Nicola Peel, activist and filmmaker, travelled from Ecuador to Brazil to investigate how oil contamination affects the rainforest environment and local populations
A day in the life of...Nicola Peel, Amazon activist and filmmaker
5th October, 2011
Nicola Peel's new film Blood of the Amazon tells the story of the world's largest environmental lawsuit and investigates how the oil industry threatens a fragile rainforest environment. By Jan Goodey
When you consider that it's inertia that often calls the shots on political issues in Western societies - ‘Do I have the two minutes to fill out that Avaaz petition?' - it's all the more impressive when you encounter someone who's prepared to go that ‘extra mile'.
Quite a few as it happens...Nicola Peel, environmentalist and film-maker, has spent the last five years in Ecuador working on rainwater catchment systems for families whose groundwater is contaminated from the oil industry; while at the same time filming the unfolding ecocide for her latest documentary, Blood of the Amazon.
So why does she do what she does, was it a calling? 'I have been a part of the problem. Before I discovered I could drive on recycled veg oil/bio diesel I used to fill up at petrol stations, including Texaco. When I saw first hand the devastation that had occurred I knew I needed to be a part of the solution. I was 20 when I had a very conscious partner in Australia and he got me on the path. It was the 25th Anniversary of Protestors Falls, the first forest to be saved by direct action. I was asked if I would go to the Amazon, live in a remote location and film the threatened pink river dolphins for the Rainforest Information Centre. So after going from one project to another, I was back swimming in a river in Australia and heard very clearly, "You are an environmental missionary." It made sense then and I thought yes I can do that, dedicate my life and convert people to Gaia.'
Sounds quite ‘grand' and yet there lies the truth; you only have to look at her back- story to see that. From 2000 onwards she's put together five short films documenting indigenous people's plight in the Amazon with the focus on practical solutions and successful environmental actions. Some of these were produced specifically for fundraising - take ‘Solution to the Pollution' (2006) which kick-started the Amazon Mycorenewal Project and documented the use of mushrooms to clean up oil spills in the Ecuadorean Amazon.
In 2009 she came up with the idea of using the huge amount of plastic rubbish to build with and so solve a lack of waste collection at the same time. Again in Ecuador, she helped build three small food outlets by using eco bricks: plastic bottles filled with rubbish.
Not bad for a self-trained, 39-year-old from Pulborough, Sussex, with a BTEC. And that was in business studies rather than film! Her family background is equally unprepossessing - mum and dad having owned a chippie and a newsagents. Meanwhile her own marital status is defiantly single - as she says, 'I have decided not to add to this life, we already have enough people in the world. Also at this rate I wouldn't have time!'
A privileged life
In which case what is it that keeps her going with a pace of life which would defeat many?
'Simple, practical action makes me feel like I really can make a difference in the world. Seeing the benefits to both the land and the people is enough to keep motivated and keep me going.'
As for the drive needed when working abroad, Nicola puts that down to ‘privilege'; a privilege she's had to shelter, food and clean drinking water and a belief that there's a need that needs to be met - people having similar rights.
In Blood of the Amazon, she explores this. What were the highlights of its making? 'Going out to the Annual Defense Coalition meeting in southern Ecuador, deep in the rainforest. A small plane with leaders from the various tribes was organised by the Pachamama Alliance, there was one seat left and so I got to go along with the chiefs with their faces painted, feather headdresses and spears. I spent five days filming. The conclusion of the convention was their absolute opposition to all logging, mining and military presence in their ancestral territory. The leaders then acted out a mock war against the oil companies.
'I was also asked by Save America's Forests to find out if it was true that Occidental Petroleum [Oxy] had built a road bordering the Yasuni National Park. Oxy had won a prize for a roadless pipeline saying it was all done by helicopter. We flew over and discovered that yes there was a road and so went down to the nearest village at Eden Yaturi and asked the locals to take us out and show us. With hidden cameras we filmed and proved the existence of the road. Being surrounded by military with large guns we told them we were tourists looking for the endangered Harpy Eagle.'
Now the film is complete she can continue with the slightly more mundane tasks of building rainwater systems for Ecuadorian people. 'They are currently drinking water from wells and rivers which contain hydrocarbons, heavy metals and radioactive substances. I have started some craft cooperatives and this money helps to fund the water systems. This year we built 19 families' rainwater systems.
Also there's The Amazon Mycorenewal Project (AMP) to build on, with the proven scientific effectiveness of using fungi to clean up oil spills. She and the group run a yearly course and for five years have been researching the best native mushrooms and substrate to help with the clean-up.
As for the waste plastics initiative - which was founded in Guatemala by a group called Pura Vida - she's taken that to Cambodia and presented a slideshow for the floating villages where there is a massive waste problem; teaching them how they could build floating gardens with bottles. They're now building a health centre. Also in Bali, with beaches strewn in plastic, she recently spoke at a school and in one day they collected 380 large water bottles filled with rubbish, cleaned up that part of the island and they are now building another school.
Ok so what's been the scariest experience campaigning, apart from that military encounter of course?
'In the world's tallest tree-sit in Tasmania where I spent a month a bad storm came in and the 84 metre high tree swayed incredibly dangerously. We did end up saving that ancient forest.' [part of a Greenpeace and The Wilderness Society campaign in 2004].
With that in mind, for most people the Amazon is about as remote as that treesit must have been for her. What is it like to work there? 'Where I work in the Amazon it is like heaven and hell. I can lie in my hammock and look one way at mango, avocado, coconut, sapote and it's paradise; look the other and it's huge gas flares and the oil industry. I've seen rivers running black with oil spills, kids covered in skin lesions and lots of sick people. When most people think about the Amazon they think of the deforestation but know nothing of the oil spills. They think I'm lucky to spend time there, unfortunately for me I'm with the people in hell not heaven. Still with all this around them they are such positive people and just get on with life, smiling and happy. Their family is the most important thing to them and even though they have no material wealth they seem happier than most people living in the western world.'
Jan Goodey is a freelance journalist
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