RiverTools Helps the Achuar People of Peru and Ecuador

The Achuar are an isolated, indigenous people that live in the Amazon rainforest near the border of northern Peru and Ecuador. They live in 41 communities in the vicinity of the Pastaza, Tigre and Corrientes Rivers. Beginning in the 1970s, several different oil companies began oil extraction activities on Achuar lands, but without obtaining the proper permission of the Achuar people, as is required under Peruvian (and international) law. For example, Peru is a signatory on ILO Convention 169, an international indigenous rights convention which stipulates that indigenous communities have a right to prior consultation about infrastructure projects taking place on their lands. (See: ILO Convention 169 and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.) Oil spills and contamination became commonplace and are well-documented, see: Martinez et al. (2007), published in Environmental Research Letters. With the help of non-profit organizations such as Shinai and Amazon Watch, the Achuar people organized to take legal action to defend their ancestral lands. Two key organizations that have been involved in this effort are FENAP (Federacion National Achuar Peru or National Achuar Federation of Peru) and FECONACO (Federacion de Comunidades Nativas del Rio Corrientes).

Gregor MacLennan, then with a non-profit organization called Shinai (and later Amazon Watch and now Digital Democracy), contacted Rivix Software in 2005 to see if RiverTools 3.0 could help to produce river network maps for the rivers in Achuar territory. He explained that in order for FENAP to take advantage of the laws that protect the lands of indigenous people from exploitation, it was necessary to produce geographic and cultural maps of the river systems in the area. This would allow the Achuar people to better communicate the extent of their territory and their associated legal rights. Rivix donated a floating-network license of RiverTools 3.0 to help with this cause. According to MacLennan, RiverTools was very useful because the forest in the region is quite flat — large areas of flooded forest essentially become lakes under the forest in the wet season. Using RiverTools, they were able to produce surprisingly accurate and useful results by extracting drainage networks from SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) DEMs. At the time, the only available national maps of the region were of much poorer resolution so the smaller rivers that are so important to their culture were missing from them. Many of these smaller rivers flow under the canopy and are not visible from the air. Similarly, SRTM DEMs show the elevation of the canopy vs. the actual land surface, so the sophisticated algorithms in RiverTools were needed to extract the stream network from the noise. However, the maps produced with RiverTools 3.0 clearly showed these smaller rivers and helped the Achuar people to defend their land against the petroleum companies.

In 2006, the first bi-national Achuar Congress made the following resolution: "The Achuar indigenous people of Peru and Ecuador reject any oil-related activity in their ancestral territories." After many years of legal battles, the Achuar people were eventually successful in defending their territory from exploitation, as partially explained in this online article: Talisman Energy Withdraws from Peruvian Amazon. Talisman Energy, in 2012, was the fifth oil company to withdraw from the controversial Block 64, located in the heart of indigenous Achuar territory in a remote and bio-diverse region of the Amazon rainforest.

With the help of the Achuar people, Gregor MacLennon, now with Digital Democracy, has produced an interactive cultural map of Achuar territory. The map is annotated with icons such as ants, boas, clay licks, commonly used plants, hunting camps, monkeys and peccaries that represent local knowledge of animals, resources and hazards (see banner image above). It also has links to location-based videos of interviews with Achuar people.

Many other articles have been written detailing the struggles of the Achuar people to protect their lands from exploitation by the oil industry. Other articles include:

Good Riddance! Canadian Oil Company Announces Withdrawal from Achuar Territory
The Achuar and Talisman Energy
Situation of the Achuar People of Pastaza, Peru
Impacts of petroleum activities for the Achuar People
Freshwater Conservation in the Peruvian Amazon
Achuar - An Ancient Indigenous Culture of the Amazon - Pachamama Alliance

Rivix Software is proud to have played a small part in helping the Achuar people to defend their ancestral lands from exploitation and degradation. We are also grateful to people like Gregor MacLennan who have made it their life's work to help these and other indigenous peoples.