Dan Collyns

By taking drastic action, the Achuar people of the Amazon have forced an oil company to finally start cutting back on pollution.

IT WAS by any measure a remarkable protest. More than 800 Achuar tribespeople from the borders of Peru and Ecuador, led by their traditional chiefs with their red and yellow-feathered headdresses, arrived last month by the boatload in the twilight hours at four oil wells in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest.

Their faces streaked with paint and with people carrying hunting shotguns and ceremonial spears, they formed a peaceful blockade of Peru's largest oil facility. They stayed for nearly two weeks, shutting down power to most of the region's oil production, and its road, airport, and river access.

It was a desperate attempt by the Achuar to get the Peruvian Government to take notice of their plight. For decades they had been saying that their land had been heavily polluted and their waters poisoned by oil exploration, but they had been consistently ignored. The ploy worked. The loss of millions of dollars in revenue and around 40,000 barrels of oil a day forced the Government and Pluspetrol Peru's largest oil and gas operator to concede most of the Achuar's demands, including re-injecting all the contaminated waste water back into the ground within two years, and building a new hospital with enough money to run a health service for 10 years.

The victory was particularly sweet for the Achuar who number around 8,000 in Peru's vast Amazon region of Loreto because it was the only time in 36 years of oil exploration and extraction in their area that the state had intervened.

Companies have long been given a carte blanche to flout international environmental laws.

As part of a complex relationship, the oil company now provides medical care for some 1,800 Achuar due to the lack of state facilities.

Knock-out punch

Bill Powers, an American engineering consultant, says the Peruvian Government needs to be more cautious about how it issues oil concessions in the Amazon. "If they refuse to demand best practices then they'll be setting up more conflict in the Amazon," he predicts.

"They'll also be setting up the knock-out environmental punch for the Amazon. It will become a degraded environment with degraded terrain, and the indigenous people will become just a bunch of dirt-poor people. For years the government has been marketing Peru as one of the best places on the planet to invest in, but there's not been a word about protecting the environment or its native people."