Frontline World

PERU, A Big Gamble, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Introduction: Landing in the Amazon
San Martin 1: Deep Wells in the Rain Forest
Kiteni: Boomtowns Spring Up
Shimaa: Landslides and Confrontations
The Pongo: Passing Into Another World
Chocoriari: Fuel Spills Into the River
Segakiato: A Strange New Economy
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We leave the village of Shimaa and Walter Kategari the next morning, heading downriver to visit other Machiguenga communities, a few hours north on the Lower Urubamba. This trip takes us close to what the consortium calls Block 88, which is where the gas fields lie. To get to it, we must travel through the Pongo de Mainique, a rocky gorge of whirlpools and rapids that separates the Lower and Upper Urubamba valleys.
Sheets of water descending a lushly vegetated waterfall.

Dozens of waterfalls highlight the Pongo's rugged geography. The area around the Pongo contains more species of life than any other area on Earth.

The Pongo de Mainique ("Door of the Bear") is considered one of South America's most fearsome rapids. We'd been warned many times not to cross it. Some among the Machiguenga believe that when they die their souls go to the bottom of the Pongo and that the noise one hears when crossing is part rapids and part groans and wails of deceased Machiguenga. In his book The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961), Peter Matthiessen described the Pongo as "a magnificent sight, as the Gate of Hell must be -- swift rapids and evil remolinos [huge whirlpools], and water climbing the canyon face ... ."

Our boatman, Marcial Shivituerori Shimaishi (his last name means "yellow flower" in Machiguenga, though his nickname, Tiger, was more fitting) and our gregarious new guide, Miguel Chacame, assure us that they've been through the Pongo thousands of times. There's no other way to get to the Lower Urubamba -- to the source of the gas, the wealth and the controversy.

The river narrows and the rapids intensify, massive walls of moss rising on both sides of us. We're passing through the Cordillera de Vilcabamba, a stone barrier that rises 1,000 feet from the jungle floor and stretches for miles. This is the belt of mountains that forms the vast protective barrier that has separated the Upper and Lower Urubamba valleys for millennia.
Photo of the Pongo at nightfall from the bow of the boat.

As night falls on the Lower Urubamba River Valley, Marcial Shivituerori Shimaishi motors the boat toward Chivancoreni. The Machiguenga use flashlights when landing boats after nightfall.

Shivituerori, holding the canoe's bow rope like a bronco rider, frantically signals directions back to the motorist, Jhonny, and the canoe artfully dodges vast swirling whirlpools and rocks. A few minutes later, we are on the other side, looking back at waterfalls that cascade down both sides of the lush canyon. A light rain starts to fall through the sunshine. "Every time a gringo goes through the Pongo for the first time," Shivituerori says, "it rains."

On the Other Side of the Pongo

We have emerged in another world, the flatlands of the Lower Urubamba River Valley, where few settlers have ever ventured and the rain forest and the river remain unspoiled.

On the other side, there's been steady development since the 1940s, when the Peruvian government passed laws that favored colonization of the "empty" eastern slope. Roads were constructed, settlements popped up, slash-and-burn agriculture cleared the land and rain forest lumber began falling. As a result, only one percent of the population in the Upper Urubamba Valley is native; the rest are settlers -- including many highland Quechua Indians and mestizos -- who have deforested a considerable chunk of rain forest.

But fear of the Pongo rapids has prevented encroachment on the Lower Urubamba, where 7,000 Machiguenga live today along with just 250 colono families. With the arrival of oil companies in the Camisea, however, say Shivituerori and Chacame, this will probably change. As dusk approaches, they stop the boat on a small tributary just off the Urubamba, the Porokari River, where the bright yellow pipeline crosses the river.
The yellow pipeline crossing above the river.

The pipeline crosses the Porokari River in the Lower Urubamba River Valley. Early environmental studies said the pipeline would only cross above the river in one location. The Machiguenga see crossings like this as a sign that companies are breaking their promises.

"In the environmental impact study it says that where the pipeline passes rivers it has to go under them," Chacame says. "But we see that they are not keeping to what they said they were going to do. They are not keeping their promises." Shivituerori adds, "Sometimes I tell my daughter that the companies came to destroy the land."

An hour after sunset we veer off the Urubamba onto the smaller Camisea River, which leads into the heart of Block 88. We're almost to Chivancoreni, Shivituerori's home community. Electric lights are on in Chivancoreni only a few times each week because there is not enough fuel to run the generator.

"What about fueling the generator with Camisea natural gas?" we ask our boatmen.

"It's not for us," Shivituerori says.

As we approach the village, Shivituerori and Chacame break out flashlights. Every few moments, they shake a light toward a dark spot onshore. In the distance, up on the banks, villagers respond by shaking their lights to show the way. Moments later, the boat glides onto the sand, the flashlights on the hill above still flickering like fireflies.

NEXT: Chocoriari - Fuel Spills Into the River

PREVIOUS: Shimaa - Landslides and Confrontations

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