RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We're going to take you now to Peru's Amazon region and a controversy over oil drilling. Last summer, indigenous protestors clashed with police. Dozens were killed. They were protesting government decrees that would open up to development more of the Amazon Rain Forest. Peru's government made the decision to do that without consulting those living in the region. One year later there's a new law which requires consultation, but it still hasn't gone into effect, so more oil concessions are now open for bidding and the indigenous people are again upset. Annie Murphy has this report.
ANNIE MURPHY: Here in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, thousands of miles from the BP oil spill pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, oil spills have been a fact of life for over 30 years.
Today, the local Achuar indigenous people are constantly sick. Fainting spells, vomiting, chronic diarrhea, headaches and skin infections are common problems in villages like San Cristobal. The Achuar believe it's because of oil.
(Soundbite of voices)
MURPHY: Isac Sandy is 25 years old. He's tall and shy, and got married last year. He has frequent headaches, and every other day he gets an injection to relieve the symptoms of an unknown skin condition. If he doesn't get the shot, his skin breaks out in a spotty white rash and his entire body swells.
Mr. ISAC SANDY: (Through translator): There's a stream where we always go to fish, and it's always had oil on top. We catch the fish there and eat them. The fish drink the water, and since we eat them, the oil must get into us that way.
MURPHY: This riverside village of open-air wood-and-thatch homes is remote, and research is seldom carried out here. But government doctor Alan Castro thinks health problems in San Cristobal have causes other than oil.
Dr. ALAN CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: Dr. Castro says he believes it can almost all be explained by malnutrition, which has become widespread here.
But a Peruvian government study published in 2006 found that most indigenous people along this river - the Rio Corrientes - had unhealthy levels of lead in their blood and over 95 percent were over the healthy limit for cadmium. Lead and cadmium are associated with oil spills, which have been happening here for decades.
Whether the cause of these health problems is oil spills, other changes brought by outsiders, or a combination of the two, the Achuars' quality of life has worsened since oil companies arrived, and little is being done to help them.
(Soundbite of power saw)
MURHPY: A saw mill is set up in the bustling town of Trompeteros. Trompeteros is the base of operations for the company currently in this area, Argentine owned Pluspetrol. The town has electricity, running water, and sewage systems -phone service, even Internet.
But a few minutes downriver, next to Pluspetrol's paved runway, the village of San Cristobal doesn't even have electricity. The roof of the local school is literally caving in.
Mr. DANIEL HUALINGA: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: Daniel Hualinga, the village elder, says: We've asked the company to help out and they tell us they have nothing - that the oil revenue is running low.
About a dozen students sit on plywood benches in a house that serves as a makeshift school. Students study in Spanish and the indigenous Achuar language. During music class, they learn Achuar songs, which are traditionally sung to their gardens, to their animals and to the forest.
(Soundbite of children singing)
MURPHY: Like their parents, most of the kids here suffer from the chronic stomachaches, fainting, vomiting and fevers. Some also have developmental problems.
Peruvian oil analyst Aurelio Ochoa says that spills are an unavoidable part of the oil business.
Mr. AURELIO OCHOA (Peruvian Oil Analyst): (Foreign language spoken)
MUIRPHY: These are human projects, he says, so there will always be a risk, as clean as the operation might be. Accidents happen, and they're going to keep on happening - here, in Alaska, in Louisiana, wherever.
The point is, he says, the company should be held responsible.
But the dense foliage and river labyrinths of the Amazon are a world away from the capital of Lima and the legal system, according to human-rights lawyer Miguel Jugo.
Mr. MIGUEL JUGO: (Through translator) Indigenous people have always suffered from inaction on the part of the state. Their rights are constantly violated. If the state starts to consult with indigenous people, the state will become responsible for meeting their requests, and the government does not want that.
MURPHY: When indigenous communities began to take a stand against big companies operating in their territory, President Alan Garcia wrote an editorial criticizing their position. He used the fable "The Dog and the Manger" to make his point. In the story, a dog falls asleep in a manger and wakes up to bark at the cows who want to eat the hay, even though the dog himself can't eat the stuff. The moral of the story is: Don't begrudge others something you can't enjoy yourself. The hay was Peru's natural riches, and in the editorial President Garcia compared the spiteful dog to Peru's indigenous people.
Pluspetrol declined to comment for this story, as did the Peruvian state-owned oil company.
In response to an interview request, Environment Minister Antonio Brack released a statement saying oil drilling will not destroy the Amazon rain forest and that Peru must also worry about its energy security. He notes that Peru does need to, quote, "improve the participation of local communities."
Today, oil regulations are tighter, but in San Cristobal, relations between the Achuar, the oil company and the Peruvian state are getting worse.
Ms. ANA HUALINGA: (Foreign language spoken)
MURPHY: Ana Hualinga stands in a clearing surrounded by stumps, in what was until recently a garden and tree nursery. She explains in heated Achuar how a few weeks ago the oil company razed and appropriated this community plot to expand their airport without consulting the people who farm it.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
MURPHY: Nearby, huge black helicopters rise out of the jungle at regular intervals, drowning out all other sounds, then sweeping off into the distance.
For now, the Achuar are doing the best they can to keep tabs on the oil company themselves.
Wilson Sandy works for an indigenous monitoring program that tracks oil spills.
Mr. WILSON SANDY: (Through translator) Up through March of this year, we registered three serious spills and two smaller ones. The earth here is contaminated - and it will never be completely healthy again, never.
MURPHY: Oil analyst Aurelio Ochoa says that the future of this place will depend on who puts down the money to control it, be it big business or environmentalists.
Mr. AURELIO OUCHOA (Oil Analyst): (Through translator) Remember, Peru has natural resources and it's looking to develop its economy. If ecological conservation were profitable, we could do that. But who is going to step up to it?
MURPHY: For the moment, much of this mythic ecosystem is still a vast green expanse of rivers, plant life, animals, and people, like the Achuar people, for whom the Amazon is not a conservation project or an economic bonanza, but home.
For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in Iquitos, Peru.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.