A Canadian sailor in the Peruvian Amazon

Navy News / November 28, 2019

This fall Lieutenant (Navy) (Lt(N)) Sean Place had the privilege of embarking in BAP Río Putumayo II, an Itinerant Social Action Platform (PIAS in Spanish) vessel of the Peruvian Navy.

Río Putumayo II and its five sister ships provide an invaluable and unique service by bringing government services to small, remote communities in the Peruvian Amazon and Lake Titicaca regions.

During his time in Río Putumayo II, Lt(N) Place visited 22 different communities on the Putumayo or Amazon Rivers for one or two days each, where he accompanied the commanding officer in meetings with the cacique, or village leader, to discuss individual problems faced by his or her village.

“We frequently ate, played sports and participated in cultural activities in order to build trust and good working relationships,” said Lt(N) Place. “Many people were very interested in me because I was the first foreigner to visit their community, and I was treated with great hospitality to Amazonian meals such as crocodile, piranha and wild pig.”

During the course of his six-week REGULUS exchange in the Peruvian Navy, Lt(N) Place said he learned a great deal about riverine navigation, but even more about the realities of life in a remote part of the world.

In an area that is only accessible by river or air, the PIAS-class ships, commissioned in 2015, and are based in Iquitos, a city of 300,000 people. For the Peruvian Navy, this base provides convenient access to the Amazon, Putumayo, Napo, Tigre, Marañon, Yavarí and Ucayali Rivers. These rivers form the circulatory system of the Loreto region of Northern Peru, which shares borders with Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador.

Each PIAS typically completes five 40-day deployments annually, with work periods of varying lengths between deployments.

“A typical community visited by a PIAS includes five or six houses made of cedar planks with a roof of woven dried leaves, unglazed windows, no running water or flush toilet, a kitchen hearth and one or two light bulbs hanging from the ceiling,” explained Lt(N) Place.

The community is serviced by a one-room schoolhouse with recycled textbooks and no modern technology. People fish or hunt every day because there is no refrigeration to keep food from spoiling. Communication with the outside world is only by expensive satellite phone or sailing in open canoes to larger towns.

Travelling to larger communities to sell timber, fish or game is expensive, time-consuming and often impractical due to lack of refrigeration.

“In communities such as these, there is no access to medical care, pensions, social insurance, or services to assist with family or sexual violence, and the government is unable to assess the quality of the schools,” said Lt(N) Place. “These services are all available in the PIAS, which sails with approximately 20 civilians embarked.”

“The PIAS program, which is a collaborative effort of seven government ministries, certainly cannot fix all the problems people face in the Peruvian Amazon, but it does measurably improve people’s lives,” said Lt(N) Place.

“I was extraordinarily fortunate to witness the natural wonders of the Amazon and Putumayo Rivers, as well as the commendable work of the PIAS program. It was an experience that I will never forget.”