The legislation, designed to protect areas from exploitation by fossil fuel, mining and logging companies, could also help protect indigenous communities from COVID-19
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By Marco Aquino and Matthew Green
LIMA, June 22 (Reuters) - Peru's indigenous leaders have been lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill to declare swathes of virgin Amazon rainforest off limits to outsiders, but they fear opposition by the oil industry may scupper a rare opportunity to secure a vote this week.
With concerns growing that the coronavirus pandemic could devastate remote communities, Congress is considering whether to fast track a bill which would restrict access to a string of indigenous territories near the border with Ecuador and Brazil.
Advocates say the legislation, designed to protect these areas from exploitation by oil and gas, mining and logging companies, would also help protect indigenous communities from the virus.
"Until now, high risk extractive activities have been allowed in these territories," Jorge Pérez, president of the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, told Reuters in a statement.
"This reform will guarantee the lives and human rights of the uncontacted peoples," Perez said, referring to an estimated 7,000 people in some 20 groups in the Peruvian Amazon who have very little or no interaction with the outside world.
Preserving indigenous territories in Peru and Ecuador is seen as critical to the wider Amazon ecosystem, which scientists warn is approaching catastrophic tipping points due to climate change and accelerating deforestation in Brazil.
While President Martin Vizcarra's centrist government opposes the proposed law, political analysts and legislators say Peru's fragmented Congress has a populist hue after January elections and could pass the bill.
Indigenous leaders met with Vizcarra on Friday in anticipation that Congress could vote as early as this Thursday.
But Lesly Lazo, president of the Congressional justice commission, cast doubt on whether the bill would pass this week since her commission may decide to subject it to further review.
"I do not think there is a rush," said Lazo, who belongs to the centrist Popular Action party.
Indigenous leaders fear the momentum to pass the bill quickly may fade as the country emerges from the most acute phase of the pandemic.
Peru's oil industry - including state-owned firm Petroperu - has warned lawmakers against passing the amendment, which would close loopholes in a framework adopted in 2006 to protect indigenous peoples from commercial interest encroachment.
Felipe Cantuarias, president of the Peruvian Hydrocarbon Society industry lobby group, said the bill would disrupt production and throw exploration contracts into doubt.
"We are asking Congress to please debate the issue and understand that this is not solved by withdrawing private investment, because then we all lose: the country loses, the regions lose," Cantuarias told Reuters.
Supporters of the bill, including Congressman Lenin Bazan, who belongs to the left-leaning Frente Amplio party, have pushed back, saying the current draft bill would not threaten existing oil and gas agreements.
Bazan, who presides over a congressional committee on indigenous peoples that has approved the draft, last week tweeted out a copy of a document he said supported his position with the message, "Don't be fooled!"
(Writing by Matthew Green; Editing by Daniel Flynn, David Gregorio, and Aurora Ellis)
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