After protests from indigenous and human rights groups, the Peruvian government took a step back from proposed new regulations that critics say would threaten nomadic indigenous groups that live in remote areas of the country, shunning contact with the outside world.
Taking advantage of contradictions in Peruvian legislation for protection of Indigenous Peoples living in “voluntary isolation” or initial contact with other people, the new rules would govern oil drilling, mining and forestry operations in reserves designated for those peoples.
Critics say the move comes as the consortium of companies that operates the Camisea gas field in the southern Peruvian Amazon basin plans to expand its operations in Block 88, which overlaps the Nahua-Kugapakori Reserve. The reserve was set aside in 1990 to protect isolated peoples whose mortality rate jumped in the 1980s after initial oil exploration in the area.
“These regulations are designed to facilitate new exploratory and extractive activities” in the reserve, “violating the human rights of our autonomous brothers,” the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica del Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, AIDESEP), Peru’s largest Amazonian indigenous organization, said in a statement.
Calling the nomadic groups “autonomous,” rather than “isolated” or “uncontacted,” the statement said they “depend on their territory for their subsistence and are highly vulnerable to contact with outsiders, because they have no defenses” against common diseases that are easily transmitted.
AIDESEP demanded that the Culture Ministry and one of its agencies, the National Institute for Development of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo de Pueblos Andinos, Amazónicos y Afroperuano, INDEPA) “not let private interests prevail over constitutionally recognized rights.”
After protests from AIDESEP and human rights groups, the Culture Ministry denied that it was favoring private interests over the interests of the nomadic groups and said it would seek to build consensus on the new rules before they are approved.
The conflict stems from contradictory provisions of a 2006 law designed to protect “indigenous or original peoples in isolation or initial contact.” The law provides for the establishment of reserves to protect the territory used by such groups until they decide to settle in communities and seek legal title.
Peru has five such reserves and indigenous organizations have filed petitions for five more. Several – like the one near Camisea – are overlapped by oil or gas leases. AIDESEP has tried unsuccessfully to have the government redraw the leases to eliminate the overlap.
In many cases, the government’s “public position has been to deny that these people exist,” said Gregor MacLennan, Peru program director at Amazon Watch, a non-profit group that monitors indigenous and environmental issues in the Amazon basin.
If the government permits exploratory operations, such as seismic testing for petroleum deposits, in areas where nomadic people have been seen, the noise is usually enough to drive them away, bolstering the official argument that the area was uninhabited, MacLennan said.
But while Peruvian law declares the reserves “untouchable” and prohibits “any activity other than those of the uses and customs of the indigenous inhabitants,” it leaves a loophole for the extraction of natural resources in the “national interest.”
The proposed regulations, which were circulated by the state, that the “untouchable” nature of indigenous reserves “is not incompatible with extractive activities, as long as there is a real public need and the state guarantees that they will use methods that respect these peoples’ rights.”
The rules – which include separate sections for hydrocarbon, mining and forestry operations – would establish a “comprehensive protection committee” for each reserve, consisting of government officials, representatives of neighboring indigenous communities and an anthropologist. They also establish a coordinator for each reserve, and require a strategic plan and a series of monitoring mechanisms.
But critics say the government has proven unable to safeguard groups living in the reserves. On July 7, just before the draft regulations were circulated, Eduardo Vega Luna, acting head of the government Ombudsman’s Office, sent a letter to the Culture Minister Juan Ossio Acuña, saying the reserves “are not being protected effectively by the state.” He specifically mentioned failure to stop illegal logging in three reserves.
Even Vega stopped short of calling for a ban on extractive operations, however, recommending that the government “issue regulations to ensure that extractive activities do not jeopardize indigenous peoples in isolation or initial contact.”
The United Nations estimates that 64 isolated groups live in the Amazonian regions of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. While precise data are hard to gather, anthropologists and indigenous leaders draw on accounts of sightings by neighboring indigenous communities, loggers or other outsiders to calculate the territory the groups inhabit.
Peru is estimated to have more than a dozen such groups, many of them in remote forests near the Brazilian border.