Books & arts
The Peruvian Amazon
The wood from the trees
Wars of the Interior. By Joseph Zarate. Translated by Annie McDermott.
Osman Cunachi was practising free kicks one afternoon in 2016 when thick black oil from a crack in a nearby pipeline started oozing into the Chiriaco river. The 11-year-old member of the Awajun tribe, the second-largest indigenous nation in Peru, heard that government engineers were paying people to clean up the spill. His family was one of dozens who waded into the water with buckets and plastic bottles. Sick from the fumes, his four-year-old brother was the first to give up. Osman stayed in until it got dark, hoping to earn enough to buy a smartphone. In a photo taken that day he is covered in black smears, smiling and swinging his bucket.
“It’s a perverse paradox of development that something as horrific as an oil spill and the death of a river could temporarily benefit a town,” writes Joseph Zarate, a Peruvian journalist, in “Wars of the Interior”. Each of his chapters investigates how a commodity extracted from the rainforest— wood, gold, oil—has changed the lives of the locals, mostly for the worse. Mr Zarate acknowledges that these industries have helped Peru and its Amazonian neighbours grow and modernise. But, he argues, too little thought has been given to the trade-offs. Rifts in Peruvian society over the exploitation of natural resources too often end in violence. A war is raging between “ clashing visions of progress” , and indigenous people are losing.
Many books about the Amazon cast its inhabitants as passive victims , or idealise them as guardians of the forest. Mr Zarate does neither. His subjects don’t oppose development itself — Osman’s father wants him to become a petroleum engineer — but rather the brutal way it has intruded on their lives. They are resilient and stubborn, but they are clearly outgunned. An Ashaninka chief sees no choice but to fight illegal loggers who are chopping down trees on his tribe’s reserve. He gets killed. A Quechua potato farmer can’t imagine selling her land for a pittance so that a mining company can dredge up a yellow metal of no value to her. Her house is burned down. Doctors find dangerous arsenic, lead and mercury in little Osman’s blood. He just wants to be “ a normal kid, and not be scared of getting a tumour one day”.