Delegates from FENAP (Federation of the Achuar Nationality of Peru), the Achuar’s leading political organization, arrived at the doorsteps of Calgary’s extractive oil industry in the past. Specifically, in 2008 and 2010 Achuar leaders have presented their case to Canadian oil interests in the Amazon. They say, “Go Away!” How does Calgary’s public respond?
The response is multi-faceted. Beneath it all, however, there is a deep-seated “us or them” dialectic. The three events in Calgary welcomed Peas Peas Ayui, newly elected President of FENAP, with the slogan “Oil or Amazon.” What this entails to Calgarians and concerned citizens of the Western world is that if Canada does not extract oil from the Amazon, there is no oil. Without an oil industry, there is not much else in terms of lucrative business in Calgary. So, when Ayui closed his Canada speaking tour in Calgary, his first time ever out of Peru, he arrived at the doorstep of a people who bemoan a parallel story, a society on the verge of complete disintegration.
During Ayui’s first talk at the University of Calgary, he made clear the fact that his people are indigenous people, and so, are the original owners of their land. He made the point to help us understand how the extractive oil industries may have a lot of money, but on behalf of the Achuar, they simply want their lands to be a healthy place for future generations. Ayui made it known that until this visit, he was not aware that there were indigenous people in Canada facing similar issues. He expressed his enthusiasm to have met a wider circle of support in Canada.
When people in the West, and specifically in Calgary, see an indigenous leader, especially from the Amazon where societies are noted as being relatively untapped (for lack of a better word) or uncontaminated by Western commoditization and consumer values, there arises a spokesperson for another way of life, created out of the public imagination. This can be a useful psychological tactic to transform that individual from speaking about their original perspective to exclaiming a superimposed one, fixed in place by Western perspectives.
When Ayui addressed the crowds in Calgary during his three visits, he first and foremost, expressed concern for his homeland. When people in Calgary here this cry they see not only a homeland being destroyed, they see a universal cause. Suddenly, people feel they are not only part of a movement to save a part of the Amazon. Instead, people become self-proclaimed activists, revolutionaries and saviors of all sorts, motivated to change not only public policy in Peru, but the whole world. This lack of understanding for the on-the-ground specificities of life for the Achuar and what is truly at risk are derived from the fact that Calgarians are thriving solely because we live in an oil-dependent society. How can a cosmopolitan activist, raised in a social setting fortified by capitalist oil commoditization empathize with an overarching importance of life in the rainforest? Who among Calgarians truly feels the exhale of the “lungs of the earth” and lives a life dedicated to a zero-carbon footprint in its name?
When a reactionary activism stirs in crowds of attendees for events such as the Achuar leader’s visit to Calgary there is a deep-seated ideology underpinning all present. This way of thinking places Achuar territory in the cross-hairs of Western concepts of value defined by foreign perspectives of social importance. So, the Achuar’s territorial value will increase as an extractive oil resource, because in the public eye its importance increases to become not only the last vestige for the survival of the Achuar, but the last vestige for continuing the project of Western globalization before the inevitable sobering of a post-oil world.
Calgary is the home of Talisman, the extractive oil industry currently threatening the Achuar with outright social disintegration. As a part of Ayui’s visit to Calgary, he met with the CEO of Talisman before the evening of his first speaking event in Calgary. Basically, the response from Talisman was that he did not recognize Ayui as having any authority to leadership when it comes to the development politics of Block 64, the area in the Peruvian Amazon deemed worthy of extractive oil development and the home of the Achuar. The contradiction to this response, as a representative of Amazon Watch who was present at the meeting revealed, was essentially; why would Talisman be developing their extractive projects if they were unaware of any local leadership?
An outspoken organizer for these events in Calgary had written an article on the issue. After interviewing Talisman PR, she recounted they said they had executed a “door-knocking” campaign, which in their view, was “true grassroots democracy.” The whole audience predictably shuddered. The Amazon Watch representation accompanying Ayui across Canada repeatedly mentioned that Talisman is all about image. On their website and in their PR reports they are gifting Achuar communities with Christmas presents and looking like proud patrons of a healthy and vibrant community benefiting from their work. In reality, the children receive cadmium and lead poisoning now from the unclean water affected by the oil development. The Amazon Watch representation made it clear that Talisman places great importance on its public image, if this is threatened, progress may be made to change their policies.
As one audience member pointed out in the second event, the communities in southern Peru had been split by multinational corporations successfully giving them monetary gifts in exchange for development rights. Monetary gifts were divided unfairly within the community, causing permanent social rifts and sending a people who are already struck with consistent poverty into greater impoverishment. The true riches in their lands, the natural resources, are sequestered into the profiteering schemes of multinational corporations. As the world saw in 2009 in Bagua, Peru, the Awajun of the Peruvian Amazon fiercely opposed extractive resource development and fought and died to protect their right to a voice in this age of global free market capitalism.
The main problem, as one outspoken audience member expressed, was that there is no real political representation for indigenous leaders in Peru. These people simply have no voice of self-determination in their own country. This comment was made at the second event held at a Unitarian church. The very pertinent comment was made to quell the audience after a rousing call to action by an Occupy activist who reminded everyone that people in the Western world are all directly responsible for this devastation. The man representing Occupy Calgary asked those present to risk imprisonment and join him in Occupying Talisman Headquarters in Calgary. The audience clapped.
During the second event, the presentation and response from the audience was much more emotional than at the University. Ayui went further into his presentation by presenting to the audience the “Life Plan” of the Achuar to ensure a sustainable social development, which is the “true development” of his people. This was founded on thinking ahead at least 50 to 100 years. As David Suzuki put it in Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie when speaking about the Haida’s resistance to logging, they are not interested in 20 or 30 year plans, they are only interested in 500 year plans. The “Life Plan” includes stimulating local economic growth by building traditional medicine centers, accommodating Western medical facilities, and seeking support for community arts and crafts. During the second event, Ayui was decidedly more adamant in his plea for actually evidenced and monetary support from Canadians.
In all three events, Ayui assured Canadians that he would return to Canada in April 2012 to hold a stakeholders meeting, inviting the public and executive members of the extractive oil industries threatening the Achuar. There, the Achuar leadership as well as other members from their community will have the chance to speak with the heads of extractive oil industry directly. As a result, there are people in Calgary who are mobilizing to prepare to support this upcoming event in a bigger way. NextUp Calgary, one of the local organizational hosts for these events, is organizing a strategy team to mobilize resources and community support. Another tactic proposed by an audience member was for people to vote in the Talisman AGM (Annual General Meeting), which is allowable to any person holding just a single share in Talisman stock.
To conclude, everyday people in Calgary are just as concerned as anyone when it comes to innocent children being poisoned, vital human resources being mismanaged and societies disintegrating under the thumb of foreign domination. When listening to Peas Peas Ayui speak, he mentions three basic themes:
- His people, the Achuar, are the original owners of the land. As he says, “the sound of the insects is the laughter of grandchildren”.
- He is glad to know that he is building a network of support in Canada and looks further to a future of civil cooperation.
- He is grateful to have met other Aboriginal people in Canada who are facing, or who have faced similar issues.
Within these themes there is no insinuation that Peas Peas Ayui is a spokesperson for the West in facing a post-oil world. There is no inclination to think that if the people of the Amazon, including the Achuar, are allowed to live undisturbed there will be no more economic development for the West. Simply enough, he presents a stern and resolute perspective about the other end of modern development, the flipside to global consumerism: resource extraction. When Calgary’s public is confronted with real life narratives of resource extraction in the Amazon, do the issues become centered on a threatened culture bent on perpetuating global consumerism, or the devastating local impacts of industrial resource extraction?