Peru's Natural Gas Rush Threatens Native Tribes, Again

Three ministers in Peru have resigned over pressure to continue natural gas exploration in the Camisea area of Peru. In the 1980s uncontacted tribes were partially wiped out by diseases brought in by workers. Now there are plans to expand the project into areas where other uncontacted tribes are living. Among the oil companies involved is American hunt oil.

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This is one of the most critical tests for a developing economy: balancing development and the protection of human rights. It's currently playing out on the national stage in Peru. Several members of the president's cabinet have just resigned over plans to expand a gas field. It's in an area populated by tribes of Indians who have no contact with the outside world. Here's NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Peru's economy has been booming in recent years and much of that growth has been fueled by mining and gas works. The most important gas field in the country is Camisea. When Shell Oil went into the area in the 1980s, it cleared paths into virgin rainforest, home to previously uncontacted tribes of Indians. They lacked any natural resistance to diseases introduced by the workers and many died. Fast-forward to today and the new frontier in gas exploration in Peru is called Block 88, an extension of the Camisea fields. A consortium led by Argentina's Pluspetrol and America's Hunt Oil has asked for permission to drill there, and it's little secret that Peru's government would like to see it happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a TV ad sponsored by the government saying the gas coming from Lote 88 will help light homes across the country. The problem is that Block 88 lies in an Indian reserve, which is also home to indigenous communities that have shunned contact with the outside world. Advocacy groups warned history could repeat itself.

REBECCA SPOONER: So if this contact happens again in the new exploration phase of the project that they're now proposing, this kind of disaster can easily happen again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Rebecca Spooner with Survival International, which advocates for at-risk indigenous communities.

SPOONER: These people are the original inhabitants of the land. So if anyone owns this land, it's them. You can't push a project forward in the name of progress, you know, while killing off people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In March this year, the United Nations also called for the immediate suspension of the controversial project. There's not just opposition to the plan outside the government but within it as well. Peru's culture ministry is responsible for safeguarding the rights of indigenous people. It issued a report last month that appeared on its website. It warned that the arrival of oil workers and all the equipment needed for exploration in Block 88 would have a devastating effect on the tiny tribes there.

Suddenly, though, the report disappeared from public view, and the minister and vice minister of culture resigned. That followed the previous resignation by another vice minister who was outraged over plans to weaken the country's indigenous laws in favor of mining concerns. Vanessa Cueto is the vice president of the Peruvian environmental group DAR.

VANESSA CUETO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think there's a strong pressure being brought to bear in favor of investment, she says. Those investments, she goes on, are happening at the expense of local people and the environment.

CUETO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think we have certain forces within the government, she says, who are trying to make indigenous claims invisible. The state needs more gas to strengthen our energy sector, but it can't happen jeopardizing the health and safety of local populations. The government has said it's still studying the proposal. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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