land titles are not dealt with, it’s going to be very worrisome. We at FENAMAD have led the discussion and debate on this issue, and now there is an alliance of federations here in Madre de Dios that is working to present our observations on the Environmental Impact Assessment. The minister of transport gave us a 15-day period, and in this period we presented a technical report making observations on the impact of the highway. We hope that our observations will be incorporated into the EIA for the benefit of the region.

The Interoceanica project is going to benefit large agricultural interests, not local populations. Local populations are not prepared economically to benefit from the highway, and there’s been no interest from the national or regional government to give us at least a few incentives to prepare us for the highway. If the government doesn’t promote a sustainable vision for our region, what we’re going to see are large trucks passing through here, big businesses from the Brazilian side. There they have a broad vision of expanding spaces for soy cultivation, which is going to affect indigenous peoples, riverside communities, and rural communities. So this is only a capitalistic vision, not a vision that will help the poor populations of our country.

Which indigenous peoples have not yet had their territories demarcated?

For example, the Masenawa from Puerto Azul have not had their lands demarcated yet, and some extensions of territories are still pending, including those of the Arasaire, Diamante, Boca Inambari, and Pilar. We need to focus first on these land titles and then work on other matters if we can. If we don’t guarantee security for indigenous peoples in the law, it will cause a big problem, because in the occidental vision land titles that were issued earlier are calculated to be very small. They didn’t include the integrity of the territory, they didn’t include even where we hunted, the land we used in our daily activities. They would say to us, “Let’s see, there are 40 ‘indios’ here, multiplied by 20 hectares,” and get the total from that. The first land titles did not originate from an indigenous vision. Only the most recent land titles have improved because we’ve pushed for a vision of territory that’s integral.

Explain to me Peruvian president Alan Garcia’s new law of colonization of the Amazon.

We’ve been informed that there is a new proposal for an executive law that would allow the government to begin a colonization project with agricultural and industrial ends. For the Amazon, this is a threat, because we already live here, we already exist here, so what lands are they going to colonize? This could mean land invasions, conflicts between agricultural interests and indigenous people, so this proposal for new law worries us, and we’ve rejected it through the Alliance of Federations here in Madre de Dios. Surely it’s another indication that Alan Garcia is seeking to secure large territories for the benefit of some investors. If this is the case, it worries us very much, and I think that Alan Garcia is going to have a response from organized civil society, that says that we want to do things how we see them, not how he sees them. I think this will help Alan Garcia to reorient his policies to respond not to large business interests but to the populations that elected him.

Are you worried that if and when the Interoceanica is completed, soy production will begin to invade Madre de Dios?

Not only will soy invade, there will also be a lot of migration. Through the highway, all of a sudden we’re going to see a lot of investors enter and buy up a lot of territory, a lot of agricultural zones. We’re going to come to a point where we depend on one large landowner who has a lot of hectares, and we won’t have any alternatives to offer. What will happen is that we’ll fall into the hands of the investors. Many small farmers, castañeros [Brazil-nut gatherers], small loggers, are going to lose their rights, because they won’t be able to offer products or negotiate, and this will cause chaos. The regional government isn’t taking this into account, and they don’t have any vision of how this highway will benefit the communities through sustainable activities, for example ecotourism. We cannot compete with Brazil’s economic industries. We’re already working in ecotourism in some native communities here in Madre de Dios. So the question is how to reinforce these initiatives, how to transform some specific products to add value. We have forest resources; are we going to sell raw timber, or should we put a factory here to add value, search for international markets, and not fall into the same old patterns?

We should already be debating this, but the regional governments are asleep. Social organizations are knocking on their door so they can at least wake up and see how to really get a regional economy going here in Madre de Dios.

So the Interoceanica highway may bring benefits?

Yes, if it comes with other social packages, as I mentioned. But if the Interoceanica comes on its own, and the population can’t discuss it, debate it, and propose some economic steps that are more in accord with our reality, it’s going to be more harmful for us. But if there is a desire to discuss which activities should be promoted, if there are resources to assure legal security for indigenous lands, and to mitigate environmental impacts, so that we as social organizations can monitor the environmental impacts, then yes. So with this active participation in the affected zones, I think we can at least mitigate the impacts of the highway. The project was created from above, it’s being carried out as a national policy; and if it’s carried out without considering all of the points I’ve indicated to you, 10 years from now we’ll be talking about very great chaos, and I hope to be alive to show you what’s happened. I think at least my people will still exist, and we will always be adding these matters into the debate.

How Can You Celebrate on the Land Where Your Relatives are Buried?

The Madeira Hidrovia Complex is one of the most controversial projects included in the Initiative for the Regional Integration of Infrastructure of South America. The Hidrovia plans include the construction of five hydroelectric dams (two in Bolivia and three in Brazil) along the Madeira river, to facilitate transporting soy from the southern city of Porto Velho to Manaus for export.

For the Parintintin of western Brazil, who depend on the river for their livelihood and culture, the hydroelectric dams proposed by the Madeira complex are a serious threat. As cacique (chief) Domingos Parintintin points out, mining and logging already exert tremendous pressure on their territory. Hydroelectric dams would offer even more pressure, cutting river water levels, which would threaten the availability and health of fish, as well as the Parintintin agricultural plots, which depend on the river’s natural cycles of flooding to restore soil fertility. There would also be increased competition for land and resources, as migrants move in to work in construction and agriculture. Here, Domingos discusses the challenges the Parintintin face.

For our people, the drought of 2005 exacerbated the contamination here in the Madeira River region. Most times we don’t know what contaminants are dumped in the river, and Brazilian citizens don’t know anything about this. We see mining a lot, and Amazônia is drying up. We saw 50 tons of fish die in the Madeira in 2005. And we need to fish in order to live. Today the question of mining affects everyone. For the cities that like to eat fish, it comes down to this: mining will make them unable to eat fish. It doesn’t cause problems only for us, but for all the Brazilians who live off of this fish.

There are also a lot of illegal loggers. Two years ago many loggers came from the Trans-Amazon Highway; there were 10 or 20 trucks transporting wood night and day. And this even after prosecution from IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Renewable Resources] and from the federal government. Here in Amazônia, we see that this doesn’t matter; IBAMA’s presence is very thin. They need to improve, a lot, because if it keeps going this way, in a couple of years, our people are not going to have any more nature, we’re not going to see any more forest, only destroyed land. If there is standing forest, it will be because of indigenous people, because we preserve our lands. Even so, in our way of thinking, in the future we’re going to have problems because people want to invade our land, and how are we going to accept that?

Land Preservation

We’re better off than other indigenous peoples because we have officially demarcated indigenous areas, but other indigenous peoples are suffering a lot from the question of mining, logging invasions, and fishing, and this makes our people very sad. Our people understand; we’ve learned, we watch television, and we know that the most important land is Amazônia in Brazil. We know that in Amazônia there is still forest and nature. In other states, there isn’t any more left; it’s all deforested. So the place that is facing the most conflict is Amazônia.

We ourselves prosecute invasions of our land, but we need the government to place FUNAI prosecutors in our villages [FUNAI is the Brazilian agency that protects indigenous groups]. We know the government created FUNAI, they created IBAMA, the INCRA[the National Institute for Agrarian Reform], so we want to work together to preserve our indigenous lands. We support them, but we also need the support of the government, we need the government to look at what’s happening. This is 2007; it’s time for things to be different. The government threw a party to celebrate the 500th birthday of Brazil, but we’re against that. Because today you go to any land in Amazônia, and our close relatives, brothers, parents, they’re all buried on that land. How can you celebrate on the land where your relatives are buried?

First Contact and Population

The first contact with our people was in 1946. I’m from the generation of the 1970s on; I’m more recent. Our people depend now on many of the things from this contact. Since contact, our people learned to use clothing, entered school, and learned to speak Portuguese, and all of this brought some things that were good, but also brought some things that are bad. Our people want to continue in our ways, preserving our lands, our culture, preserving against invasions, to continue speaking our language. We don’t accept anyone on our lands without our permission; people might bring something in that we don’t expect. Everyone who enters our land has to communicate with FUNAI, which represents our indigenous population.

Our people, the Parintintin, have a population of around 400 people. We have three villages: Traira, Pupunha, and Canavial, and two indigenous reserves, Nove de Janeiro and Ipixuna. We have relatives in other ethnicities, for example the Arientinpais (1,000 people), the Pirahã (700 people), and the Jiahui (more or less 400 people), all in this region. The ethnicities here in the municipality of Humaitá, where we live, are the Parintintin, the Tenharim, the Jiahui, the Torá, the Apurinã, the Mura, and the Pirahã.

At the time of contact in 1946, there were about 4,000 Parintintin. After contact, there was the invasion of the Trans-Amazon Highway, in the year 1960. Curt Nimuendajú, an ethnologist, calculated that in the decade of the 1940s there were 50,000 indigenous people in this area. The population today is only 20 percent of what it used to be. There are peoples like the Juma, which, from a population of 400, have been reduced to only 6 Juma now living.

From an original population of 4,000, we came to have only 120 after the Trans-Amazon was built. And now we’re beginning to grow again. This is related to the period of the the last rubber boom, which was during the Second World War. This was a period when a lot of people entered the Amazon from outside, and from this contact came the majority of illnesses that caused the reduction of our people.

Our people, from the time of contact, have seen more illnesses appear—more and more. Our people never knew about these things, and we’re very worried about the kinds of illnesses that are appearing. It makes us very sad. It’s a problem that is happening throughout Brazil, not only with us, but also with other indigenous populations. For us, there’s no way to resolve this problem. For our people these illnesses are new, and today we have a problem with the government, with FUNASA, the body that attends to indigenous health. FUNASA is on our lands to see what illnesses they can combat, but each time it’s more from one day to the next. Today the problem with the government is that we need to preserve indigenous health on our own.

Our people, in the area of health, we have our own traditions. We make remedies ourselves. We have a part of our culture that knows which medicine to use, which medicines cure, and we pass this on to our people who conserve this knowledge. For example, if you have a bruise, or a cut, we know which treatment to use to cure it. We have remedies for everything. We never give up our culture.

Indigenous Education

In education, we have a fundamental cycle from first to fourth grade, and fifth to eighth. We have professors, seven indigenous professors, preserving our education. We have adult classes, and two of our indigenous health workers are educators. We have a professor who is already bilingual; he gives classes in both our language and Portuguese. Beyond that we have professors who teach in Portuguese. And we have traditional professors. My mother is one and my father is another, who only teach about our culture. They’re not hired, they’re professors from the root of our people.

Cultural Change

Beyond this, we never let go of our culture. For example, we never give up our traditional clothing. Our people are advancing, but they don’t know how to do everything. We don’t know how to do everything at the beginning of something new, but we’re advancing. There are some things about our culture that I can’t speak about, because they are secrets. This goes for other people too. Truthfully, for us as Parintintin, from the time of contact to today, our vision has changed. Today, our people are much more like Brazilians. To us, our people have failed in some parts of our culture. There are things that are changing our own culture as indigenous people. We speak two languages. In the case of my village, we speak our own language and Portuguese. But we never give up our culture. I’m not an enemy of Brazil, I’m an indigenous man, but the question of land invasions, the question of mining, the question of illegal logging, hunting, fishing, all of this comes back to our people; it causes a problem, a very serious problem.

Zachary Hurwitz is a graduate student at the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. He also is an organizer for the environmental human rights organization Amazon Watch, and belongs to the Brazil Strategy Network. He recently traveled up the Madeira River from Manaus to Porto Velho, Brasil, and visited the site of the proposed Santo Antônio hydroelectric dam.

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