Hundreds of protesters from the indigenous advocacy NGO Survival International gathered outside Peruvian consulates and embassies in London, Paris, Madrid and San Francisco on April 23. They had gathered to urge the Peruvian government to reconsider expanding the Camisea gas mega-project.
Camisea’s Bloc 88, deep in the Amazonian jungles of south-eastern Peru, is thought to contain over 10 trillion cubic feet of gas.
It is also in the Nahua-Nanti reserve, an area set aside in 1990 to provide a refuge for the many indigenous tribal groups who either remain uncontacted or choose to live in isolation.
In spite of this, an international consortium headed by Pluspetrol (Argentina), Hunt Oil (US) and Repsol (Spain) has been extracting gas on an industrial scale in Bloc 88 since 2004.
The project has enjoyed the full backing of successive neoliberal Peruvian governments — willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable elements of their people for the benefit of foreign corporations.
It is a pattern of exploitation that has been repeated across Peru. It is always justified on the grounds that “development” and “future prosperity” depend on the latest mega-project. But in the end, it never amounts to more than a few scraps for the Peruvian people while the resource companies accumulate huge profits.
Meanwhile, entire ecosystems are devastated and entire communities of campesino landholders or tribal groups destroyed.
Many international development and humanitarian agencies raised concerns about Camisea before drilling started. But pressure exerted by the George W Bush administration (to which Hunt Oil was a big donor) proved instrumental in the acquisition of project financing from the Inter-American Development Bank.
Since then, all the devastating consequences that were predicted both for the environment and local population groups have come to pass.
Although the right of Amazonian peoples to self-determination is protected by Peruvian and international law, the Camisea project has subjected them to a brutal assimilation campaign.
When Shell surveying teams first entered the Camisea basin in the 1980s, more than half the previously uncontacted Nahua tribe were wiped out by European diseases to which they had no immunity.
Since then, other tribes such as the Nanti have been similarly ravaged by disease.
Pluspetrol employees have routinely initiated contact with isolated groups, approaching them with loudhailers and issuing summary eviction notices. Mattresses and other disease-bearing objects have been deliberately left in tribal areas — actions that amount to a form of biological warfare against the traditional owners of these lands.
Seismic testing has scared away the game from forest areas, leading to a total loss of livelihood. To make matters worse, missionaries connected with the powerful US religious evangelical right have used company helicopters to access remote communities, leading to further disease exposure and social dislocation.
Dozens of communities living in the Camisea area have been severely affected by drilling, building-related pollution and toxic spills.
At least five big spills have occurred since 2004. This has left a legacy of “shipwrecked social development” and “frightening new illnesses”, say the findings of one independent research panel.
An 800-kilometre Halliburton pipeline connecting the gas fields to processing plants on the Peruvian coast has devastated huge swathes of jungle. The social disruption for all indigenous groups has been immense, leading to forced displacement, rampant alcoholism and a general sense of despair.
In April last year, the Peruvian administration of Ollanta Humala — elected on a centre-left platform promising to respect indigenous rights — dealt a further blow to indigenous groups by announcing a big expansion of exploration and drilling in Bloc 88.
Humala promised this expansion would service Peru’s energy needs for decades. But the reality is most of Camisea’s gas will be exported to places such as Mexico and the west coast of the US.
One of the few Peruvian domestic beneficiaries will be the military. A law has been passed ensuring that a portion of Camisea proceeds will be earmarked for arms acquisitions from US corporations.
Consistently neglectful of health, education and other social goods, the neoliberal system is always willing to invest in population control.
Elements within the Humala administration opposed the Camisea expansion. But they have been neutralised in a power struggle that has seen the Wall Street and White House-backed neoliberal lobby within the Humala circle retain policy-setting supremacy.
Humala did confer more nominal decision-making power on non-corporate agencies, but the real power still lies with the mining faction.
The October 2011 sacking of Raquel Yrigoyen Fajardo, head of the governmental indigenous affairs department (INDEPA), sent a clear signal about the government’s intentions.
A principled advocate for indigenous rights, Yrigoyen had used her office to block the expansion of Camisea. For that stance, the Ministry of Energy and Mines pushed for her removal.
Survival International said: “Shortly after Yrigoyen was sacked, documents she submitted to INDEPA about the project’s cancellation were removed from the group’s website.”
Her replacement, a former business lawyer, has proven more amenable to corporate designs.
During the recent international protests, an anti-Camisea petition bearing 120,000 signatures was presented to Peruvian officials.
Many of the protesters wore gas masks to symbolise the lethal effects that gas extraction has had on indigenous tribes living in the Camisea concession. Yellow placards carried by the demonstrators bore slogans such as “Help! Isolated indigenous people in danger” and “Camisea-lethal gas”.
This coordinated display of solidarity was especially important because the anti-Camisea protesters included representatives from indigenous and tribal peoples around the world. These included the Bangladeshi Jummas — who are similarly threatened by rapacious development policies in their own homelands.
As well as stepping up the pace of development in Bloc 88, the Humala administration has created an adjacent concession area known as “Lot Fitzcarrald”.
If this project is allowed to proceed, gas extraction in Fitzcarrald will extend deep into the World Heritage-listed Manu National Park, a place widely considered to be the world’s most significant biological diversity hotspot.
It is also the home of many indigenous groups, including an unknown number of uncontacted tribes.
In response, Amazonian indigenous organisations such as AIDESEP announced plans late last year to sue both the Peruvian government and the fossil fuel corporations involved in the expansion.
By raising global awareness of this issue, Survival International is undoubtedly making a valuable contribution to the indigenous Amazonian struggle for survival.
Ultimately, the controversies surrounding Camisea highlight the urgent need for substantive political change in Peru. As long as Peruvian administrations remain beholden to the forces of international resource imperialism, disasters like Camisea will continue to plague the Peruvian people.