‘We Awajún women are warriors’: The indigenous leader of an Amazon region confronting pollution

By Gloria Alvitres

The people of La Curva, an indigenous community in the Peruvian Amazon, will never forget the events of 25 January 2016.

As they were working in their fields, like they do every day, a Norperuano pipeline burst, spilling over 3,000 barrels of crude oil amid the plantain and yucca trees. They saw the crude oil flow toward the river where children were playing and mothers were washing clothes. According to a Ministry of Environment resolution issued on 17 July 2019, the oil damaged the health, water, soil, flora and fauna of the indigenous communities of Chiriaco.

Life was never the same in La Curva. Though children still go to school at 8am and women still harvest yucca with their baskets and machetes, they now live under the constant threat of a contaminated environment that puts their health and livelihoods at risk. Before the spill, they did not know there was a pipeline so close to their homes. This silent danger had been there for years, but now they knew it could hurt them.

Women from La Curva community, Chiriaco. Photo: Morgana Vargas Llosa, 2019

“I’ve always worried about the teenagers and the children. I care about them, I’m fighting for them,” says Luisa Teets, as rain falls around her. “I feel like a brave woman, because I fight for my home and my community, to defend them and give them a future.”

Luisa said that environmental problems have compromised her children’s future. This is one of her principal motivations for traveling to different regions of the country to speak with authorities and denounce the oil spills that continue to occur in the Peruvian Amazon. Her community gave her the honorary title of “Indigenous Mother” because she is one of the few Awajún women in the area who knows how to speak Spanish and understands how to confront the authorities and demand respect for their rights.

Luisa Teets. Photo: Morgana Vargas Llosa, 2019

Awajún is one of Peru’s 50 official languages, but the country’s laws are written in Spanish and authorities do not usually speak indigenous languages. Though her father could not pay for her to go to school, Luisa learned to communicate in both Spanish and Awajún, a major advantage. She has never stopped learning and asking questions, and she always speaks her mind.

Her roles as Indigenous Mother and a human rights defender have led her to meet with many officials, including the Minister for Women and Vulnerable Populations. To get to Lima, Luisa has to travel for three hours from the Chiriaco region, where her community is, to the city of Bagua. It takes another two hours to reach the city of Jaén, where she boards a 90-minute flight to Lima, Peru’s capital. She has made this trip only very rarely as an invitee of organizations who want to hear her perspective. She says that on these voyages she has met other women whom she admires and who gave her strength to continue.

“Men and women, we are equal. We can all contribute. Awajún women have always been warriors,” she says. “We haven’t been educated. This is why they have left us aside. They haven’t valued us. It shouldn’t be this way.” She feels the responsibility to explain, whenever she can, the situation of Chiriaco and how Awajún communities live.

Resident of La Curva community. Photo: Morgana Vargas Llosa, 2019

If Luisa could go back in time, she would be a teacher. She likes to teach and converse with women and children. She talks to them about health and the government. She advises them on “the little that I could teach myself.”

Emboldened by the lessons of each voyage, workshop, and conversation, Luisa was one of the first women to raise her voice about the health problems caused by the oil spill. However, she remains discontent. She claims that her community is still waiting for the government to remedy the damage done and that she, as a human rights defender, feels powerless. And this is not just a feeling. That same Ministry of Environment resolution established that Petroperu, the state-owned company responsible for maintaining the pipeline, did not take immediate action to control and contain the impacts of the spill.

“Us women are important. When there’s not enough food, we go to the fields and harvest our crops. We find [food] wherever we have to,” Luisa says. They were the ones who on 25 January 2016 first sounded the alarm about the spill, and they are the ones who face the consequences, who search for water to cook with and who care for the children who were exposed to the oil.

Women harvesting yuca in La Curva. Photo: Morgana Vargas Llosa, 2019

Like all Awajún women, Luisa knows how to sing. For these women, singing is sacred. It comes like inspiration, as if from some other voice inside her. Walking among trees on the path that she has taken so many times since she was little, Luisa sings to evoke the spirits of her ancestors. Her song is original, she explains, “It comes from my mind, from my memory.” This indigenous ritual is deeply interwoven into everyday Awajún life, and she feels that a rupture has occurred. The environmental problems of the region have created conflicts, affecting the very culture of the Awajún.

I feel like a brave woman, because I fight for my home and my community, to defend them and give them a future
Luisa Teets

Luisa’s denunciations have drawn attention to the situation in Chiriaco. Journalists have come to cover the region’s problems, the Ministry of Environment began an official process to sanction the company responsible, and the national Congress even opened an investigation into the spills. Whenever human rights groups arrive, Luisa translates for other women, speaks personally with the Apus (elected leaders from local indigenous communities), and convinces them to come to listen to the organizations and the women.

“She is an important woman. We listen to her opinions. She has educated herself,” says the Apu of La Curva, José Walter Cuñachi.

Apu (elected leader) of La Curva, José Walter Cuñachi. Photo: Morgana Vargas Llosa , 2019

There are few men in the community because most have migrated to work for the season on papaya plantations in other areas. Now, the women have assumed new roles. They do housework, organize community projects and festivals, and attend assemblies.

Seated in her kitchen, Luisa takes a well-deserved break. She has just fed her animals and prepared fried fish. These are difficult times in La Curva. A pest has hit their crops hard this year, the chickens haven’t grown, and the guinea pigs have gotten sick. Nor has the yucca grown as it should. Even so, she would never want to live anywhere else. “Here life is peaceful. I live with my children, my animals, my river.”

Luisa Teets. Foto: Morgana Vargas Llosa, 2019

Her sister, Magna Teets, lived in Lima for 10 years, working with construction crews serving food and running errands. “I earned the trust of the foreman on the job and he wanted me to stay,” she says. But she missed La Curva. So she bought some land there with the earnings she had saved.

Convinced that life can be good in their community, the sisters are ready to start from scratch, planting yucca again and again. Luisa believes that if the government would take even minimal action, sending engineers and medicine and monitoring the area of the spill, the mothers of La Curva would not have to suffer seeing their husbands and children getting sick.

Women greet her as she walks through the community. Though she doesn’t seen it, her work is already having an impact. Other women are beginning to tell their stories and join Luisa’s efforts.

“I never get tired of fighting for what I believe in,” Luisa says.