New Campaign Hopes to Raise Awareness of Threats to Peru's Nomadic Indigenous People

Threats facing nomadic indigenous people living in isolation in Peru are the focus of a new public awareness campaign.

Threats facing nomadic indigenous people living in isolation in Peru are the focus of a new public awareness campaign launched by one of Peru’s largest indigenous organizations.

The Inter-Ethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, Aidesep) is also considering taking legal action to block the expansion of oil exploration in a reserve for isolated people in the southern part of the country.

The public-awareness effort, launched Feb. 28 with the slogan, “Seeing is believing,” is designed “to make the invisible visible,” according to Jesús Castro Suárez, director of Ecodess, a non-profit organization working with Aidesep on the campaign. It will involve actors and musicians, work with schools and include video production.

Peru recognizes 15 isolated groups, possibly totaling as many as 10,000 people, in various parts of Peru’s Amazon region, Castro said. Five “territorial reserves,” covering some 10,860 square miles, protect areas inhabited by some of the groups, but others are unprotected. Aidesep has lobbied unsuccessfully for five additional reserves.

Even in reserves, however, isolated groups – some of which moved deeper into the forest to escape enslavement and abuse during the rubber boom in the 1900s – are threatened by oil leases that overlap their territories, as well as planned highways and dams, Castro said.

Aidesep is considering legal action in Peru with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights over the expansion of oil exploration in the Camisea gas field in southern Peru, according to Julio Ibáñez, a legal adviser to the organization.

The Camisea lease overlaps the Nahua-Kugapakori-Nanti Territorial Reserve and part of the buffer zone of Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve, which is inhabited by nomadic groups.

Indigenous leaders and environmentalists say the Camisea consortium, led by Argentina-based PlusPetrol, agreed a decade ago not to expand its operations in the reserve, but company executives and government officials argue that by law, the consortium has the right to explore in the entire lease area. In 2010, the government also granted PlusPetrol permission to carry out seismic testing – in which explosive charges are used to map oil or gas deposits – outside the lease.

In February, media reported that PlusPetrol had also sought permission to explore inside Manu National Park, although Peruvian law prohibits extraction of resources from national parks. Company officials said they only planned a visual inspection of geologic features, and spokespersons for the government agency responsible for protected areas said it had rejected the request.

The government is planning to change the designation of the Nahua-Kugapakori-Nanti Territorial Reserve to an “indigenous reserve,” according to Iván Lanegra, vice minister for intercultural affairs. Ibáñez said that would give the inhabitants greater security, but he and other observers fear the government could change the boundaries of the reserve in the process.

Changes to the reserve could reduce protection for isolated people, who are especially susceptible to diseases introduced by outsiders, said César Gamboa Balbín, policy director of the non-profit organization Law, Environment and Natural Resources (Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, DAR) in Lima.

In a press conference with foreign journalists on March 4, Lanegra said the government would not shrink the reserve, although it might redraw the boundaries if it finds the indigenous groups have moved to different parts of the area.

Gamboa and Ibáñez fear that changes to the reserve could pave the way for a new oil lease known as Fitzcarrald in the area of the reserve, between the Camisea gas field and Manu. Ministry of Energy and Mines officials have referred to Fitzcarrald, although it does not appear on official maps. Last year, an indigenous organization in the Madre de Dios region reported that employees of contracting companies had been exploring inside the reserve.

Several groups of people in the reserve have settled into communities and are considered to be in “initial contact.” It is not clear whether – or how – they would be consulted about any new oil and gas operations under Peru’s new Prior Consultation Law. Lanegra said Peruvian law provides for consultation as long as it does not endanger the people. Castro said there is no protocol for including communities that are in initial contact, which have no experience dealing with either government officials or corporations.