Challenges and victories in South America
Looking at the planet Earth from space, the large South America appears green with shades of yellow, in a beautiful triangular drawing. Thus, from a distance, it is impossible to evaluate how much beauty and diversity this part of the Earth contains, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, from the Caribbean Sea to the Drake Strait that separates us from the Antarctica continent.
Here we find the largest rivers, the greatest waterfalls, the biggest forest, one of the largest deserts, glaciers, wetlands, thousands of kilometers of beaches – a unique and irreplaceable biodiversity. So many peoples, cultures, and languages – all intermixed.
Seen from space, this continent has no borders – rivers are born and flow freely along their course, as well as mountains, forest, and the central highlands (where the great continental hydrographic basins originate). The peoples who have always lived here, since the dawn of time, also circulated freely, without any acknowledgement of the geopolitical limits imposed during over 500 years of colonization.
From another perspective…
Looking up close, so many contrasts! Side by side with the immense natural and cultural wealth, there is wealth concentration in the hands of a few, producing overwhelming inequalities and the “invisibility” of those who protect territories and their natural resources. These gatekeepers, without voice or rights, face all kinds of violations and a legal system that criminalizes community actions, while protecting the powerful and producing the world’s highest violence rates.
Even so, the original peoples and the populations created by an incomparable ethnic mixing still resist, dream of and search for solutions to protect their territories, values, and way of life. These are communities living in the most faraway and isolated places. The Indigenous peoples, who are the gatekeepers of knowledge and territories, civil society organizations structured to care for the common good, students fighting for a more sustainable and just world, lawyers using their knowledge to defend the rights of the excluded, scientists and researchers, who together, address these challenges and try to redirect the course of human history.
Although in various languages, this common voice rises up and mobilizes powerful forces, in much the same way the waters of large rivers are formed by small streams and finally flow into the ocean.
Ronald Suarez, of the Shipibo Conibo Indigenous group, is one of these powerful voices. With his work as a documentarist and with CASA Socio-Environmental Fund support, he has transformed the reality of his people:
“My name is Ronald Suarez; I’m a Shipibo Conibo from the Peruvian forest, in the region of Ucayali, province of Pucalpa. I’m 39 and I work with documentaries about the environment, Indigenous peoples, health, and intercultural relations. I’m also an actor.
“Canaan, the promised land was a documentary I made with the CASA Fund support. It has the testimonies of my Shipibo brothers and sisters about their experiences, for over 43 years, with the Maple Gas oil company, which took over the Petroperu operations. These relations in our territories are very tense, with terrible damages to the environment and to the people, and many social conflicts. Communities face the pollution of their lagoons and rivers. The fishes they consume for their subsistence are highly contaminated, and neither the government nor the company is concerned with this situation. Until the Shipibo began to protest, to demand shutting down oil wells, until they managed to be heard.”
A larger issue
Unfortunately, intensive oil drilling in environmental protection areas, without any concern for the environment or the local inhabitants, is not a problem that affects just Peru. In all South American countries this option for a fossil fuel energy matrix has caused irreparable damages, conflicts, and future consequences that are still hard to predict. All this took place with governmental approval, participation of state-owned or mixed-ownership oil companies, and the presence of multinational corporations.
“Here in Lof Campo Maripe, where we live, there are over 300 oil wells. All the time we are facing oil leakages, water contamination, and well collapses that directly affect the Neuquén River, where we have always lived.” Thus, Logko Albino Campo, a leader of the Mapuche people in the Neuquén province (Argentinian Patagonia), began his testimony. There, for over a century, multinational corporations have drilled conventional oil wells. Nowadays, a new tragedy has emerged with oil exploitation in fracking wells. After the US, Argentina is the world’s second most affected country by the environmental, social and public health damages resulting from the shale gas exploitation using the high pressure injection of water, sand, and chemical products to cause the fragmentation (or fracking) of underground rock and the gas release.
“Underground water is being contaminated. Small water sources are drying up. Our Neuquén River came up to here, where I’m standing now. Today, it’s no longer a river. It looks like an irrigation canal, weak and contaminated. The oil company syphons off millions of liters of water to pump the wells. When we complain, they ask, ‘What do you want? Money?’ It’s not a matter of money. When they depart, what are they going to leave behind for us, in this place where we have always lived? It’s not only a problem for the Mapuche people, but also for the neighboring towns. How do you live without water? Our hope is to involve all civil society in this struggle so people will have a stand on what is happening. We have to make everybody aware of this conflict. There must be alternative ways of producing energy. We don’t have to look after nature, we just have to respect it, and not to destroy it. It’s nature that looks after us.”
This work of research, information, dissemination, and search for strategies to tackle oil industry impacts has been developed by the Argentinian organization Observatório Petrolero Sur/South Oilwatch (OPSur). In the words of Diego di Risio, one of its coordinators:
“This whole issue has led to the creation of “sacrifice zones,” territories where natural resources are appropriated to the detriment of local interests and well-being. Governments do not provide information, nor ensure human and collective rights, exercising explicit and implicit violence against the resisting population. In addition, the clear evidence of climate change and its close links to fossil energy consumption expands socioenvironmental problems to a global scale.
“The CASA Socio-Environmental Fund supports OPSur’s research work and its efforts to establish and strengthen social organization networks to face the oil industry onslaught. This support has been very important for two main reasons. First, funds with a Latin American origin and outlook are rare; so, the CASA Fund support is a real privilege. Second, Argentina is not a priority country for international cooperation, and this CASA Fund focus enables us to consolidate our work.”
Jorge Daneri, a CASA Fund Board member since its creation introduced OPSur as an important initiative to be supported. He has been a key partner in identifying other strategic projects:
“The CASA Fund has been supporting strategic organizations in South America, and has also had a consistent presence in the Prata Basin. I can single out some emblematic cases. In the Missiones region, there is resistance to the construction of dams, led by the organization Cuña Piru. This organization has produced solid information demonstrating the negative impacts of those dams, and more specifically of the Garabi-Panambi hydroelectric power plant on the Uruguay River, at the Brazilian-Argentinian border. This organization has had profound public and political impact, and managed to promote a broad discussion between Brazil and Argentina with relevant repercussions.
“Encuentro por la Vida (Gathering for Life) is active in the Paraná River wetlands and participates in the Alliance of Paraguay-Paraná Ecosystems. The Ala Plástica group has also been supported to develop a very original art-based work in the Southern Prata Basin, in the Argentinian Pantanal. One of the supported projects was the ‘Itinerant Workshop’ that travelled through localities in the Paraná River Delta with multidisciplinary activities, involving art and the environment, and the development of mobile radio equipment to expand their action.
“The way the CASA Fund provides support is very positive, and has had relevant results for populations seeking to reverse negative environmental impacts, as it enables strategic actions by local groups and networks that complement each other and strengthen society as a whole. This type of support should be strengthened and expanded.”
Seeking justice in the Courts
The Instituto de Defensa Legal del Ambiente y el Desarrollo Sostenible/Institute for the Legal Defense of the Environment and Sustainable Development (IDLADS) is another example of a CASA Fund-supported work with positive results. It is a collective of young Peruvian lawyers who got together and put their professional experience at the service of a healthy and balanced environment, and a better quality of life that would respect Indigenous peoples’ rights. Henry Carhuatocto, founder of this important Lima-based organization, is yet another voice to rise and unite with other voices:
“Although IDLADS has already 10 years of existence, it only received its first financial support in 2012 from the CASA Fund. This grant enabled us to consolidate the institution, with valuable funds to cover the high costs of legal actions initiated by our pro-bono lawyers, as well as to pay for the publication of our Book of Strategic Litigation in defense of Indigenous peoples and the environment. We also systematized our cases in a text that demonstrated our background of struggles and opened the doors to our participation in the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee (CNDDHH).
“In 2013, the CASA Fund provided a grant to cover the cost of legal actions in defense of peoples in voluntary isolation in the Territorial Reserve of Kugapakori, Nahua, Nanti and others (RTKNN), as well as support to organize a congress on the defense of Indigenous peoples and the environment. In 2015, the Fund supported us to obtain a writ of mandamus to grant land titles and compensation to Indigenous peoples living in the Four Basins (Pastaza, Corrientes, Tigre, and Marañón Rivers); and also to strengthen vigilance and control of their natural resources through legal support to the Kukama Association for Development and Conservation of San Pablo de Tipishca (ACODECOSPAT).
“We just have to thank the CASA Fund for this fundamental partnership that enabled the development of our relations with the Amazonia and the Peruvian Andes’ Indigenous peoples. Thanks to this support, today we are legal advisors to ACODECOSPAT, FEDIQUEP, FECONACO, ORAU, CORPI, FECONAU, ORPIO, CNA, ONAMIAP, CARE, and Indigenous organizations across Peru. We hope to continue relying on the Fund support that was key for our institutional life and for the defense of Indigenous peoples.”
Whoever loves also cares
The CASA Fund’s driving thought is that the combination of love and action is infallible. No one is mobilized without understanding what they may lose. “Whoever loves also cares” could not be a more relevant saying for this work.
Positive results from CASA Fund grants can also be seen in the testimony of Ronald Suarez on the repercussions of his film: “When the film Canaan, the Promised Land was ready, we were censored by the Maple Gas Company, which did everything in its power to prohibit exhibitions in Lima. We couldn’t find exhibition spaces because institutions are manipulated by economic power. However, we managed to show the documentary to a broader audience in public squares. After that, the film was exhibited in many other spaces in Peru and abroad, including at the COP 20 Lima Conference in 2014.
“The media impact of the documentary was quite big and since then the government has been forced to pay attention. With the great visibility achieved by this documentary, the Indigenous community of Canaan de Cashiyacu managed to establish dialogue with the Maple Gas Company and the government. We managed to get some benefits, such as a health post, a primary school, and electricity. Negotiations to provide compensation to the Shipibo people are still underway. It’s a long process, but we hope to achieve more rights for the people who are now in direct dialogue with government authorities.
“We have to thank the CASA Fund a lot for having believed and supported our project. Without this grant, we wouldn’t have done this work that had positive and practical results for the Shipibo people.”
In addition to projects involving mobilization, protection, and information, other actions supported by the CASA Fund across South America are linked to the legal defense of Indigenous peoples and communities affected by infrastructure projects, mineral extractivism, energy projects, climate change adaptation and mitigation initiatives, women defenders of the environment, and much more.
New challenges, new victories
The South American context is very critical, and socioenvironmental conflicts tend to become more acute. The scenario includes hydroelectric power plants in all large river basins, the issue of fossil fuels in the Chaco, mining everywhere, the impact of monocultures (such as soybean, sugarcane, and palm oil), disorganized cattle raising, the large regional infrastructure integration projects (roads, ports, waterways, railways, and gas pipelines) – all this demonstrates the dimension of the challenge. National governments have adopted a development model focused on the infrastructure, with the Pacific Alliance, free trade agreements, and interoceanic corridors. All of these have had irreversible impacts on the planet’s most fragile ecosystems.
We realize that these small funds do not solve the serious problems of our continent, but they do provide visibility to those small groups of grantees that manage to broaden their relations through networks and thematic articulation. Thus, they are strengthened and attract new resources and support. This has always been the case among projects supported by the CASA Fund.
We are convinced that this network of friendship and solidarity reinforces civil society and amplifies the voices of those seeking new alternatives to face challenges. The small daily achievements give us strength and energy to move forward, seeing on the horizon a better place for all to live with less inequality and more respect for life, recovering the joy, force, and dignity of the multicultured, multifaceted, and incredibly brave peoples of this great South American territory!