A political battle in Peru over expansion of natural gas drilling into a reserve for isolated tribes is underscoring the difficulties the country continues to face in implementing indigenous rights legislation.
Officials in the country’s Ministry of Culture had issued a resolution in July listing more than 80 concerns about the environmental impact study for the new drilling in Block 88, the gas field known as Camisea, in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon.
But the ministry withdrew the resolution a week later, and on August 8 – the eve of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People – the head of the Peruvian Cabinet said the ministry’s opinion was still pending.
The sparring is the latest evidence of tensions in the government between energy development and the rights of indigenous people, particularly nomadic groups in the Amazon that shun contact with the outside world. Several of those groups inhabit areas slated for oil and gas exploration or production.
The Nahua-Kugapakori-Nanti Reserve in southern Peru was created when the Camisea gas field was first developed, more than a decade ago, to protect indigenous groups in isolation and initial contact. Part of the Camisea gas lease overlaps the reserve and the buffer zone of Manu National Park, and the consortium of companies that operates the site is planning to do seismic testing and drill exploratory wells in that section of the lease.
Indigenous people living in isolation migrate through both the reserve and the park. Some are believed to be related to families that were devastated in the 1980s by diseases introduced during oil exploration in the area.
Under Peruvian law, indigenous communities must be consulted about development operations that would affect their territories. But government officials say that because exploration in Block 88 would be a continuation of current operations, no prior consultation of indigenous groups is necessary. Because isolated groups cannot be consulted directly, the law allows an indigenous organization to represent their interests.
On July 14, leaders of Santa Rosa de Serjali, an indigenous village inside the reserve that was settled by formerly nomadic families, sent a handwritten letter to Paulo Vilca, who at the time was vice minister for intercultural affairs in the Ministry of Culture.
Referring to Argentine-based Pluspetrol, the company that heads the Camisea consortium, the letter said the community “has decided not to allow that company to work in our ancestral territory” along the headwaters of the Serjali River.
That letter was sent several days after Vilca’s office issued a 168-page document of “observations” about the environmental impact statement for expansion of operations into the reserve.
Many of the observations involved the possible health impacts of operations, either because of waste from drilling or because workers could introduce illnesses to which the nomadic people have no resistance.
The resolution also notes that the noise from helicopters, drilling rigs and explosive charges used for seismic testing could frighten game animals away from the area, reducing the nomadic groups’ food supply.
According to the vice ministry’s resolution, the environmental impact statement is incomplete and the consortium’s impact assessments and mitigation plans are inadequate.
A week later, on July 19, the Ministry of Culture rescinded the resolution, and a few days later both Vilca and Culture Minister Luis Peirano resigned. On August 7, the ministry issued a statement saying the resolution had been withdrawn because the Ministry of Energy and Mines had submitted additional information that should be considered before the Ministry of Culture issues an opinion about the Camisea expansion.
In a letter dated August 6, the government Ombudsman’s Office called for the Cabinet chief to take the vice ministry’s observations into account and to “guarantee the right to life, integrity and health of the people in isolation and initial contact.”
The letter urges the Environment Ministry and National Protected Areas Service to ensure that the nomadic groups “have an appropriate environment” for ensuring their livelihoods, and calls for the government to “implement a national plan for the protection of these populations.”
The Nahua-Kugapakori-Nanti Reserve covers an area nearly the size of Rhode Island, and the Camisea gas lease overlaps about one-quarter of it. According to the environmental impact study, the consortium plans to drill exploratory wells in six locations and build a 6.5-mile pipeline in the area.