On 1 March this year the United Nations' Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) wrote to the Peruvian government urging it to "immediately suspend" the expansion of the country's biggest hydrocarbons development.
The Camisea gas project, as it is known, is superimposed over a supposedly "intangible" reserve established to protect the land, rights and lives of indigenous peoples living in "voluntary isolation" and "initial contact" who could be decimated by any kind of contact.
"The Committee is concerned at the possible discriminatory impact on the indigenous inhabitants of the reserve," UNCERD wrote. "We request that the Peruvian government immediately suspends the planned extractive activities in the reserve that could threaten the physical and cultural survival of the indigenous peoples living there and impedes their enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights."
The government's response? To claim there is nothing illegal about the expansion, no threat to the "isolated" indigenous peoples, and that it intends to proceed as planned.
"What I can guarantee, as a spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy, is that the Camisea consortium is carrying out its exploratory and productive activities in Lot 88 under the rights granted to it by the Peruvian state," said the Minister of Energy and Mines, Jorge Merino Tafur, at a hearing of the Peruvian Congress's Commission on the Environment, Ecology and Andean, Amazonian and Afroperuvian Peoples which convened to discuss UNCERD's letter, among other things, on 16 April.
Merino Tafur was supported by the Vice-Minister of Inter-Culturality, Ivan Lanegra Quispe, who has since left his post but claimed at the hearing, "We're sure that the indigenous peoples in isolation will not be affected."
This is either a lie, total nonsense or simply wishful thinking. Part of the expansion involves conducting 3D seismic tests -- which will mean cutting a network of paths across 379 square kilometers of the forest and setting off more than 6,000 underground explosions -- in an area long acknowledged to be inhabited or used by "isolated" peoples. Even the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the expansion -- written by a consultancy, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), together with Pluspetrol -- admits that contact is "probable," that causing illnesses is "possible," and that, in general, contact can lead to "massive deaths" among "isolated" peoples.
"Given the impossibility of establishing direct contact with the isolated populations in the reserve it is difficult to understand the magnitude of the impacts the project could have on them," the EIA states. "It is assumed that any kind of activity different to the ones in their daily lives could generate fear, concern and changes in their ways of seeing and understanding the world."
This makes remarks at the hearing by the Minister of Culture, Luis Alberto Peirano Falconi, particularly ironic. Twice Falconi said the "eyes of the world" were on Peru -- which he called an "absolute pioneer" -- because of the 'prior consultation' process it claims it is currently initiating regarding natural resource extraction and other projects that affect indigenous peoples and their territories. What Peirano Falconi didn't mention was that it has taken Peru almost 20 years to enact this process into law, and that it is highly controversial among indigenous peoples because, among other things, it fails to meet international human rights legal standards.
But have the indigenous peoples in "voluntary isolation" -- or the "nomads" or "uncontacted families," as Pluspetrol and ERM call them -- who stand to be affected by the expansion in Camisea been consulted? No. Is it even possible to consult them or advisable to attempt to do so? No. So how can Peirano Falconi bang on about how impressive the 'prior consultation' process is while his colleagues sitting next to him defend Pluspetrol's plans for Camisea and he raises no objection?
UNCERD's attention to the Camisea region was drawn by an appeal earlier this year by three indigenous organizations -- AIDESEP, COMARU and ORAU - and international NGO Forest Peoples Programme, for whom I'm currently working as a consultant. The same indigenous organizations, together with another, FENAMAD, announced last December they would file a law-suit to stop the expansion.
Operations in Camisea, in a concession called "Lot 88," are run by a consortium headed by Pluspetrol and including Hunt Oil and Repsol. Gas has been pumped from the region since August 2004.
David Hill is a journalist and currently working part-time as a consultant for the Forest Peoples Programme.