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Peru’s Achuar Find Common Ground With Canadian First Nations in Oil Sands

They live thousands of miles from the oil sands of Canada’s north, but their refrain is familiar. The Achuar people, a tribe from the Peruvian Amazon, are contending with a Canadian oil company that they say has polluted their land, their way of life, and even relations with their own people in what is tantamount to attempted genocide.

Three Achuar leaders are in Canada to visit First Nations communities affected by oil operations and address the May 1 annual meeting of Talisman Energy, the company that is exploring for petroleum on their territory. They will also take part in a solidarity ceremony on May 4 at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre.

The leaders are from communities on tributaries of the Pastaza River in northern Peru, near where Talisman has been exploring for petroleum since 2004. Achuar communities are divided over the operations, with groups closest to the exploration site generally supporting the company and those in neighboring watersheds opposing it. The Achuar total about 18,000 people.

“They know our position, but they are insisting,” Peas Peas Ayui, president of the Federation of Achuar Nationalities of Peru (Federación de Nacionalidades Achuar del Perú, or FENAP), said of Talisman. “We want to make them understand; we want them to respect us. The [Achuar] people are tired of demanding our collective rights.”

“The purpose [of the visit] is to try and lift the Achuar voice and get Talisman to listen and respect their point of view,” said Gregor MacLennan, Peru program director for the non-profit indigenous advocacy organization Amazon Watch, who is accompanying the delegation in Canada. Achuar leaders also visited Canada in 2010.

Talisman spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland said the Achuar representatives would have an opportunity to speak at the meeting and meet with company executives.

The company’s policy is to “engage early and in ongoing dialogue with communities in the area of impact” of its operations, Buckland said. “We feel we do have consent from the communities where we’re operating, and we’re continuing to engage with them.”

Talisman is currently exploring in an area labeled Block 64 to determine the extent of a light crude deposit there. The company is preparing an environmental impact statement and expects to make a decision by January 2013 about whether to go ahead with development and production, she said.

Although Buckland said the company had no plans to expand beyond its current area of operation, Peas Ayui said the situation in Block 64 is complicated because the lands to which the Achuar communities have title are not contiguous. That makes it easier for a company to expand into areas that do not officially belong to the Achuar.

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Nevertheless, he said, those areas of tropical forests, hills and streams are ancestral lands where the Achuar have historically lived and hunted. Peas Ayui said the Achuar organizations’ goal is to win recognition for their entire ancestral territory, not just the titled communities.

“We want them to leave us our freedom. We want to live in peace,” he said. “There isn’t room to continue working, because the [Achuar] population is growing.”

Meanwhile, in a case that could set a legal precedent in Peru if accepted by the country’s courts, FENAP has accused Talisman of attempted genocide. The case stems from an incident in May 2009, when members of two local Achuar organizations traveled to the Talisman camp to ask company managers to withdraw from the site, according to lawyer Julio Dávila of the non-profit organization Racimos de Ungurahui, which is providing legal assistance to the Achuar.

When they arrived, they found other Achuar, from communities that supported the company, also at the camp. The two groups clashed. According to Dávila, the Achuar who supported the oil exploration were carrying shotguns, while those who opposed the operations had nothing more than the spears they normally carry when traveling. The case filed in the Peruvian court claims the company’s actions sparked confrontation between people of the same ethnic group. Talisman denies the charge.

“It is our belief that the proceedings lack any legal grounds and will be dismissed,” Buckland said. She added that the company called in government authorities and an ombudsman, and the incident was “peacefully resolved.”

Underlying the charge of attempted genocide, however, is a long-running battle against oil drilling that has split the Achuar communities living along tributaries of the Pastaza River, a remote area of the northern Peruvian Amazon, and led to divisions within their organizations.

“The intention is to create conflicts to weaken” the organizations, Peas Ayui said. “As a leader, I am concerned, because people are suffering every day with this problem.”

Achuar communities are particularly wary of petroleum operations because of long-standing problems with pollution along the Corrientes River, another Achuar territory, where Argentina’s PlusPetrol currently operates.

“With a polluted environment, we have no life,” Peas Ayui said. “Real development and quality of life mean living in peace, without pollution.”