Indigenous protesters have released more than 100 tourists and local people who were held on a boat for more than a day in an attempt to force the Peruvian government to act over oil spills in the Amazon region where they live.
The Indigenous Kukama had held a boatload of Peruvians and foreign tourists – including US and European citizens and at least three British nationals – since Thursday in Peru’s largest Amazon region, Loreto.
The native Amazonians were protesting against the spilling of some 2,500 barrels into the Cuninico River in September. On Friday the tourists and locals were released and transferred to another boat, but Indigenous leaders vowed that protests and river blockades would continue.
“After dialogue with the [head] of the Cuninico communities, our request to release people was accepted,” the Peruvian ombudsman’s office said on Twitter.
The leader of the Indigenous group, Watson Trujillo, confirmed the agreement to local media.
“The right to life and respect for life must be paramount. In light of this, we are going to provide facilities so that the people who are on the boat can be transferred to their destinations,” Trujillo said.
“This measure, which is being taken for the second time, is due to the constant oil spills in the Cuninico River. We have gone to the boat to inform [the tourists] why this is being done: because of the president’s inattention,” added the leader.
He said the spills had affected not only the roughly 1,000 inhabitants of his village but nearly 80 other communities, many of which lack running water, electricity or telephone lines.
None of the tourists were physically harmed, according to local media.
Among those taken while travelling on the boat were pregnant women, a one-month-old baby and people suffering from diabetes and with disabilities.
Media reports cited the number of people being held as ranging from 70 to as many as 300, including between 17 and 23 foreign nationals, among them Swiss, American, Spanish and French.
Charlotte Wiltshire, a British woman, earlier on Friday said they were running out of food and water, hygiene facilities were limited and there were “sick and elderly that we need help for, not just for us – we are desperate to go as well – but we need help for the Peruvians as well.”
But Peru’s prime minister, Aníbal Torres, made light of the incident on Friday, accusing the community of Cuninico of cutting the oil pipeline to later “claim compensation”.
His statement was rejected by Indigenous leaders whose communities live largely from fishing, hunting and farming and have been severely affected.
The spill occurred in the state-run NorPeruano pipeline which is more than 40 years old and is the target of much criticism over its poor maintenance. Oil leaks are common in the duct which transports crude oil from the rainforest to refineries on the Pacific coast.
Constant oil spills have had health impacts. Children and adults across Loreto’s four main river basins (Pastaza, Marañón, Tigre and Corrientes) were found to have levels of toxic heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, way above safe norms, according to blood and urine tests carried out by Peru’s health ministry in 2016.
In January, a huge oil spill on Peru’s coast covered an area the size of Paris, but the Amazon region has seen hundreds of spills that have threatened the very existence of dozens of Indigenous villages, according to The Shadow of Oil, a study by Oxfam and Peru’s human rights coordinator, based on official data.