Last weekend I had the great fortune of visiting the Amazon Rainforest. I am from Italy and for me the Amazon Rainforest was like a myth, something special and something foreign at the same time. Before coming to Peru to volunteer for LAFF, I never thought I would be able to see the Amazon outside of documentaries and movies and get to experience it for real. This happened last week and it was simply marvelous. Visiting Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata National Reserve, seeing the daily activities of local communities, and watching the sunset on the Madre de Dios River while only hearing the sounds of the forest are memories I will cherish forever.
Before the beginning of my trip I decided to read more about the Peruvian region of the Amazon Forest. During my research I came across reports that detailed a great number of issues. Unfortuntately, there are many problems that communities in the Amazon are facing because of the environmental degradation caused by excessive logging and mining that you can’t see as a tourist; one of them is the poor health conditions of local people caused by the low quality of the water they have access to.
Toxic Water: A Health Threat
The majority of the activities of the communities that live along the Amazon rivers revolve around the river or involve using water from the river. These activities are, among others, bathing, cooking, drinking, washing clothes, fishing and leisure time for the children.
Fishing, in particular, is one of the main economic activities for many of the communities that live in the Amazon Region of Peru and where they get their main source of protein.
Moreover, for some indigenous people, like the Kukama Kukamira Indigenous People that live primarily in the Loreto Province of Peru, water is not fundamental just because it satisfies basic needs and allows them to perform basic activities, but also because it represents a spiritual element. The individuals belonging to the commu nitieslocated on the banks of the Marañón River, like the Cuninico community, have this special relationship with water. Sadly, the conditions of the water they have access to is very poor and it is affecting their health.
According to the Office of the Ombudsman, in the Amazon Region, as in other territories of the world, there are new causes of illness and death related to pollution of rivers and water sources (3). In addition, Amensty International’s recent report based on research conducted in seven communities of the Amazon and the Andean regions between February and August 2017, ‘Toxic State’, highlights how the Peruvian Government has failed to provide adequate healthcare for Indigenous communities and how the only sources of freshwater these communities have access to are contaminated by toxic metals. Members of the Cuninico community reported how in the last years they have started experiencing new and more acute health problems; such as cramps, colics, stomach aches, a burning sensation on urination, allergies and/or itchy skin, and miscarriages. These are having atrocious effects on the inhabitants of the community which are having problems in performing basic activities as working, carrying equipment and walking; even children are having problems focusing at school (AMNINT, 2017).
These health issues started to appear after 2014, when a total of 2,358 barrels of oil spilled from a pipeline near Cuninico creek, a tributary of the Marañón River.
Studies carried out in the Cuninico community in 2014 and 2016 respectively by DIRESA, which is Peru’s Regional Health Authority and by Peru’s Ministry of Health, revealed the alarming news that the amount of aluminium and petroleum hydrocarbons present in the water in Cuninico exceed the levels allowed for human consumption and how more than half of people in the community had abnormal levels of mercury, cadmium and lead in their blood.
Despite the shocking information, the ‘Toxic State’ report denounces how not enough measures have been taken by the government in order to tackle this issue. For instance,
the health services indigenous communities have access is far from adequate. Inhabitants of the Cuninico community have to travel an hour and a half on a speedboat to reach the closest health center, and this structure does not have the specialists that are required to meet the needs of people exposed to toxic metals. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the needs, cultural context and actual resources in the indigenous communities from governmental authorities.
A Violation of Rights that needs to be stopped
According to Article 24.1 and 24.2 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services” and “Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
With respect to health facilities, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) establishes the essential elements of the right to health, which are: availability in sufficient quantity in order to provide health care to the population, accessibility and affordability to anyone also to the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population, and quality (5). More specifically on the topic of this report, the CESCR General Comment No. 14 also stresses that the right to health includes access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation (6). However, many communities in the world, as those mentioned in this report, do not enjoy this right.
As the Amnesty International reports points out, given that access to “safe and potable water” and protection from “exposure to harmful substances” are integral elements of the right to health (7), the fact that the Peruvian State continues to fail to provide access to safe drinking water for communities whose only sources of water are contaminated with heavy metals is definitely a violation of the right to health of these communities that puts their lives at risk. Moreover, the Peruvian State has failed to provide resources to enable Indigenous Peoples to establish, organize and control adequate, culturally appropriate health services themselves (8).
It is evident that those communities are deprived of an element which is of primary importance for them because it allows them to perform their everyday activities and because it is fundamental for their identity. This is, under my point of view, unacceptable. It is of vital importance that the state starts taking measures in order to solve this issue so to defend and meet the needs of the Indigenous Communities that live in such a breathtaking wonder of nature which is the Amazon Rainforest.
(2) (INEI, 2017)
(3) Peru. Office of the Ombudsman. La defensa del derecho de los pueblos Indígenas amazónicos a una salud intercultural. (Defending the rights of Indigenous Amazonian Peoples to an intercultural health). Ombudsman’s Report No. 169, 2015. Conclusion 11, p. 127.
(4) (AMNINT, 2017)
(5) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14 (2000): The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2000/4, CESCR, 11 August 2000, para. 12
(6) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14 (2000): The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2000/4, CESCR, 11 August 2000, para. 4.
(7) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14 (2000): The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2000/4, CESCR, 11 August 2000, para. 15.
(8) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 14 (2000): The Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Health, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2000/4, CESCR, 11 August 2000, para. 27.
Written by: Francesca Zambelli