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PERU: Rights of Isolated Indigenous Communities Violated by Amazon Pipeline

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Mar 2 2006 (IPS) - A report by the Office of the People’s Defender in Peru states that the basic rights of indigenous communities living near the Camisea gas field have been affected by the foreign companies operating in the country’s Amazon jungle region.

The report, “The Camisea Project and Its Effects on the Rights of People”, also contains harsh accusations regarding the failure of the Peruvian government to defend the lives and rights of indigenous residents of the Nahua-Kugapakori reserve in southern Peru.

Most of the Camisea gas field wells exploited under concession by the Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP) consortium are located in the indigenous reserve.

The consortium is made up of the Argentine firms Techint and PlusPetrol, Hunt Oil from Texas, the Algerian state-owned oil and gas company Sonatrach, South Korea’s SK Corporation and several other firms.

According to the report by the Office of the People’s Defender, infectious diseases like syphilis, influenza, diarrhea, and respiratory ailments have reached the local indigenous communities – which previously had little or no contact with the outside world, making them extremely vulnerable to epidemics – in Camisea long before the progress and “modern development” promised by President Alejandro Toledo and the companies involved in natural gas production.

After monitoring the work in Camisea for five years, from 2000 to 2005, the Office of the People’s Defender reported that the Camisea gas project, which was touted as a model of sustainable development, environmental protection and respect for indigenous people, instead poses a serious threat to local indigenous communities.

The report holds both the foreign companies and the Peruvian state responsible for the damages.

At the presentation of the report, People’s Defender (ombudswoman) Beatriz Merino Lucero referred to evidence of the weakness of public institutions with regard to their duty to protect the rights of isolated indigenous people, particularly their right to life, health, property and the environment, when they first come into contact with the outside world.

Referring to the indigenous communities that have been most heavily affected by the Camisea gas project, Merino Lucero urged the government and the companies to undertake “the changes needed to promote respect for the rights of those who have basically suffered in silence.”

The report was released less than 48 hours after E-Tech International, an independent California-based engineering and environmental consultancy, presented the results of an environmental audit to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which helped finance the 1.6 billion dollar Camisea pipeline that carries gas from the Amazon jungle to Peru’s Pacific coast.

According to the E-Tech report, presented to the IDB in Washington on Monday, a large part of the pipeline was built using severely corroded pipes that had been left over from earlier projects in Brazil and Ecuador, and the welding was done by unskilled workers.

As a result, the pipeline experienced four leaks in its first 15 months of operations, and additional ruptures are likely at six points, most of which are located in pristine rainforest, said E-Tech.

When they come into contact with outsiders, the isolated Nahua, Matsiguenga, Nanti and Kugapakori indigenous communities are “particularly vulnerable to respiratory and gastrointestinal infections,” and “their cultural identity is subjected to changes that undermine their self-esteem,” says the report by the Office of the People’s Defender.

The report documents 17 deaths from influenza between 2001 and 2003 in previously uncontacted indigenous communities that had been visited by employees of the gas companies.

Cases of sexually transmitted diseases have also been documented. “Sixteen cases of syphilis were registered in native communities in Camisea and Shivacoreni. The communities blame the cases on the appearance of brothels near the camps of Techint workers,” states the report. Techint was in charge of construction of the pipeline.

“The diseases contracted by these groups due to contact with the company’s workers could be catastrophic,” the Office of the People’s Defender warns.

The document also notes that indigenous children have borne the brunt of the impact of the gas production project. For instance, the health of Nanti indigenous people, and especially children, in Montentoni and Marankeato has been heavily affected by acute diarrhea and respiratory infections.

Isolated indigenous communities in the Amazon jungle have frequently been devastated by diseases when coming into contact with outsiders. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the devastation was brought by rubber tappers.

The Office of the People’s Defender maintains that the companies have not been open and honest about the risks posed by their activities, nor fair when it comes to assessing the cost of the impacts.

The state has also failed to act, “because there is no policy with respect to compensation for uncontacted communities living in voluntary isolation,” says the report, which notes, however, that the gas consortium has earmarked funds to that end.

But the companies have failed to live up to clauses in the contract referring to indigenous communities, says the government office, which reports that it has “compiled evidence of breach of contractual obligations by the companies, that can be partly explained by the state’s institutional weakness.”

“For that reason, mistrust in the state and in companies that exploit natural resources is a common characteristic in Peru,” the report concludes.

The Argentine firm PlusPetrol has set the amount of compensation for communities affected by the consortium’s activities at 10.2 million dollars over 42 years (244,000 dollars a year or 668 dollars a day).

However, in the view of the Office of the People’s Defender, that total is based on questionable calculations, and is too low.

Further, the compensation payments are only to go to those communities directly located within the areas where the gas is being exploited, not those along the 720-km pipeline.

The report also discusses the effects of the four pipeline leaks on indigenous communities.

The gas leaks severely polluted rivers which indigenous people depend on for water and fishing, causing economic and health problems.

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