Indigenous Peruvians Oppose New Oil Concessions on Their Lands

HOUSTON, Texas, February 6, 2007 (ENS) - Indigenous leaders from the Peruvian Amazon, along with Peruvian and U.S. environmental and human rights groups, called on the Peruvian government last week to suspend its tendering of new oil concessions. All groups warn the oil development threatens to devastate Peru's pristine tropical rainforest and the native communities that live there.

Perupetro, Peru's state owned oil company, launched its 2007 bidding round on Friday at Houston's Petroleum Club, timed to coincide with the NAPE Expo, the oil prospecting industry's semi-annual trade show. Perupetro is hoping to attract U.S. energy companies to the drilling concessions.

At the launch event, three indigenous leaders briefly took control of the stage to warn the potential investors who packed the room that indigenous communities will oppose and resist new explorations on their territory.

From the stage, Robert Guimaraes, vice president of AIDESEP, an umbrella group representing Peru's indigenous Amazonian communities; Washington Bolivar, president of a local indigenous organization from the central Peruvian Amazon that would be impacted by one of the new blocks; and Mariella Stevenson, an indigenous woman from the Camisea region now living and studying in the United States, said that oil development would harm their peoples and their lands. Stevenson spoke for the group, in English.

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Washington Bolivar speaks while Robert Guimaraes holds a photo of the Peruvian Amazon outside the Petroleum Club in Houston immediately after the Perupetro launch event. February 2, 2007. (Photo © Bryan Parras)
In total, Perupetro plans to tender 11 Amazonian blocks, covering approximately 22 million acres of highly biodiverse, intact primary tropical rainforest - an area larger than the state of Maine.

During the intervention by the indigenous leaders, maps were distributed to the investors showing that that 10 of the 11 blocks have significant conflict problems.

Nine of the blocks overlap titled indigenous lands and were the focus of the verbal warning the indigenous leaders delivered to the potential investors.

Four of the blocks overlap official reserves set up to protect some of the world's last native peoples still living in voluntary isolation. Three more blocks overlap proposed reserves for isolated peoples.

At a press conference Friday in Lima, AIDESEP President Alberto Pizango denounced the Peruvian government's attempt to lease seven oil concessions on uncontacted peoples' territory.

“We demand the immediate exclusion of those seven blocks,” said Pizango. “This is an attack on the life and health of these isolated peoples.”

In December, AIDESEP issued a resolution demanding that no more oil concessions on indigenous territories be granted to oil companies and that reserves for isolated peoples be designated as untouchable zones.

Three of the blocks overlap the newly created Sierra del Divisor Reserved Zone. Sierra del Divisor is unique because it contains the only mountain range in the Peruvian Amazon, and thus is home to rich biodiversity.

These three blocks are illegal, according to Alberto Barandiaran, president of the Peruvian environmental and human rights organization DAR.

“According to the law, Perupetro cannot create oil concessions on Reserved Zones because they may yet be classified as an area off-limits to oil exploration, such as a national park,” explained Barandiaran.

A Reserved Zone is a temporary designation for an area determined to be worthy of protected area status, until the government places it one of the permanent categories.

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In front of the Houston Petroleum Club, from left, Robert Guimaraes, Washington Bolivar, Maria Ramos of Amazon Watch, an advocacy group based in the United States. (Photo © Bryan Parras)
The launching of the 2007 bid round highlights the Peruvian government's unrelenting effort to promote oil and gas exploration.

“The new blocks mean that approximately 70 percent of the megadiverse Peruvian Amazon is now carved into oil concessions, said Dr. Matt Finer, an ecologist from Save America's Forests in Washington. “That's a massive chunk of primary rainforest; around 120 million acres, much greater than the size of California.”

As recently as December 2004, less than 15 percent of the Peruvian Amazon was open to oil companies. In 2005 and 2006, the government signed contracts for the exploration of 26 new blocks, shattering previous leasing records.

Finer warned that the oil blocks are being created and leased without any regional or long-term analysis of the social and environmental impacts.

“In some regions, like the northern Peruvian Amazon, there are now more than 25 oil concessions operating simultaneously," he said. "No one is looking at overall impacts, we just get weak project-level studies.”

Huge areas of Peru's rainforest, such as the Lower Urubamba region in the south and the Corrientes River in the north, and the indigenous communities that live there have already suffered severe impacts as a result of drilling for oil and gas.

Last week's call for a suspension of the bidding round was led by AIDESEP and several Peruvian NGOs, with the backing of U.S. environmental and human rights organizations, including the Amazon Alliance, Amazon Watch, Environmental Defense, Oxfam America, and Save America's Forests.

These organizations met with Daniel Saba, the head of Perupetro, at his hotel the evening before Friday's launch event to make clear their concerns.

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Dr. Daniel Saba, chairman of the board of Perupetro, delivers his closing remarks at NAPE Expo in Houston. (Photo © Miguel Varela)
Saba said he was not interested in discussing their concerns until he returned to Lima and denied their request to speak at the microphone for several minutes the following day.

Indigenous peoples of Peru run into a similar lack of interest in their concerns. AIDESEP Vice-President Guimaraes said, "Currently in Peru, there is a lack of political will to listen to the concerns of indigenous peoples."

In Houston, Guimaraes was amazed that during the three hours of presentations during Friday's launching event, absolutely nothing was said of the overlap of certain oil development blocks and isolated peoples' reserves. “Perupetro is not telling the investors the true story about what they are really getting into," Guimaraes said.

It was also revealed on Friday that U.S. taxpayers' money funded the studies behind the creation of the most controversial blocks.

In May 2005, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency approved a $700,000 technical assistance grant to Perupetro to support the identification of eight new exploration blocks.

Given the intense media attention in Peru to these events, the government was forced to take quick action.

On Monday, Peruvian Energy Minister Juan Valdivia Romero met with AIDESEP President Pizango and agreed to modify the boundaries of three of the blocks so they do not overlap the Territorial Reserves established to protect the peoples living in voluntary isolation.

The minister also agreed to form a commission to investigate whether three other blocks, which overlap potential Territorial Reserves which have been proposed for government consideration by AIDESEP, really do overlap isolated peoples' territory. The Commission has 30 days to deliver its findings.