Peru - UK oil company to expand in territories of 'isolated' Amazon tribes

Date of publication: 
15 April 2014

UK-based oil and gas company Perenco is expanding its operations in the Peruvian Amazon – in a remote area known to be inhabited by highly vulnerable indigenous people living in ‘voluntary isolation’. But as David Hill reports, Perenco denies their existence …

The indigenous people living in ‘voluntary isolation’ (IPVI) in the region where Perenco is due to expand – between the Napo and Tigre rivers and adjacent to the border with Ecuador – live with no or almost no contact with other people.

As a result, they lack immunological defences, meaning that the transmission of germs, a common cold or flu following any kind of encounter can cause epidemics or be fatal.

An ‘Indigenous Reserve’ to protect the IPVI in the Napo-Tigre region was proposed 11 years ago by regional indigenous organization ORAI. But despite some administrative advances, the creation of a cross-sector government commission and some field research, the government has not established it.

Dramatic impacts likely

In 2010 a coalition of 50 local and international campaign groups called on the companies then involved – Perenco, Repsol and Conoco-Phillips – to quit the area to safeguard the area’s inhabitants and the biodiversity of the rainforest.

“Operating in this area demonstrates an utter disregard for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, who may feel forced to defend their territory”, said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.

“If the companies have any sense, they will leave the area to its rightful owners before lives, and reputations, are ruined.”

Reports of substantial oil reserves in Perenco’s new concession mean that the operations are likely to move rapidly beyond exploration into production.

And that would be certain to have dramatic impacts on the indigenous peoples living in the forest – from noise, pollution, the effects of any oil spills, the release of drilling muds and waste ‘production water’, and oil workers entering the area carying diseases.

Perenco acquires Repsol assets

Perenco’s expansion follows six years of operation of a 101,000 hectare concession called Lot 67. It is now set to acquire a 745,000 hectare neighbouring concession called Lot 39, from the Spanish company Repsol.

Repsol has been investigated since 2008 by the Norwegian government’s Council on Ethics because of its operations in this concession and the negative impacts they could have on the IPVI.

According to a Norwegian NGO, politician and TV station, the Council has recommended that Norway’s Finance Ministry sell its shares in the company – but the Ministry hasn’t done so.

Why no Reserve?

Support for the declaration of an Indigenous Reserve to protect the areas IPVI people was expressed last year by the Vice-Ministry of Inter-Culturality (VMI), the state institution responsible for indigenous peoples, in a memo, no. 190-2013.

This was sent to the president of the cross-sector commission along with 357 pages of supporting material. But Perupetro, the state oil and gas licencing agency, appealed to the Culture Ministry (MINCU), in which the VMI is situated, to “annul” it.

MINCU responded by conducting a legal analysis which argued that memo 190-2013 couldn’t be “annulled” for legal reasons but suggested instead that the VMI “rescind” it because it wasn’t “scientifically rigorous” enough and didn’t include “reliable” proof of the IPVI.

The VMI duly “rescinded” memo 190-2013 on 25 November via another memo, no. 308-2013, which stated that the evidence provided in memo 190-2013 “must be confirmed by other evidence” and gave the green light for further fieldwork and analysis to be done.

Eye-witness sightings

The VMI took this decision despite the fact that over the years a great deal of evidence of IPVI in the Napo-Tigre region has been collected – including sworn testimonies, eye-witness sightings or encounters, and physical proof such as spears and gardens.

This evidence has mainly been collected by regional indigenous organization ORPIO and national indigenous organization AIDESEP, as well as, to a much lesser extent, Peru’s Ombudsman, MINCU itself, anthropologists, and various journalists.

In addition, a very wide of range of Peruvian state institutions and Peruvian and international civil society organizations and individuals have accepted the IPVI’s existence in the Napo-Tigre region.

These include the Energy Ministry, the Health Ministry, the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and AfroPeruvian Peoples (INDEPA), the now-defunct Natural Resources Institute (INRENA), the Ombudsman, the company that operated Lot 67 before Perenco, The Field Museum in the USA, and even Repsol itself.

Perenco: ‘there is no evidence’

Despite this, since taking over Lot 67 in 2008, Perenco has refused to accept there is any evidence.

“There has been extensive human activity in the area of Block 67 [since 1995]. Despite this, there has been no evidence of non-contacted tribes within Block 67”, its website claims.

Lot 39 is more than seven times larger than Lot 67 and almost entirely surrounds the latter, which is actually split into two distinct sub-lots. Asked if it would claim there is no evidence of IPVI in Lot 39 either, Perenco replied, via email, via the public relations firm Pelham Bell Pottinger:

“Perenco is making no ‘claims’ with regards Block 39. The facts are that the Ministry of Culture has said that there is no evidence of people in voluntary isolation. Furthermore, the Block has been extensively worked on by Perupetro and Repsol with no such people being encountered. This was also confirmed by the ethnologists present during the works.”

Asked where the Culture Ministry has ever stated that “there is no evidence of people in voluntary isolation” in Lot 39, Perenco replied by sending 1) a letter from the Vice-Minister of Inter-Culturality informing Perupetro that it had “rescinded” memo 190-2013 and 2) the document itself, memo 308-2013, which “rescinded” it.

Sworn testimony

However, neither the VMI’s letter, nor memo 308-2013, nor MINCU’s legal analysis on which memo 308-2013 is based, states “there is no evidence of people in voluntary isolation” in Lot 39.

What memo 308-2013 states is, as already acknowledged, that the existing evidence “must be confirmed by other evidence.”

Perenco’s claim about Repsol never encountering IPVI in Lot 39 is also contradicted by a 2008 report by ORPIO. One sworn testimony by a named, former employee of a company called Global, sub-contracted by Repsol, describes seeing one person and footprints and abandoned settlements assumed to belong to IPVI.

The news that Repsol is selling its stake in Lot 39 to Perenco was initially declared in a report by Perupetro, and Perenco has now confirmed it.

“Subject to government approvals, Perenco is acquiring a 55% stake in Lot 39 and will become operator”, states the company through Pelham Bell Pottinger.

Lot 39 – the biggest oil concession in Peru

When the oil deposits in Lot 67 were declared commercially-viable in 2006, the then president, Alan Garcia, described it as a “miracle”. But according to the Energy Ministry the deposits in Lot 39 are even bigger – probably the biggest of any concession in the entire country.

Perenco did not respond to a request by The Ecologist for the names of the “ethnologists” it claims have confirmed that no evidence for IPVI has ever been found by Repsol.

David Hill is a freelance reporter based in South America. Read more of his Andes to the Amazon articles.

Twitter handle: @DavidHillTweets


Indigenous tribe occupies Peru’s biggest oil facility, cutting output

by Renee Lewis –

25 April 2014

Argentinian-based operator has history of oil spills in Amazon, and plans to expand gas operations further south

Oil output at Peru’s largest facility has fallen 70 percent since indigenous rights protesters occupied the site on Monday. Native communities blame foreign energy companies like the Argentinian operators of the targeted plant for dozens of crude spills in the Amazon rain forest — some on the territory of remote tribes.

Protest leader Carlos Sandi of the Achuar tribe said Thursday that the protest would continue until the government provides a solution, adding that 400 police had been dispatched to the region.

Native communities have taken control of facilities and key roads in the Amazonian region of Loreto — in northern Peru, where Argentinian energy company Pluspetrol operates an oil facility known as block 1-AB.

The field produces between 15,000 and 17,000 barrels per day. It represents about a quarter of Peru’s relatively small output. The production has dropped by about 11,000 barrels per day.

Pluspetrol’s oil facilities are located near the Corrientes River where, last year, the government declared an environmental state of emergency. Two additional environmental emergencies were declared by President Ollanta Humala in large swaths of the Amazon rain forest near the oil field after finding dangerous levels of pollution on lands used by several tribes.

“Argentinian firm Pluspetrol is currently the most intransigent company in the region,” Indigenous rights group Alianza Arkana said on its website. The group added that almost half of the 8,000 Achuar people living in 31 communities in Loreto were considered “direct victims” of scores of crude oil spills and other forms of contamination.

Pluspetrol said communities were demanding to meet with the central government to talk about public health, the environment and the distribution of oil proceeds.

“Conversations are under way to bring a solution to the impasse,” Pluspetrol said in an emailed statement. “A government commission is there and we hope this is resolved soon.”

Indigenous leaders have said neither the government nor the company have taken any concrete actions to clean up the environment or compensate affected communities.

The Environment Ministry said in a statement last week that a commission formed by government and company representatives has been assigned to work with communities to tackle pollution problems and other concerns.

Block 1-AB has been pumped for more than four decades. Pluspetrol has controlled the concession since 2001, and U.S. company Occidental Petroleum operated it before that.

Pluspetrol has also developed gas resources in the Amazon rain forest, and has additional operations on a separate indigenous reserve further south in Peru, Survival International — a natives rights group, said on its website. The facilities are located in Camisea, in the heart of the Nahua-Nanti reserve where several uncontacted tribes live.

In January, Peru’s government approved an expansion of the company’s natural gas activities in Camisea — located 62 miles from Machu Picchu. Three ministers in the government resigned over the deal to expand further into indigenous territory, and the move was condemned by the United Nations.