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SATIPO, Peru, Sep 2 2008 (IPS) - “We will not allow the oil company to come in because it will bring pollution and we will suffer,” said Medaly Pancho, a member of the Ashaninka community in the central Peruvian province of Junín. “We hunt and fish, we live our peaceful lives, and we don’t want that to change.”
Pancho was addressing a congress of the Central Ashaninka People of the Río Ene Region (CARE), an organisation that groups 18 local communities, which decided in mid-July to mount determined opposition to oil industry activity in a jungle area labelled Lot 108, that overlaps four different provinces.
To express her anger, Pancho used the red dye made from the seeds of a tropical shrub known as achiote to paint marks on the faces of the representatives of Pluspetrol Peru, the local subsidiary of Argentine oil company Pluspetrol, who attended the congress, according to the minutes of the meeting to which IPS had access.
“If they want to come in just like that, our organisations will not take responsibility for what the local people will do. There will be bloodshed here,” one of the members of the CARE leadership council, Rosa Buendía, told IPS.
Covering just over 12,400 square km, Lot 108 encompasses a large part of the Ene river basin in the provinces of Junín, Cusco, Ayacucho and Pasco.
Conflicts between the extractive industry and local indigenous groups have mushroomed around Peru, which is in the midst of a mining and oil boom thanks to soaring international oil and minerals prices.
A full 72 percent of the land in Peru’s Amazon rainforest has been granted to companies in concession for exploring and drilling for oil, which has triggered conflicts and threatens biodiversity and indigenous communities, says the study “Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples”, published in mid-August by researchers at Duke University in North Carolina and the U.S.-based non-governmental organisations Save America’s Forests and Land Is Life.
The 18 indigenous communities of the Ene river basin are unanimously opposed to the operations of Pluspetrol Peru, and are questioning why the authorities did not consult them before the state-run Perupetro signed the concession over to Pluspetrol, disregarding International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, which stipulates that governments must consult indigenous communities prior to undertaking any activity that affects them or their land.
At the July congress, the indigenous communities decided to step up their opposition to the oil industry activity, which they had already announced in February 2007, and to set up a new commission to demand that the government cancel the contract with Pluspetrol.
They also agreed to kick out members of the communities who “betray” the position taken by the Ashaninka people of the Ene river basin.
Buendía told IPS that “the company is used to buying off former community leaders to win support for their projects. They try to divide us by offering money.”
She mentioned the case of Nehemías Tomás, an Ashaninka Indian who showed up at the July meeting as a translator for the representatives of Pluspetrol.
Buendía said that all decisions with respect to the government or private companies must be community decisions.
In October 2007, the company sent a letter to the president of CARE, Ruth Buendía, informing her that in November, geological studies would be carried out along the road between La Merced and Oxapampa in the Junín rainforest.
CARE responded by notarised letter to the company and the Ministry of Energy and Mines, stating that the project would involve the land of “the native communities and the buffer zone around the Ashaninka communal reservation, which means the exploration and drilling will directly affect the communities, in incompliance with Convention 169.”
CARE said the concession to the oil company amounted to “an invasion, because there was no prior consultation with regard to the scope and repercussions of the contract, in order for the communities to make a free and informed decision and to evaluate the benefits.”
On Mar. 27, the company called the CARE council to an informational meeting, in an effort to press ahead with its operations. In response, the indigenous organisation decided to invite delegates of Pluspetrol Peru to the July congress, asking the company to inform the communities of the details of the oil exploration project for Lot 108.
One of the company’s representatives, José Palomares, said at the congress that if “the organisation does not want the company to come in to the area, it won’t do so.”
A few days later, on Jul. 18, the Ministry of Energy and Mines informed CARE of the schedule of workshops to be held in the communities, to provide information on the environmental impact studies on Pluspetrol Peru’s operations.
“The government is doing whatever it wants, without respecting our agreements or the international conventions that protect us. It is used to merely holding informational workshops, as if that calmed people’s worries,” said Rosa Buendía.
“They think people in the community are stupid. But things are not like they used to be, when there were a lot of things we didn’t know about. Now we have young people who are studying and getting an education. The Ashaninka people now know their rights, and we are not going to permit these abuses,” she said.
BUT THE GOVERNMENT PRESSES ON
The head of environmental affaire at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Iris Cárdenas, told IPS that “these initial workshops have been scheduled to assess the fears and worries of the local residents.
“There is a schedule of meetings only in the communities that have accepted our visits. We respect what they have discussed with the company, and perhaps the dialogue process will take a long time, before work can start in the area,” Cárdenas admitted.
According to CARE, since the Ministry’s delegates began to arrive in the communities in the last week of August, local residents have firmly expressed their opposition to the oil company’s activities in the area.
“They have visited the area with a group of indigenous facilitators, but people have asked them to leave, because the communities’ self-defence committees are on the alert,” CARE lawyer Iris Olivera told IPS.
According to the schedule, the workshops are being held Aug. 29 to Sept. 4, in nine villages.
Why are the authorities seeking dialogue with the local population now? In the first phase, the entire operation was in the hands of Perupetro, the state-run company that negotiates and signs the concession contracts, Cárdenas explained.
“It’s a gradual process. The Ministry’s method is to go from community to community, because we want everyone to participate,” she said.
Deputy Minister of Energy Pedro Gamio told IPS that “with today’s high oil prices, it would make no sense to let this opportunity slip by, because it would ensure greater revenues, which would allow the state to redistribute the earnings and provide services like rural electrification.”
But anthropology Professor Oscar Espinosa at the Pontifica Catholic University of Peru said the government’s insistence that the exploitation of natural resources is essential to development only generates high social costs.
“There is a determination to ‘modernise’ indigenous peoples as part of a totally outdated 19th century policy, which merely triggers social conflicts,” he commented to IPS. “The state has an enormous pending debt to these communities, which it must assume by creating clear mechanisms for prior consultation when it comes to decisions about their territory.”
For native communities, land is inextricably linked to gathering and growing food for survival, and to their cultures and traditions, as well as to ties to their ancestors and to what they will leave to their descendants.
“They’ll give us money now in exchange for extracting the oil, but what will we leave our children when everything is polluted, if our territory is the only thing we have?” remarked Rosa Buendía.
The Ashaninka people also suffered interference from outside when the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas declared war on the state in 1980.
Buendía said the Ashaninka are even willing to give up the collective reparations they have been promised by the authorities, around 35,000 dollars, for having been victims of the 1980-2000 armed conflict, if the oil companies pull out of their land.
“First we were invaded by Sendero, which generated social conflict and death, and now the transnational corporations have come to take our territory away. Seeing our land and water polluted is just another way to die,” said Buendía.
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