In the Shadows of the Extractive Industry – A Hard Road for Indigenous Women

A telltale detail gave away the changing way of life for the indigenous Machiguenga women living around Peru’s most important gas project in the Cuzco Amazons: they had stopped harvesting yuca. Why bother planting the traditional tuber that was the mainstay of their daily diet if they could simply buy it at one of the dozens of little shops that had sprung up around the Camisea gas project installations? Indeed, why bother with yuca when one could easily buy rice? “If yuca is needed, you just buy it,” Eulalia Andrés Incacuna, an indigenous woman from the Kirigueti community, told us in 2006, when we first went to the far-flung villages two years before the gas project actually began full operations.  

This change in food habits reflected new forms of economic exchange accompanying the Peruvian gas project operated by the private company Pluspetrol. Nine years later, health clinics in the zone report a statistical increase in chronic cases of malnutrition and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV infection; alcohol consumption is also on the rise and often translates into domestic violence. In spite of the millions of dollars in royalties paid to the Peruvian state, the quality of life of the indigenous population—and especially that of women and children—has not improved.

Observing the effect of the extractive industries on indigenous women in the Amazons, Peru’s Vice Minister of Interculturality, Patricia Balbuena, asserts that “it is harder for women [than for men] to adjust to the changing forms of production that the extractive industry has brought to the Amazon regions, and this ultimately influences gender relations. The firms hire men who then acquire goods that displace women from their traditional routines,” observed the vice-minister, a lawyer with expertise in gender, development and demography.

Men no longer hunt nor fish nor dedicate themselves to agriculture. The economy of the family is greatly altered. It goes from being a money-free economy to a highly monetized one with all the social impacts that one can imagine. In her investigation,  “Ideas about Progress in Indigenous Wage Workers: The Case of the Machiguengas and the Camisea Gas Project,” sociologist Cynthia del Castillo warns that communal indigenous life has been completely altered by alcohol use. “Tensions surround the adoption of new practices and attitudes with the introduction of a monetized currency, as revealed in extensive interviews. We are referring to excessive beer consumption. The fact that not all the persons interviewed were willing to talk about the subject made the tension visible and, paradoxically, underlined the conscious secrecy surrounding this subject,” she observes.


What happens in the Cuzco jungles is repeated with different nuances throughout the Amazon regions of South America. In the last fifteen years, increasing international demand for hydrocarbons has stimulated new explorations and exploitation of gas and oil in territories inhabited by approximately two million indigenous people, about half of them women. In these regions of Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, there are at present 81 hydrocarbon fields under production and another potential 246 sites. Together, the area encompasses 0.41 million square miles or 15% of the entire Amazon region.

Peru has one of the greatest Amazon areas with leases given to the extractive industry; an estimated 80% of hydrocarbon concessions are located in titled indigenous lands, generating social conflicts with the local population. In some regions affected by the contamination of years of oil extraction, such as Loreto, indigenous women have organized and brought their complaints and demands to United Nations officials. “They have asserted that the contamination affects women in particular because of the changes brought about by the quality and availability of water, the effects on cattle raising (the only source of work for many women) and the negative effects on family health,” indicated a 2013 report by the former UN Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, James Anaya.

The social impacts of the extractive industries are complex, but seldom studied. “The extractive industry modifies gender relationships. They pay the workers well, but women have very little say in the use of this money,” Balbuena explains. Excluded from decision making, the indigenous woman becomes a passive subject of the impact of the extractive industries and the resulting social change.

The extractive industries affect indigenous women in many ways. “Water pollution is one of the main concerns of the indigenous women. With the loss of quality of this resource, the ability to guarantee her family’s health is greatly diminished,” says anthropologist Óscar Espinosa, a professor at the Catholic University of Peru who recently investigated the impact of oil exploration on two communities in the Amazon region of Bajo Marañón.

In his initial findings, Espinosa has found several cases of stress and severe symptoms of anxiety in indigenous women. “We interviewed many indigenous women and observed that many suffer from these problems. Indeed, several women have experienced hair loss. There’s no adequate treatment available for these women,” he says. Women leaders from the zone also associate oil industry contamination with an increase in the number of cases of cancer and birth defects. Uncertainty and the lack of response to these health issues only increase their anxiety.


Communities that were once abandoned by the state and isolated from urban areas have now become more involved in commercial exchange and migration to the cities, particularly among the men. As a result, by 2005 the Amazonian indigenous communities were reported to experience the first cases of HIV infection. Although statistics are hard to come by, local sources indicate that cases of HIV are on the rise.

In the communities bordering the Camisea project, the first officially reported case of HIV infection was in 2010. That year, the local health network identified 11 cases in the native communities located around the gas project. Mario Tavera, adviser to the Vice Minister of Public Health of Peru, says that the increase in HIV cannot be attributed to the extractive industry alone. “There are additional factors such as migration and economic exchange that ought to be taken into account in environmental impact studies of all these projects,” he observed.

Carlos Torres Huarcaya, an epidemiologist in Camisea’s zone of influence, explains that the HIV cases are imported into the area by the men. “The young indigenous men have begun to go to centers of nighttime entertainment set up in other towns, attracted by the great concentrations of employees and workers since the beginning of the gas exploitation.”

Distance and poor infrastructure of the health posts make the efficient and timely diagnosis of HIV quite difficult. The head of the indigenous program of the People’s Defender (Defensoría del Pueblo), Daniel Sánchez, recognizes the weakness of the state: “The health system is not prepared to handle the cases of HIV in the indigenous populations of the Amazons. It ought to have a specific strategy that would take into consideration the use of interpreters, as well as a greater state presence.” Half of the diagnosed cases are pregnant women who find out they have HIV during routine prenatal checkups. Only four patients have received antiretroviral drugs.


Another social impact associated with the extractive industry is the increase in alcohol consumption. In the communities near the Camisea project, beer has replaced masato, the traditional drink made from fermented grains that is consumed by the indigenous peoples of the Cuzco jungle. Crates of beer pile up in the port and in the small shops, and improvised bodega-bars sell it throughout the day. The local health authorities point out that although they have no formal study of the illnesses associated with alcoholism, the consumption of beer is evident on a daily basis.

No local studies exist linking domestic violence and alcohol in the indigenous populations of the Amazon, but most of the women associate abuse with alcohol consumption. The Peruvian vice minister notes with concern the lack of anthropological studies on the effects of the extractive industry on indigenous women. “There is no real sense of the size of the impact, starting with the way that monetary economies disrupt traditional gender relations. The breakdown in their traditional system will create new patterns if these changes are not monitored, ”observes Balbuena.

What can be done, then? The vice minister believes that Environmental Impact Studies have to be modified to incorporate more information about social impact. “When we talk about monitoring extractive projects, we think about natural resources and the effects on the environment, but the social impact requires the same degree of study as the environmental one. At present there are no anthropologists or specialists working on these problems; there is no analysis of gender issues. It’s not enough just to say there is a certain number of women in each community and to offer them workshops in cooking and textiles,” the vice minister concludes.

What’s to be done then? Environmental impact studies should incorporate more research into social impact. “Monitoring of extractive projects focused on natural resources and pollution, but not on the social impact,” declares Espinosa.

Studies about the extractive industries’ impact on the lives of indigenous women are very scarce. Del Castillo stresses in her thesis that it is necessary to carry out “more in-depth study to observe how spouses appraise the ‘progress’ their husbands say they are experiencing. The view of the individual who has not left the community, who has stayed to take care of the home, who supports her husband in his work tasks, who does not have the same opportunities as her spouse, can be quite different from the ideals of life held by the Machiguenga man.”

Without these studies, the Peruvian state’s support of the affected communities becomes deficient, above all because there is growing evidence that indigenous women and their children are experiencing a more precarious situation than they had in their traditional system of life.

By Nelly Luna Amâncio

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Nelly Luna Amancio is a journalist specializing in the coverage of conflicts, the environment and human rights. She is editor and founder of, a website dedicated to investigative journalism, data analysis and new digital narratives. Contact:


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