Amazonian Indians learn how to farm fish to survive in a land of polluted rivers
Jeremy Narby | Nouvelle Planète
The inhabitants of the Peruvian Amazon eat three times more fish than meat, according to official estimates. Here in the heartland of biodiversity, the rivers teem with fish, which are easy to catch and good to eat.
But in recent decades petroleum companies have contaminated entire regions. Operating in isolated parts of the forest, they have poured huge quantities of toxic substances into rivers. The problem is that each barrel of oil extracted from beneath this rainforest comes out of the ground with up to nine barrels of near-boiling “formation waters”, which are laced with hydrocarbons and heavy metals. In the Corrientes Valley, which produces half of Peru’s oil, an estimated 42 million gallons per day of formation waters were poured into the ecosystem over a thirty year period; one company, US’s Occidental Petroleum, discharged a total of 9 billion barrels of formation waters into the Corrientes River.
Production waters piped into the Corrientes River, at Trompeteros, Block Eight, one of the main oil wells.
Pollution on this scale assaults the entire ecosystem, including humans. It contaminates rivers and soils, and makes animals and fish improper to human consumption. One recent study by the Peruvian Ministry of Health showed that 98.6% of Achuar children and adolescents living in the Corrientes Valley have blood with cadmium and lead levels above the acceptable limit.
Five hundred miles further south, the Urubamba River has also suffered from oil and gas extraction. Under the Urubamba Valley lies one of the largest natural gas fields in the world. Argentine petroleum company PlusPetrol has set up a giant operation on the banks of the Camisea River, one of the Urubamba’s tributaries; known as the “Camisea Gas Project”, it has caused local fish stocks to plummet. For the Matsigenka Indians and colonists who live in the area, this has meant the loss of their main source of animal protein.
CEDIA, a Peruvian NGO that has received support from the Marion Institute in the past, is currently working on alternatives with representatives from Matsigenka communities and colonist stakeholders. CEDIA is providing training in fish farming, and helping set up a network of family and community fish farms across the Urubamba Valley.
This initiative seeks to promote native fish, which do no harm to the environment if a dike breaks, or if a pond floods over. Native species are adapted to the environment, and raising them requires no chemicals or antibiotics. And local people know them well, and are used to fishing them.
Peruvian aquaculture experts have had excellent results with several native species, including gamitana and pacu. These fast-growing fish are vegetarian, and can be fed with locally cultivated plants. This makes them ideal for fish farming in forest-based indigenous communities. And they also command good prices in local markets.
Matsigenka man with mature fish at IIAP, February 2008.
Under CEDIA’s auspices, four Matsigenka Indians and one colonist spent 6 weeks in early 2008 at the Institute for Investigation of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP), in Iquitos. These individuals were designated by the communities of the Upper- and –Lower Urubamba to train as fish farm promoters. During their time at the research station, they learned how to prepare growing ponds, produce larvae by artificial insemination, make feed for fingerlings, and capture mature specimens.
The Peruvian rainforest is ideal for small-scale fish farming. It abounds with streams, ponds and lagoons that can be damned up, or dug out by shovel.
And pond maintenance is simple, and requires only locally available materials, such as a canoe and a net.
|A family fish farm in an indigenous community.|
Though rainforest waters tend to be acidic, an average growing pond of 200 m2 produces an estimated 288 pounds of fish a year, or about _ of a pound of fish per day.
Thanks to CEDIA’s initiative, members of five Matsigenka communities in the Upper-Urubamba are currently digging 20 growing pools, which will harbor young fish in September. In the Lower-Urubamba, three other indigenous communities will have their ponds ready in October.
Family fish farms using non-destructive organic methods provide a source of food and income without endangering the fragile rainforest ecosystem. They constitute a useful survival strategy for people living in Amazonian regions devastated by the oil and gas industry.