Peruvian government on brink of expanding oil and gas development in reserve for isolated peoples and UNESCO world heritage site

House of an isolated Machiguenga family in the Nahua/Kugapakori Reserve & area of proposed expansion of the Camisea gas project
Shinai, 2006

Peruvian government on brink of expanding oil and gas development in reserve for isolated peoples and UNESCO world heritage site

The Peruvian government has recently approved expansion plans for the Camisea gas project in the heart of a Reserve for isolated indigenous peoples and is considering gazetting a further concession that could overlay Manu National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. These decisions threaten the lives and rights of its inhabitants and represent an infringement of both international law and Peruvian domestic legislation.

The Kugapakori, Nahua and Nanti reserve for peoples in isolation and initial contact’ in South East Peru was established in 1990 to safeguard the territories and rights of its indigenous inhabitants living in isolation from national society and in the initial stages of contact. Despite this protected status, it is also overlain by Lot 88, an oil and gas concession containing the Camisea natural gas fields which has been exploited by the Camisea consortium, led by Argentine company Pluspetrol since 2002. Concerns from civil society about the likely impacts of the gas project on the Reserve’s indigenous inhabitants resulted in strict conditions imposed on the Peruvian government by the Inter American Development Bank when they granted a loan for the project in 2002. This resulted in a new law for the reserve in 2003 which clarified that; ‘the granting of new rights to exploit natural resources was prohibited[1]. In 2006, the Peruvian congress went even further and enacted legislation that established a supposed ban on extractive industries within all Reserves established for isolated peoples in Peru[2].  

Despite this legal commitment to limit the exploitation to existing activities the Peruvian government and the Camisea consortium is pressing ahead with its expansion plans. On 13 April 2012 the Ministry of Energy and Mines approved the first Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the expansion of activities within Lot 88 in an area known as San Martin Este. These activities would initially consist of the construction of inter alia: 3 wells, several drilling platforms, a water treatment plant, pumping station, heliport and even a pipeline between San Martin Este and one of the existing wells (San Martin 3). The activities would involve intensive 2D and 3D seismic testing and would directly affect several known settlements of the Reserve’s Machiguenga inhabitants[3].  A further EIA is also currently being developed for additional exploration within Lot 88 but the details of the scope and area that would be affected have not been made public.

In reality, the expansion plans are even more ambitious. Recent government sources highlight plans to gazette a new concession, the so called ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’ before the end of 2012. In April, the Minister of Energy and Mines explained that ‘Lote Fitzcarrald is the continuation of Lote 88 [the Camisea gas fields] where there are great possibilities for finding gas….we hope [its gazetting] it will be finalised after completion of some legal proceedings but in any case it will certainly be completed this year’[4]. Provisional maps of the new concession[5] indicate that it is likely to span the Eastern section of the Reserve incorporating the headwaters of the River Serjali and the river Manu in neighbouring Manu National park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

International law and the rights of isolated indigenous peoples

International legal standards are very clear on the obligations of states to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation or initial stages of contact. In February 2012, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued special guidelines for their protection and concluded that states should adopt special measures to protect them owing to their ‘condition of extreme vulnerability’[6]. The guidelines explain that this vulnerability is a result of their lack of immunity to introduced diseases which makes them susceptible to ‘diseases that threaten their existence’[7] but also because ‘they are unfamiliar with the ways in which mainstream society functions, and are thus defenseless and extremely vulnerable in relation to the various actors that attempt to approach them……’[8].

The Nahua, one of the inhabitants of the Reserve, offer a tragic example of such vulnerability. In May 1984 they experienced their first contact when a small group were captured by loggers who were attempting to access the valuable timber in their territory. Within only a few months, Nahua population had been reduced by almost 50% due to outbreaks of respiratory infections to which they had no immunity[9]. The diseases and resulting dependency on loggers for humanitarian aid meant they were unable to prevent their territory from being overrun by loggers.

One of the only surviving Nahua described this experience:

It was then that we were grabbed by the sickness, the sickness that finished off my people. Coughs, fevers just like that. Before this, we used to have a little fever but no one had ever seen this burning fever, no one had ever coughed before. We tried to cure it with some leaves that we plastered onto the sick but it didn’t work, it wasn’t its remedy. Only a very few of us survived, so few of us, there were so many of us before but now we were almost finished and the vultures ate the bodies because no one buried them. This is how my people were finished.

Due to cases such as these the OCHCR is extremely clear on the severe risks posed by permitting extractive industries such as logging, mining, oil or gas in their territories. The OCHCR guidelines make it very clear to governments that ‘the area that States have delimited for peoples in voluntary isolation or initial stages of contact must be untouchable… (where) no rights to exploit natural resources must be granted’[10].

Jorge Payaba, coordinator of the Isolated peoples protection programme for FENAMAD (Native federation of the river Madre de Dios) explained that;

The Peruvian State must respect the rights of our brothers in voluntary isolation and initial contact that live in the Territorial Reserve. The expansion of hydrocarbon activities in these indigenous territories will have catastrophic consequences for them; game and fish will become scarce and their lives will be endangered by the presence of outsiders. The impacts will even spill over to neighbouring areas and would mean that other isolated groups living in areas like Manu National Park will also be affected.

Prevention is better than cure

The exact nature of the expansion plans are still unknown as PeruPetro, the Peruvian government agency responsible for administering oil and gas concessions, responded to formal requests for clarification of their proposals by simply stating that ‘no concession in the area of Fitzcarrald has been delimited nor is it negotiating the rights to the concession with any company’[11]. It seems however that PeruPetro is failing to communicate this fact to PetroPeru, the state oil and gas company who in a letter to Survival International explained that; ‘PetroPeru has been coordinating with different state bodies with the objective of exploitation in the area known as Lote Fitzcarrald’. In response, PeruPetro and the ministry of culture explained that this area is currently established as a territorial reserve which means that any commercial extraction of natural resources can only occur in compliance with the legislation that protects indigenous populations and the preservation of the environment[12]. In the meantime UNESCO have also been alerted to the danger due to the threat posed to Manu National Park. This represents a rare case where an international body has an opportunity to prevent violations of human rights and the environment before it is too late. Indigenous peoples’ organisations in Peru and the Forest Peoples Programme eagerly await the results of UNESCO’s interventions with the Peruvian government.

[1] Supreme Decree Nº 028-2003-AG, Article 3.

[2] The law for the protection of isolated peoples (2006) in Peru establishes that the reserves are ‘untouchable’ or off limits to any resource use other than that practiced by its inhabitants.

[3] Resolución Directoral No 162-2012-MEM/AAE

[5] Salto al futuro como por un tubo’ Caretas 4 abril 2012.

[6] Directrices de protección para los pueblos indígenas en aislamiento y en Contacto Inicial de La región Amazónica, el Gran Chaco y la región oriental de Paraguay, OHCHR, Geneva February 2012:Paragraph 16.

[7] Ibid: Para 62

[8]  Ibid: Para 14b

[9] Shepard, G. (1999) Pharmacognosy and the Senses in Two Amazonian Societies, Ph.D. Dissertation:  University of Berkeley, California.

[10] Ibid: Para 42. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has issued precautionary measures to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation in Peruand Ecuador  whose existence was threatened by illegal logging activities. In its decisions the commission requested that the Peruvian and Ecuadorean states adopt measures to protect their territory for purposes of effectively safeguarding the rights to life and integrity of their members.

[12] PetroPeru letter to Survival International, 4th June 2012.

Route of the Camisea gas pipeline, Urubamba valley
A Goldstein, 2003