Kukama women leaders in Peru.

Kukama women leaders in Peru.

(Photo: Sumando Voces, source: Infobae, May 2024)

A River's Rights: Indigenous Kukama Women Lead the Way with Landmark Legal Victory

Defending the rights of nature represents a big step forward in the fight against climate change.

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 asserting the legal right to integrity and protection of the Marañón River, a sacred waterway that flows from the Andes to the Amazon. This is a significant victory for the preservation of nature, water, forests, and biodiversity; in other words, life itself. It’s also a big step forward in the fight against climate change, and for the rights of nature, both topics that were debated last week at the 11th Pan Amazonian Social Forum in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia.

The women warriors behind 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 Watershed.

108 oil spills in 40 years

The Federation began its fight in 2021, when Kukama women from 29 communities, led by Mari Luz Canaquiri, filed an injunction action against Petroperú (a Peruvian state-owned petroleum enterprise), the Ministry of Environment, and other government bodies. The women were outraged at how the ecosystems of their rivers, forests, and sacred plants were being poisoned and systematically destroyed by more than 40 years of oil spills. In fact, according to an article published by the Citizens' Movement against Climate Change (MOCICC, in Spanish), at least 108 oil spills have occurred along the path of the North Peruvian Oil Pipeline (ONP) since its inception in 1977, with little to no response or outrage from the national and international opinion. These spills are ecocidal, and yet, the Peruvian state has enjoyed near total impunity from any consequences so far.

The most outrageous aspect of this fact is that ONP did not respect the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) stipulated in ILO Convention 169, nor has it implemented environmental safeguards measures and proper maintenance of the pipeline. Only in 2014, as a consequence of a big rupture of one of the pipelines the Kukama became aware of the imminent danger of the oil spill flooding their forest ecosystems and water bodies. Since then, they, especially the inhabitants of the community of Cuninico, have been forced to consume this contaminated water, with serious consequences for women's reproductive health (with a rise in the number of miscarriages), and generalized immune, respiratory, and gastrointestinal diseases. Even now, owing to the permanent contamination of the Marañón, fish and other riverine species essential to the livelihoods of local communities are disappearing.

Meanwhile, the Peruvian State has not bothered to provide even basic amenities like drinking water or health care to these communities. The health problems amongst the Indigenous Peoples continue to remain unaddressed, while the staggering profits from the sale of crude oil are amassed by a few foreign companies. This includes Pluspetrol, with Argentine capital, in lot 8; the French Perenco, in lots 67 and 39; and Frontera Energy in lot 192 (ex1Ab) and PetroTal in lot 95 from Canadian capital.

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

After years of struggle, the Kukama women leaders succeeded in getting Judge Corely Armas Chapiama, of the Mixed Court of Nauta-Loreto, to rule in favor of their demands in March 2024. It was so evident that more than four decades of oil spills have destroyed the livelihoods of the Amazonian communities living along the tributaries of the Marañon River. In the words of one of the women leaders, Emilsen Flores: “When there are spills, our forests are contaminated, our plants, the space [territory] we live in is contaminated. 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 relationship with the rivers, the Purahua lives there, 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, which pumps blood to the whole body.”

The ‘voice’ of the River

Since the establishment of the colony in Peru until almost the 1970s, public spaces, such as courts, have privileged and listened primarily to the voices of men, generally white, with formal education. Women's voices were considered 'gossip', as they were seen as incapable of testifying rationally and coherently. Women were even barred from entering the realm of legal proceedings and litigation. If they were called to testify as witnesses, the testimony of three women together was considered equal to the testimony of a man (see Vera Delgado 2011, p. 54).

This makes the facts of the ruling of the Mixed Court of Nauta on November 12, 2023 nearly transcendent; a female judge of Indigenous descent, listening attentively not only to the testimony of the Kukama leaders, but also – through the leaders – to the ‘voice’ of a vital and animate entity, the Marañón River and its tributaries. Judge C. Armas Chapiama understood that not only are the rights to a healthy and fair livelihood of local communities being violated by the oil companies, but also the inherent right to life of the Marañon River. These rights include its right to flow freely and without contamination to ensure healthy ecosystems of forests, water sources, and biodiversity; the right to feed and be fed by its tributaries; the right to be protected, conserved and restored; and the right to the regeneration of its natural cycles.

No reparations or compensation

Although Judge Armas Chicama ordered ONP’s authorities to update their environmental management instruments and to respect FPIC, she did not issue a ruling to provide reparations to the 69 communities in total who have been affected by the oil spills for more than 40 years. Despite this, it is expected that the ONP authorities will comply with the court's ruling, since, in Amazonian countries, similar rulings and their subsequent implementations 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, since it provides monumental inspiration for the struggles of the Amazonian peoples against the many extractive activities that are destroying their territories. For instance, on April 22, 2024, the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation mobilized for the first time in rejection of illegal mining and logging that are invading their territories, activities that are endorsed by the current Peruvian government. In this context, the commodification of Indigenous Peoples’ forest territories has become a daily practice, with differentiated impacts on the local population, especially women in all their diversities and youth.

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 murders of Indigenous leaders, have gone unpunished to date.

As this is not enough, in January 2024, the Peruvian government approved Law 31973, a modification of Forestry Law No. 29763 - the new law is a wolf in sheep's clothing, opening the door to intensive cattle ranching, monoculture plantations of oil palm and genetically modified soybeans, among others; which is promoted by large companies and conservative religious organizations such as the Mennonites.

The struggle for justice continues

Amazonian peoples’ organizations and environmental and human rights defenders have held massive national mobilizations against Law 31973. Under the slogan “La selva no se vende, se defiende”, (“The jungle is not for sale”, a famous slogan that emerged in one of the first Indigenous struggles against oil in 2009, known as Baguazo) Peruvians are continuing to fight for the repeal of this harmful law which threatens the ecosystems of the Amazon. However, the congressmen who promoted Law 31973 are not only turning a deaf ear to the people's demands, but are also trumpeting the benefits of the new law -supposedly- for small and medium illegal agricultural activities.

While the murders of Indigenous leaders and Amazon defenders remain unpunished and invisible, entire ecosystems of our forests are cut down and destroyed, water sources are polluted, and biodiversity is being preyed upon, the UN’s Green Climate Fund is shelling out nearly US$200 million for monocultures of oil palm, cocoa, and rubber, and unsustainable industrial cattle ranching in places like the Amazon. Agribusiness giants like the food processing company Marfrig of Brazil, which has been linked to illegal logging, “cattle laundering” and extensive deforestation for monoculture oil palm plantations, are the primary 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 empowered and protected by legislation like Peru’s “Anti-Forestry” Law 31973. In fact, powerful groups that wield influence in Peru’s current government are already trying to have the historic ruling overturned, arguing that an anthropocentric vision is a fundamental principle of the Peruvian Constitution, and that the rights of nature hold no value.

In light of these monumental challenges, the world’s ecofeminist, environmental, and climate justice movements must unite so that grassroots struggles like that of our Kukama sisters endure and do not fade away.

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