Indigenous leaders say operations in the remote Amazon violate rights and risk fatal epidemics

There are more indigenous peoples living in “isolation” in Peru than any country in the world except Brazil. All live in the Amazon - the majority in poorly-protected reserves, or areas where reserves have been proposed but never established, or “protected natural areas” such as national parks.

For years indigenous federations and other civil society organisations in Peru and abroad have worked for the territories of indigenous peoples in “isolation” to be made off-limits, citing Peruvian and international laws, emphasising their rights to self-determination, and stressing their vulnerability to contact because of their lack of immunological defences and the risk of epidemics and fatalities. The biggest dangers - in terms of outsiders entering their territories, exploiting resources and/or actively seeking contact - are oil and gas companies, loggers and logging roads, narco-traffickers, evangelical missionaries, Catholic priests, artisanal miners and highways. 

One particular area of current controversy is in the central eastern part of Peru bordering Brazil, where the 1.1m hectare Yavari-Tapiche reserve was proposed back in 2003. And since then? In 2006 a “protected natural area” called the Sierra del Divisor reserved zone (SDRZ) was superimposed over roughly 700,000 hectares of the proposed reserve, the following year an oil concession was slapped on top of approximately 81% of it, and then in 2015 the SDRZ was converted into the Sierra del Divisor national park.

ogging is a serious danger too. At least 15 concessions have overlapped the proposed reserve - mainly the central-west part - since 2004. This year, 12 further areas have been identified for future concessions, mostly in the south-west.

Oil, logging, a reserved zone, now even a national park. . . but still no Yavari-Tapiche reserve.

National indigenous federation AIDESEP, supported by the Instituto de Defensa Legal (IDL), has resorted to legal action. It filed a suit in Lima requesting that the Vice-Ministry of Interculturality complies with 2007 regulations to move forward with establishing the reserve, and that it implements temporary mechanisms to protect the indigenous peoples in “isolation” living there. According to regional indigenous federation ORPIO, the Vice-Ministry responded formally to the suit by promising that it would take action in August - but failed to do so.

IDL’s Maritza Quispe hopes that a sentence is emitted this month. “I can’t give you an exact date because that depends on the judge,” she told the Guardian.

In addition, ORPIO, also supported by IDL, has filed a suit in the Amazon city of Iquitos requesting that Perupetro and the Energy and Mines Ministry modify the boundaries of the oil concession, Lot 135, so the proposed Yavari-Tapiche reserve is excluded, and that in the meantime the Ministry abstains from permitting further exploration there. The suit also requests that the Environment Ministry entity running the national park, SERNANP, modifies how it has been zoned so the area overlapping the proposed reserve is made a “strictly protected zone” where oil operations are prohibited.

In recent months ORPIO has repeatedly called for the Yavari-Tapiche reserve - as well as two other reserves - to be established. In a statement issued on 1 October, which began by lamenting the recently reported massacre of indigenous people in “isolation” across the border in Brazil, ORPIO urged the Vice-Ministry of Interculturality to take action and requested that Lot 135 - in addition to adjacent Lot 137 and the logging concessions - is annulled.

ORPIO reiterated its position this week when it presented letters in Lima addressed to Perupetro’s chairman Francisco Garcia Calderón and the Energy and Mines Minister Lucía Cayetano Aljovín Gazzani, saying Lot 135 puts the indigenous peoples in “isolation” in the proposed Yavari-Tapiche reserve at risk of “extinction.” According to the letters - signed by indigenous Matsés leaders as well as ORPIO - the concession violates rights enshrined in Peruvian and international laws to life, health, stable environment, natural resources, communal property, ancestral territory, self-determination, cultural identity, prior consultation and consent, among others.

Both letters emphasise the risk of epidemics and fatalities, ORPIO’s ongoing lawsuit and the long-held opposition to Lot 135 in Peru as well as in Brazil, and “urgently” request that it is annulled. They also request that Lot 137 is annulled too: it overlaps 125,000 hectares of the proposed Yavari-Tapiche reserve as well as more than half of the Matsés’s titled land and roughly 153,000 hectares of a “protected natural area” called the Matsés national reserve.

“ORPIO and the Matsés indigenous community stand firm in their rejection of Lot 137 and Lot 135 and will fight against any company that tries to make an offer for the contracts, or attempts to explore for or extract oil in this area in the future,” the letters read.

ORPIO’s president, Jorge Pérez Rubio, told the Guardian the proposed reserve is “extremely behind schedule” and “in the hands” of the Vice-Ministry of Interculturality. “They told us it would be August [for the next crucial step in the reserve establishment process], but now they say October or November. We don’t have an exact date,” he says.

Pérez Rubio calls the indigenous people in “isolation” in the proposed reserve “gravely threatened” - and potentially more so if an oil company operated there. He says that no company is currently contracted for Lot 135 and suggests this could be to their advantage, although he recognises that the concession is an obstacle to the reserve being established.

“That [no company now has Lot 135] could be something in our favour,” Pérez Rubio says.

Certainly, the timing seems excellent for Perupetro and the Energy and Mines Ministry to heed ORPIO’s requests. The company that bought into both Lot 135 and Lot 137 in 2007, the Canadian-owned Pacific Stratus Energy, has recently pulled out - from the former this year and the latter last year.

Lot 137 doesn’t currently appear on Perupetro’s latest publicly available concessions map, but Lot 135 is still there - its boundaries unchanged. At a conference in Lima in May, Peru Energía 2017, Lot 135 featured in a presentation by Perupetro’s then chairman, Rafael Zoeger, in which it was identified as one of only a few concessions in Peru with “heavy oil” deposits.

So how likely is it that Perupetro - legal action aside - will modify or annul Lot 135 and Lot 137? Doing so would keep companies from drilling wells, flying helicopters, detonating 1000s of underground explosions and cutting kilometres of paths through one of the remotest parts of Peru’s Amazon - to say nothing of precipitating potential violence and/or fatal contact with the indigenous peoples living there. According to ORPIO, the previous round of exploration by Pacific, in 2012 and 2013, led to “overwhelming evidence” of the indigenous peoples in “isolation” - evidence which the Vice-Ministry of Interculturality is aware of.

Perupetro probably wouldn’t want to acknowledge it, but over the last decade or so there have been numerous instances of concessions - or proposed concessions - overlapping land inhabited by indigenous peoples in “isolation” which have been modified or effectively disappeared. This has happened without legal action and almost always after Peruvian and/or international lobbying - although not necessarily because of it.

Will Perupetro now heed these past examples? Here are 10 to remember and take succour from:

1 Lot 132 overlapped the Murunahua reserve for indigenous peoples in “isolation” in the Ucayali region in south-east Peru, but in 2008 it was re-drawn to exclude it. The stated reason was unequivocal: to avoid overlapping “reserves for uncontacted tribes in order to avoid confrontation with local communities and environmental organisations,” a Perupetro spokesperson was reported saying at the time.

2 Lot 133 overlapped the Madre de Dios reserve for indigenous peoples in “isolation”, but in 2008 it was re-drawn to exclude it. The Perupetro statement above referred to this too.

3 Lot 139 overlapped all or most of the Isconahua reserve for indigenous peoples in “isolation”, but in 2008 it wasn’t auctioned as scheduled. The Perupetro statement above referred to this too.

4 Lot 110 overlapped most of the Murunahua reserve, but in 2010 it disappeared from Perupetro’s public concessions maps. For years before that, it had been held by Brazilian state company Petrobras.

5 Lot 113 overlapped almost all the Madre de Dios reserve, but in 2006 the company holding it, Sapet, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Company, agreed to forgo operating in the part overlapping the reserve. It disappeared from Perupetro’s public concessions maps between May 2009 and February 2010.

6 Lot 57 overlapped a huge swathe of the north of the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti and Others reserve for indigenous peoples in “isolation” in the Cusco region, but in 2003 it was re-drawn to exclude it.

7 Lot 39 overlapped more than 50% of the proposed Napo-Tigre reserve for indigenous peoples in “isolation” in northern Peru bordering Ecuador, but in 2015 or 2016, according to Perupetro’s public concessions maps, it was severely reduced in size. Held by UK-French company Perenco, it continues to overlap parts of the proposed reserve.

8 Lot 117 overlapped the proposed Napo-Tigre reserve too, but in 2013 the contract with the company holding it, Petrobras, ended. It no longer appears on Perupetro’s public concessions map.

9 Lot 121 also overlapped the proposed Napo-Tigre reserve, but in 2013 the contract with the company holding it, Perenco, ended. It doesn’t appear on Perupetro’s public concessions map either.

10 Lot 142 overlapped the proposed Yavari-Mirim reserve for indigenous peoples in “isolation”, but in 2009 the contract with the company holding it, Occidental, ended. It also doesn’t appear on Perupetro’s public concessions map.

The Energy and Mines Ministry declined to comment. Perupetro did not respond to questions.

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