New potential for conflict in Peru’s Amazon

By Chris Hufstader
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Indigenous leaders waiting to meet with Peru’s prime minister to discuss an end to protests.

Since the violent confrontations of last June in Bagua resulted in the death of 33 people, including 23 police officers, the Peruvian government has made an effort to increase engagement with indigenous representatives on policy issues at the national level through a series of participatory working groups to discuss  indigenous lands containing valuable resources like forests, water, minerals, and oil and gas.

Unfortunately, not all indigenous groups participating in these working groups felt that the discussions were productive. AIDESEP, a long-time Oxfam America partner and one of the largest federations representing indigenous peoples in Peru’s Amazon, has withdrawn from the dialogue process, citing lack of progress and reluctance on the part of the government to accept its share of the responsibility for the violence in Bagua.

While indigenous people and the government struggle to continue a meaningful dialogue, the Indigenous Federation of Madre de Dios (known as FENAMAD) has been objecting to the presence of Hunt Oil of Texas in the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve (RCA), part of the 3.5 million-acre Block 76 oil concession located in the Madre de Dios region in southeastern Peru. FENAMAD contends that Hunt Oil could be playing indigenous communities against each other to gain access to their lands. “The current strategy of the US company Hunt Oil is to negotiate directly with the members of each native community and seek to divide them and provoke open confrontation among the brother indigenous people within each community,” FENAMAD is saying in a memorandum.

There is a real danger this could emerge as the next flashpoint in a disturbing stream of conflicts between communities and oil and mining companies in Peru. The Peruvian Ombudsman Office estimates that of the 273 social and environmental conflicts in Peru in the first six months of 2009, 80 percent were related to extractive industry projects. (In 2008 there were 123 social and environmental conflicts in the same period.)

FENAMAD and other indigenous federations are insisting that foreign oil, gas, and mining companies must attain the free, prior, and informed consent from communities before they can enter any indigenous lands such as the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. The right of free, prior, and informed consent is a right of indigenous peoples established under international law, and requires free access to full information (including independent analysis of project proposals), adequate time for a community decision free of pressure and coercion, and the option to reject a proposal--or accept under certain conditions.  

The failure of oil, gas, and mining companies to gain appropriate access to communities with natural resources limits Peru’s ability to benefit from revenues it needs to help the approximately 50 percent of its population now living in poverty.

The legislature gave Peru’s President Alan Garcia broad powers to promote economic competitiveness through decrees last year, saying it was necessary to adapt legislation to comply with new requirements of the Peru-US Free Trade Agreement.  Indigenous federations and many civil society organizations have strongly protested the possible consequences of these laws for the Amazon rainforest and indigenous lands, as well as the fact that they were adopted without transparency or genuine consultation. Some of these legislative decrees were rescinded following violent confrontations last June, but many are still in force.

Oxfam America's campaign—called the Right to Know, Right to Decide—aims to arm local citizens with the information they need to weigh the costs versus the benefits and decide whether to provide consent for the projects to move forward.

“There is a potential for this confrontation to escalate to violence,” says Emily Greenspan, Oxfam America’s policy advisor who monitors oil and gas projects in Peru’s Amazon. “Companies seeking to operate in any areas need to attain the free, prior, and informed consent of communities. Those that appear to be forcing their way into communities risk serious conflict, as we have seen in the recent past.” 

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