Conservation groups based in Washington warned today that the Peruvian government is signing so many contracts with multinational oil companies that half the rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon is now covered with oil leases.
The Peruvian Amazon contains some of the most pristine and biodiverse rainforests on Earth, says said Dr. Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests, who has spent years working as an ecologist in the rainforests of Peru and Ecuador.
‘Over 97 million acres of the Peruvian Amazon, roughly the size of California, is now zoned for oil and gas exploration and exploitation,’ he said. ‘That represents well over one-half of the remaining intact Peruvian rainforest.’
There are now 39 active oil concessions in the Peruvian Amazon, all but eight leased in the last three years. In 2003, Peru lowered royalties on exploration, intensifying interest from foreign oil companies.
‘Eighteen different multinational companies currently operate concessions in the Peruvian Amazon,’ said Ellie Happel of Environmental Defense. ‘These include American companies Occidental, ConocoPhillips, Barrett, Harken, Hunt, and Amareda Hess.’
In addition, Pluspetrol of Argentina, Petrobras of Brazil, Repsol of Spain, Petrolifera of Canada, and Sipet of China are all operating multiple concessions.
Most new oil concession contracts establish a seven year exploration phase consisting of seismic studies and the drilling of several exploratory wells in remote jungle areas. The total term for most contracts is 30 years for oil exploitation and 40 for gas.
‘Amazonian diversity for plants, birds, amphibians, and mammals all peak at its upper reaches in Peru and Ecuador,’ said Dr. Clinton Jenkins of Duke University.
‘The Peruvian oil concessions overlap with some of the most biodiverse areas of rainforest on Earth.’
More than 20 oil concessions now occupy most of the northern Peruvian Amazon. This region is the ancestral territory of the Achuar, Quechua, Urarina, and Secoya indigenous peoples.
‘Virtually all of the concessions overlap indigenous territories,’ said Trevor Stevenson of Amazon Alliance. ‘Most troubling, some of the concessions overlap areas that are home to uncontacted tribes living in voluntary isolation.’
The two most active hydrocarbon fronts are in the north near Peru's border with Ecuador, and further south in the Camisea region.
In the north, there were two new oil discoveries during 2005. These new fields complement another recent discovery in the area, fueling speculation that much of the region is oil rich.
AIDESEP, Peru’s national indigenous Amazonian federation, says that people living traditionally in voluntary isolation inhabit the same general region where the new oil reserves have been discovered.
Many of the indigenous communities in the north and their representative organizations oppose new oil development, citing the widespread contamination of the two producing oil blocks in the region.
Frustration among the Achuar people over the dumping of contaminated wastewater grew until in October a federation of Achuar communities shut down operations of these two oil blocks for 14 days, blocking 50 percent of national production.
For 35 years, the Achuar said, contamination from current drilling by PlusPetrol Norte and previous drilling by Occidental Petroleum Corp. and Petrolifera Petroleum Ltd. had been affecting the health and territory of native people.
Up to a million barrels a day of contaminated wastewater was dumped by the oil companies directly into local rivers, not re-injected back into the ground as is done in the United States and more modern operations in the Amazon.
The blockade was lifted after the Peruvian government and PlusPetrol accepted the demands of the Achuar, which included accelerated plans to re-inject wastewater.
Achuar traditional authorities had demanded re-injection of up to 100 percent of the toxic waters back into the ground within 12 months, a new hospital and health services, a one year emergency food supply for communities affected by pollution, five percent of the state oil royalties for community development and acknowledgement of the Achuar's opposition to further oil exploration in the region.
The Achuar did not win a promise that no new oil activities would be permitted on Achuar territory, a likely indicator of serious problems to come, the U.S. environmental groups warn.
Members of the Achuar communities are now facing a government investigation and possible jail terms for their occupation.
Charges against them, filed by Pluspetrol, allege "coertion, criminal trespassing, aggravated kidnapping, and assault against public security."
Amazon Watch, an Amazon defense organization based in San Francisco says, "These charges are disconcerting given the peaceful nature of the protest and the abundant evidence on the vulnerable health status of the Achuar people in Corrientes and the profound oil contamination of their territories. If the charges are allowed to stand, they would set a disturbing precedent against the right to peaceful protest in Peru."
The 11,000 Achuar who live in the remote northern Peruvian rainforest are some of the most traditional indigenous people of the Amazon basin. Their ancestral lands are one of the last refuges for plants and animals found no where else on Earth.
In neighboring areas, ConocoPhillips, Occidental Petroleum, and Petrolifera own drilling rights to a vast, intact area of tropical rainforest also inhabited by the Achuar. Unless both oil companies make a commitment to respect the environment and Achuar health, there are likely to be more confrontations.
Achuar leaders have been touring the United States since November 16. They are in Los Angeles this week and travel to Houston next week, raising public awareness of their cause.
The Peruvian national oil company, PeruPetro, recently announced that 18 new concessions will be ready for tender in the first half of 2007. There will be a road show in Houston in January to promote the 18 areas.
Dr. Finer warns that the last of the unspoiled Peruvian Amazon is about to disappear, saying, ‘We’re looking at a critical situation where every inch of the megadiverse Peruvian Amazon not currently within a National Park is fair game for oil companies."
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