September 30, 2015

The Vampire Pipeline: Unhealth and undevelopment in the lower Urubamba

The Vilcabamba mountain range, last holdout of the Inca empire in the 16th century, looms in the distance as a man in a cotton tunic and baseball cap scrolls through the photographs on his laptop: dozens of people, adults and children, gravely ill from what was ultimately attributed to a rabies outbreak, but which many Matsigenka people of Camaná in southeastern Peru blame on a leak in the gas pipeline which passes near their village.

“Lots of people died. Children! Fourteen years and below, he said. They took them to Lima and they died there. The doctors came and said ‘It’s not gas, it’s not gas, it’s the bat-illness that bit them.’ I said, ‘What if you’re lying?’”

Young girl from the community of Camana who died, presumably of rabies, in May 2012. Photo taken by a community member and used with permission.

 “In 2012 the pipeline broke. They said it didn’t break, but it just leaked a little. In the month of March, at the beginning. They said ‘Don’t worry, the water is safe, the contamination isn’t coming downstream.’ But then it started raining and the floods bought all that contamination down here close to the community. 

Ohohoh!," he shook his head and then continued in the staccato cadences of the Matsigenka language, It messed up the river… At first I didn’t notice it, I was eating armored catfish and they had a strange smell. And then I thought, ‘It has come down here after all. People are going to get sick. We might die.’ And then my wife got sick. And the doctors came and said it was rabies. The bat-illness that bit her. I said ‘No way! It was gas!’ Has a bat bitten my wife? She was never bitten by a bat. I built my house carefully. You don’t get rabies so easily.”

A 600 km pipeline carries natural gas from the Camisea gas fields—among the largest natural gas deposits in all of South America—from the Urubamba region in the upper Amazon, across the Andes to refineries near Paracas Marine Reserve on the Peruvian coast. The pipeline supplies over 40% of Peru's natural gas, representing a contribution to the Peruvian economy of about 28% of GDP.[1] The Camisea gas fields are located in the heart of the territory of the Matsigenka, an indigenous Amazonian people of about 12,000 who live in the lower Urubamba, Manu and upper Madre de Dios rivers; some Matsigenka in the Camisea region maintain little or no contact with the outside world. And yet because of Peru's subsoil mineral laws, the Matsigenka people have no direct ownership stake in the gas deposits, which are leased by the government to private companies.

In March 12, 2012, the pipeline administered by Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP) near the Matsigenka Native Community of Camana on the Rio Picha (an affluent of the Lower Urubamba) leaked into a small stream known locally as Tsirompia. According to the people of Camana, not only did fish die and become contaminated with a strange odor, but also large animals such as tapir and peccaries that drank contaminated water also died and were found lying in the forest or along the river.

Water samples collected on March 13 by a team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate showed unsafe levels of petrochemicals at two of eight collection points, namely, the points closest to the site where the leak was detected. Unsafe levels continued at these two points through March 18, and a final collection on March 22 showed a return to safe levels at one of these points, although no data is given for the second point.1 The health team concluded that, by the date of its return on March 23, the water in the region was now safe.

Yet a number of people fell ill beginning late March through mid-April, and by May 10 five children had died. According to media reports at the time, the people of Camana blamed these illnesses and deaths on contamination from the gas leak.

A health team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate in May concluded that the deaths did not result from water contamination but rather were probably due to rabies transmitted by vampire bats.
[2] In all, eight suspected cases of rabies were documented of which seven (all children or adolescents 14 years old or less) proved fatal. The only survivor was an adult woman, the wife of the man interviewed above. One of the fatal cases was confirmed as rabies by autopsy, and two additional cases showed indications of rabies by indirect laboratory results. The exact cause of the initial five deaths could not be confirmed due to lack of blood or tissue samples, however the report classified them as “probable” rabies cases.

However during my visit to the community in April of 2014 as part of an independent evaluation of social, economic and environmental impacts of gas development in southern Peru, many community members suspected that some or perhaps all of these illnesses and deaths were not a result of rabies, but rather consequences of the gas leak in March.

We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.”

As one man said, “There has not been one case of rabies for years and years. There’s a gas spill, and suddenly people start dying. It’s not rabies: it’s the gas. It’s been another two years since then and not a single case of rabies: it was the gas!”

Camana previously suffered from a rabies epidemic outbreak in 1996 that killed nine people. When I visited Camana in 1997,[3] the people there, while accepting the rabies diagnosis, universally associated the outbreak with the initiation of seismic exploration by Chevron Oil Company. Chevron cut a vast network of transects through the forests in the surrounding territory and detonated explosive charges for seismic mapping of gas and oil deposits. At that time, community members as well as local health workers and biologists I spoke to found the coincidence striking, and some suggested that ecological disturbances of local bat or host animal populations caused by transect-cutting or seismic explosions might have contributed to the outbreak. Neither these local interpretations of the rabies outbreak nor the possibility of an actual epidemiological association were mentioned in the baseline health report[4] financed by Shell Prospecting and Development, the initial bidder for the Camisea gas contract.

A previous outbreak of rabies in 1996 coincided with Chevron's seismic studies in the forests around Camana (Photo: G. Shepard, 1997)
Is it possible that the die-back of fish and animals in the 2012 gas leak might have caused ecological disturbance to bat populations that could have contributed to this recent outbreak? The coincidence demands a more thorough investigation and explanation. The people of Camana and nearby indigenous communities remain deeply mistrustful of the various gas companies (which they refer to collectively as “La Empresa,” ‘The Company’) that work in the region, the participatory community environmental monitoring teams (PMAC), the municipal government, and the Health Ministry.

As one elderly woman from the region summed it up, “They get their money from the company. They’re not going to criticize the one who feeds them. You don’t get food out of your neighbor’s garden and then complain about it.”

The Picha river suffered a major pipeline rupture in 2005 that killed fish throughout the Picha and into the Urubamba basin. According to one community leader, fish populations took over three years to recover. 

Eight leaks or ruptures occurred during the first ten years of the pipeline's operation, and local people have begun to use digital cameras to register incidents of water contamination and fish die-back (Photos used with permission).

“So many fish died! Ohohoh!,” he shook his head in dismay. Lots and lots. It was like someone had put poison into the river. Big fish died. Tapirs. Peccaries... And I said, ‘How is this possible! You promised the pipeline wouldn’t break and now it has broken!’… Our organization submitted papers and they gave us 75,000 dollars to each community… For three years there were no fish. We suffered, what could we give our children to eat? It took a long time. Three years passed and the fish just started recovering, coming upriver to spawn. And we thought, ‘What are we going to eat?’ And so the Company built us a fish farm. But they gave us hardly any fish, just a few. We eat fish every day! It’s never going to last. But they said you all have to raise them and make them multiply. But they all ran out.”

"They all ran out": The (empty) communal aquaculture pond at Camana.

Frightened by this previous experience, and despite assurances by the health and environmental monitoring team that the river was safe, many people stopped consuming fish or game for several weeks or even months after the gas leak in March 2012, and some complained of going hungry. Some were afraid to even bathe in the river for some time after the leak. The community’s piped water system—installed by TGP in 2005 as compensation in the aftermath of the major gas spill that year—brings untreated stream water to only 20 of the more than 140 households in the community. According to their reports, and a photograph they showed me, each family in Camana received a single basket of food assistance containing a kilo or so of rice, noodles, some tins of milk and tuna, and sugar.

"That's all they brought! That won't even last one day!": Food assistance supplied by the municipal government to Camana in June of 2012

“They didn’t bring hardly any supplies,” he continued. “You see! That’s all they brought! That won’t even last one day! We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.” 

“When the Company first started working here I was a little worried. I said, ‘Maybe the pipeline will break and gas will leak out and lots of fish will die in the river.’ But the Company representatives said ‘No way! They’ll bring really strong steel pipes. It’ll never break. They do very fine work. It will all turn out well.’ But then when they started working and digging the streams got very dirty. Ohohoh! And everything started going bad. Fish of all kinds, shrimp in the streams, they got so skinny. And I said ‘What will we do? Are they lying to us? Maybe later on the pipe will break and the fish will die in great numbers and the Matsigenka will die in great numbers too’… All the companies can spend lots of money to pay for compensation, but how can they pay for a human life if someone dies? How can they replace a human being? They will suffer so much remembering and grieving.”

Traveling throughout Peru, one sees heavy machinery paving highways, cities teeming with new buildings and public works, a virtual explosion of fancy restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, luxury goods and of course, unprecedented supplies of natural gas being put to use in vehicles, cooking and power generation. The system of wells and pipelines tapping into trillions of cubic feet of natural gas located beneath the Matsigenka’s traditional territory has injected billions of dollars into the Peruvian economy and resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of royalty payments each year, a large percentage of which are returned through the “Canon” tax agreement directly to regional and local governments
.[1]  Over 1 billion dollars has been channeled to the Echarate regional government so far, and yet the indigenous communities suffering the most severe impacts of gas exploitation see few long-term benefits, and many complain that they are worse off than before.[5]

Billboard announcing 6 million sol (2 million dollar) child health project for the lower Urubamba, funded by the "Canon" gas royalties

There is no question of the tremendous contribution the Camisea Gas project has made to generating economic growth and lifting hundreds of thousands of Peruvians out of poverty. Traveling through the Lower Urubamba, one sees huge billboards announcing community development projects worth hundreds of thousands, even millions of Peruvian soles: education, sanitation, health, transportation. Yet much of this money has been wasted on failed projects and “shipwrecked” development schemes. The money that does reach the region directly seems to be spent according to no logical much less ethical priorities. Many Matsigenka in the region now have televisions for watching news, cartoons, sports matches and inane reality TV shows; refrigerators to keep their beer chilled; boom boxes and MP3 players for listening to the latest chicha, huayno and tecno music; and even cell phones in some communities. Yet most continue to use unhygienic open latrines, drink untreated water, and complain about the poor quality of health and education services. Fish and game populations seem to have declined severely, and half of children suffer from malnutrition.[6]

1 billion dollars in investments:  failed tap-water systems, filthy toilets, a dilapidated school house:
"Such are the mathematics of indignation..."

While the pipeline that runs near their village sucks gas out of the ground, sends wealth coursing through the veins of the Peruvian economy, and occasionally ruptures and destroys their fish harvest, the people of Camana languish with their twenty tap stands for 140 houses, their empty community fish-culture pond, the paralyzed construction site of a half-finished school, their grief, their anger and demands for justice, and the spectral image of a two-year old girl killed by rabies transmitted by a blood-sucking bat. 

"How can they replace a human being? They will suffer so much remembering and grieving."

This posting summarizes findings presented in:
 Social And Environmental Evaluations in the Lower Urubamba 
first published online in May 2015 by the 
Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru


     1.   Castro de la Mata G., M. Santillana, G.H. Shepard & R. C. Smith. 2014. "Camisea: Emerging lessons in Development," First Consolidated Report (2010-2014). Lima:  Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru / Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia
     2.  Dirección Regional de Salud Cusco. 2012. “Presencia de probable brote de Rabia Humana Silvestre en la localidad de Camana, Distrito de Echarate, Provincia de la Convención, Región Cusco.” Informe de seguimiento No. 02 de alerta epidemiológica No. 002-2012. Cusco: 29 May, 2012.
     3 Shepard, G.H. Jr. & A. Chicchon. 2001. “Resource use and ecology of the Matsigenka of the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Vilcabamba.” In: Alonso, A.E., A. Alonso, T.S. Schulenberg & F. Dallmeier, (Eds.), Biological and Social Assessments of the Cordillera de Vilcabamba, Peru. Washington, D.C.: Conservation International. (RAP Working Papers No. 12), 164-174.
     4Toonen, J., G. Ramirez, A. Llanos, P. Campos, F. Samalvides, T. Taype, F. Carbone, R. Figueroa & R. Hurtado. 1996. “A Health Baseline Study in the Camisea Area, Lower Urubamba, Peru.” Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, Peruvian Ministry of Health, Lima, Instituto de Medicina Tropical Cayetano Heredia, Lima & Vicariato Apostólico, Puerto Maldonado. September 1996.
    5. Shepard, G.H. 2012. "Shipwrecked: The sorry state of development in the lower Urubamba,"
In: G. Castro de la Mata, P. Majluf, G.H. Shepard Jr. & R.C. Smith, “Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru – 2011-2012 Report.” Lima:  Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru / Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia.
     6. Shepard, G.H. 2015. "Social and Environmental Evaluations in the Lower Urubamba: Health Status and Fisheries," In: G. Castro de la Mata, M. Santillana, G.H. Shepard Jr. & R.C. Smith, “Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru – 2013-14 Report.” Lima:  Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru / Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia


  1. Buen resumen Glenn. Esto se repetirá decenas y cientos de veces en los años que vienen.

    1. Probable que si, casi inevitable, pero haciendo este tipo de denunica se espera que no se repita, o por lo menos, que no digan que no sabian que iba a ser asi. Gracias por tu comentario y tu apoyo, Glenn

  2. I’m scratching my head over this.

    Methane gas is an asphyxiant and will explode when there is spark or fire.

    I don’t know how Peru’s agencies rank. They should be proactively monitoring in the field. That would be an EPA, CDC, and Army Corp of Engineers style team effort at a minimum.

    I’m leaning to the Vampire bat rabies scenario. But there could be a compound problem. Contaminated water with heavy metals, lead, mercury, cadmium, lithium. This gets into food chain. Insects carrying disease such as mosquitoes and sand flies. Malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever. There have been reported outbreaks before.

  3. There is definitely a rabies problem in this village, since there was an outbreak in 1996. But again, local people associated that one with the initiation of seismic activity. I have spoken with biologists who say that bat populations are very sensitive to environmental disturbances and can switch prey in such situations. The coincidence of this recent outbreak (no other cases in the ensuing 18 years) with the gas leak is also highly suspicious. Some of the cases seem to have been confirmed as rabies, though many other people fell ill and claimed that the illness came from consuming contaminated fish or water. Perhaps the rabies outbreak in 1996 was just a tragic mishap, at a time when this community was extremely remote and inaccessible. However now, 18 years later, with a proven history of rabies, and over 1 billion DOLLARS (not soles) in royalties that have poured into the municipal government of that region since the pipeline started operation, and this being one of the closest villages to the pipeline, you'd think that there would have been at least a minimal level of health surveillance to have detected this outbreak sooner, and taken more decisive action to avoid further tragedy. Seven children dead?! 1 billion dollars in royalties" "Such are the mathematics of indignation." Thank you very much for your comment and if you have any other observations about the incident please get back in touch, Glenn

  4. One other observation is disturbing. The Mashco Piro videos. I’ll tie it in.

    Something is wrong with man at the 0:55 mark in 2013 video (Monte Salvado). Watch the man wearing large yellow waist belt. He must have splitting headache and fever. Continually holds head with hand and arm to forehead and wipes sweat from face. 2013 PAN RAMA video shows teenage Mashco guy doing same exact same thing. If its dengue fever and these guys have good immune system, then 1 week of hell and they will recover. Take a look.

    1. I hadn't noticed this. You're sure it's not just freshening up in the hot sun? Worse still would be the flu...

  5. Bat out of hell observations

    I’ve been poking around at the rainforestflow and (ACT) Amazon Conservation Team websites. I’m guessing you know Dr. Mark Plotkin. Identical mission strategy and core values.

    The pictures of those houses, water system, toilet and school look bad. Some refugee camps in the middle of a war zone have better amenities. A quick cheap fix for the bats would be to fill in any gaps those houses have with fine mesh screens. My preference would be a complete makeover using modular Geodesic Dome structures. And Peru picks up the tab for project cost instead of being a tight wade.

    I hope Amazon tribes don’t start copycatting what most U.S Indian tribes did to generate income. I know the Yine are getting ideas at Monte Salvado. The goose that lays a golden egg on U.S. Indian reservations, is the casino business.

    Take the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe in Connecticut for instance. They built Foxwoods Resort Casino. It is the 2nd largest casino in the U.S. at 340,000 sq ft. As of 2012, Foxwoods had debts of $2.3 billion dollars. Imagine having something like this mammoth structure rising in the Amazon? Take a look.

  6. No casinos yet... Yavireri forbid... But many local communities now run small-scale ecotourism lodges. Lots of problems, generally the big tourism companies dominate the market with minimal benefit for local communities, but some success stories. Yes, the water systems installed by the Peruvian government are shameful, but an NGO has been doing great work on more practical, sustainable systems in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, and we're hoping to spread this technology to the Camisea region. It would be a much better investment than what is currently going on. see Thanks for your comment, Glenn

  7. PS - Here is an article on one indigenous ecotourism lodge that has met with many obstacles but some degree of success:

  8. Glenn, curious to know what your suggestions are for finding solutions to this issue (the resource curse) and other situations like it in the Amazon?

  9. Peru is no longer a poor country, thanks largely to Camisea gas proceeds, and the Echarate district has received over a billion dollars in royalties. Unfortunately these benefits are not reaching the populations most impacted by the pipeline. There are tremendous problems with corruption, poor oversight and lack of long-term planning. There is just no excuse for this kind of situation. Solutions? I think indigenous communities need to be empowered to develop their own priorities for investment based on their own cultural values, like in the Kametsa Asaika project among the Ashaninka and other "plan de vida" type initiatives that promote development around a set of core cultural values and not just random failed projects developed mostly to spend money and line the pockets of corrupt officials and companies. Thanks for the comment!

  10. That was 2012. As of March 2016, another gas pipeline ruptures. Here is excerpt from AIDESEP:

    CUSCO: Fish die liquid component in gas extraction in Communal Reserve Machigenga

    The Machiguenga Council of the Urubamba River - COMARU, representative of indigenous peoples of Upper and Lower Urubamba organization, decides on the environmental tragedy that has caused the rupture of the pipeline company TGP in the Lower Urubamba, Echarate, Cusco last 19 January at the KP 56 + 800, near the Paratori broken, and the protected area Machiguenga Communal Reserve.

    Photographic evidence are obvious, the Paratori ravine full of dead fish. This stream is a tributary of the Urubamba river so our whole basin is at risk. This tragedy is affecting different native communities using this stream as a source of water and food. The liquid gas is a highly polluting fuel, its smell is as strong as gasoline.

    As announced AIDESEP have occurred not only in Chiriaco spills and Morona, there was a spill of "liquid gas" in Cusco and this affected the fish near the Paratori broken, and the protected area Machiguenga Communal Reserve.

    Is it safe to drink water in Cusco?

    1. The impacts go on and on, Peru's economy develops and the people who are hardest hit see minimal benefits, if any, and are probably worse off than before. David Hill's recent article presents a good general perspective, he's one of the few reporters covering this story.

      About drinking water in Cusco: the only tap water I drink in Peru is in the 3 indigenous villages where the American/Peruvian NGO "Rainforest Flow" has installed eco-friendly, natural water filtration. We have tried to convince the Peruvian government to adapt this system, but the big construction funding gets channeled through the usual corrupt networks. Unfortunately, indigenous health seems to be a low priority. Read more about this water project at:

      Thanks for writing, and very sorry for the long delay: I was on extended health leave and am only beginning to catch up, Glenn