By Barbara J. Fraser
Catholic News Service
LIMA, Peru (CNS) — As Peru opens up a large swath of Amazon rain forest to oil and gas drilling, a church official has expressed concern over its consequences on indigenous communities and the environment.
“It’s going to have a tremendous impact on the Amazon and on the cultural life of indigenous communities,” said Adda Chuecas, director of the Amazon Center for Anthropology and Practical Application, an organization founded in 1974 by the bishops of Peru’s Amazon dioceses to defend the rights of indigenous peoples. “One of the strongest impacts is the destruction of natural resources” on which indigenous communities depend for sustenance.
“This will result in greater exclusion of these people,” Chuecas said.
Much of Peru’s Amazon rain forest is believed to lie above oil and gas deposits. More than a dozen companies are already drilling for hydrocarbons, and the Peruvian government is offering 12 new concessions in the Amazon, with bids to open in July.
Environmentalists are concerned because some of the concessions overlap protected areas, while indigenous leaders worry about lots that include areas inhabited by nomadic peoples, who live much as their ancestors did and shun contact with the outside world.
Where petroleum operations are under way, there have been problems with pollution and conflicts with indigenous communities. Noise from construction and increased boat traffic drive away fish and game, raising levels of malnutrition, especially among children.
The pipeline carrying gas liquids to the coast from the Camisea gas fields in southeastern Peru has leaked five times since it began pumping in 2004. One leak caused an explosion and fire that injured two people and burned several acres of forest and crops. Another spill killed fish, according to indigenous organizations.
In northern Peru, members of Achuar communities took over the installations of Argentine-owned Pluspetrol Norte in October to protest pollution from petroleum operations. Much of the production water from the wells — the hot, salty water that is pumped out of the ground with the petroleum — is discharged directly into the Corrientes River and its tributaries, affecting fish, animals, crops and human health, according to the Federation of Native Communities of the Corrientes River and studies by the Ministry of Health.
The standoff ended when the company agreed to change its procedures to ensure that all production water is pumped back underground and government authorities allocated funds for health care, nutrition and environmental cleanup in the Corrientes River basin.
However, with a patchwork of concessions for oil and gas, mining and logging blanketing the rain forest, the Peruvian Amazon is “completely broken up,” Chuecas said. “Conflicts will worsen, threatening indigenous communities.”
The government also recently merged the agency that used to oversee indigenous affairs into the Ministry of Women and Development.
“This government is less interested in the Amazon and indigenous peoples than previous governments,” Chuecas said. “It sees the Amazon as a place from which to extract resources” where there are great resources that will benefit urban areas, but not the indigenous communities.”
At least 24 petroleum concessions already granted in the Peruvian Amazon overlap lands owned by indigenous communities. While the communities own surface rights, the government owns all underground resources. As a result, oil, gas and mining concessions are granted without consulting the indigenous inhabitants.
Chuecas said that “the greatest impact could be the extinction” of nomadic indigenous groups who live in the most remote areas of the rain forest, mainly near the border with Brazil. They depend on fish, game and wild plants for survival, migrating in small groups around a fairly large area. Because they have little or no contact with the outside world, they lack resistance to common diseases such as colds and the flu.
In the 1980s, as many as half the nomadic Nahua people in southern Peru were killed by diseases introduced by petroleum company employees or illegal loggers working near the Camisea gas field. The survivors were forced to settle down in small communities so they could receive health care.
Chuecas estimated that there are between 11 and 14 clusters of nomadic people in the country.
“No one knows the exact number,” she said. “It is difficult to establish how many people there are and to what ethnic groups they belong.”
Encroaching petroleum operations and logging force these groups into smaller and smaller areas, endangering their survival, experts say. Five areas known as territorial reserves have been set aside to protect nomadic peoples, and indigenous organizations have requested that more be established.
Three of the new petroleum concessions that originally overlapped territorial reserves were redrawn to exclude those areas, but four remain superimposed over proposed reserves. Twelve concessions where oil or gas drilling is under way also overlap territorial reserves for nomadic peoples.
Part of the problem, Chuecas said, is that the reserves are not completely protected. By law, the government can authorize third parties — including petroleum or logging companies — to enter the reserves. Indigenous organizations are lobbying to change the law to make the areas off limits until their nomadic inhabitants decide to settle down and let outsiders in.
A 2005 World Bank study found that indigenous people in Latin America have less access to health care and education and are more likely to be poor than their non-indigenous fellow citizens. In Peru, 43 percent of indigenous households live in poverty; only 53 percent have access to safe drinking water, compared to 66 percent of the non-indigenous population; and only 30 percent have sewer service, compared to 53 percent of non-indigenous households.