LIMA, Peru (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Peruvian government has given the green light to expansion of an Amazonian gas field where critics say operations could endanger indigenous people who live in isolation or who have only recently come into contact with the outside world.
In a resolution dated January 27, the Ministry of Energy and Mines approved the environmental impact assessment filed by Argentinean-owned Pluspetrol for exploration and future production in part of Block 88, in the gas field known as Camisea, which overlaps a reserve for indigenous groups that shun contact with the outside world.
Opponents of the expansion say the government is not taking sufficient measures to protect the Nahua, Nanti and other groups in the reserve from contact with workers who could transmit diseases to which they have no resistance. They also say the exploration and drilling could disrupt the nomadic groups’ way of life and frighten away the animals on which they depend for food.
“This approval was granted without having in place the two protective mechanisms required by law – a protection plan and an interagency committee responsible for protection,” said Vanessa Cueto of the Lima-based non-profit environmental group Law, Environment and Natural Resources (Derecho Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, DAR), which has criticized the approval process.
The protection plan should be designed by the Ministry of Culture’s Vice Ministry for Intercultural Affairs, which approved the expansion on January 6.
In response to concerns raised by government officials, the company agreed to reduce the area targeted for seismic exploration, which involves cutting trails and setting off explosive charges, from 30 square miles to slightly more than 1 square mile.
The company plans to drill exploratory wells in six locations in the reserve. For production, it will build a 6.5-mile pipeline to connect with its existing operations.
The Camisea gas field has a contentious history. When Royal Dutch Shell explored there in the 1980s, diseases introduced by workers wiped out about half the Nahua people in the area and pushed the survivors deeper into the forest.
Because of that experience, and because of the gas field’s proximity to Manu and other protected areas, indigenous rights and environmental groups kept a sharp eye on the project in the early 2000s, when the Pluspetrol-led consortium – which also includes the Peruvian subsidiaries of US-based Hunt Oil Company, South Korea’s SK Energy, Argentina’s Tecpetrol, Spain’s Repsol and Algeria-based Sonatrach – began construction.
Under pressure from activists, the company agreed not to build roads, which could provide an avenue for outside settlers, but to ferry all equipment, supplies and workers by boat and helicopter, a model known as “offshore inland,” because it is based on the way offshore oil rigs are built.
The company built one well platform inside the reserve for isolated people, but the rest of the wells and pumping and storage facilities were outside the reserve.
Shortly after Camisea officially went on line in 2004, operations were marred by a series of pipeline breaks. In recent years, however, some environmentalists have praised the project for its minimal impact on the forest and wildlife. Scientists are studying a stretch of pipeline right-of-way where canopy trees have been left standing at intervals to provide a route for tree-dwelling animals to cross.
When the planned expansion became public, indigenous and environmental groups called for a consultation of indigenous communities in the area, under a new Peruvian law that requires prior consultation of indigenous people whose collective rights would be affected by development projects.
Company executives and government officials argued that the prior consultation law did not apply, however, because the expansion was part of an existing operation.
CONCERNS STATED, WITHDRAWN
In July 2013, the Ministry of Culture issued a resolution listing more than 80 concerns about the environmental impact assessment for the expansion. It withdrew the resolution a week later, however, and a few days later, the minister of culture and vice minister for intercultural affairs resigned.
Indigenous organizations presented their objections to the expansion at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in November 2013. The commission called for the Peruvian government to “guarantee respect for the human rights of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation through concrete, effective measures designed to provide legal and actual protection of their ancestral territories, and to refrain from taking actions that would go against their rights.”
In December, James Anaya, U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, visited a community of formerly nomadic people near Camisea and met with representatives of the company, government and non-profit groups.
Anaya called for an “exhaustive study ... of the presence and conditions of uncontacted indigenous peoples or groups in the area,” as well as a consultation of communities, including those in initial contact inside the reserve.
He also urged the government to issue guidelines for providing public services to the newly settled communities and to “act immediately to ensure effective access to health services and other basic services for these communities.”
Barbara Fraser is a freelance writer based in Lima. She specialises in reporting on environmental, public health, indigenous and social issues.