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Oil and Gas Exploration in the Yurua Threatens Voluntarily Isolated Tribes

February 2014

After an aggressive publicity campaign orchestrated by Peru’s state-owned oil company, Perúpetro, directed at indigenous leaders of the Yurua region, the Yurua’s indigenous federation, Aconadiysh, signed a preliminary agreement to allow oil and gas exploration in their lands. Concession 169 covers approximately 400,000 hectares of extremely remote and relatively undisturbed forest along the Ucayali, Peru and Acre, Brazil border. (See map). In addition to overlapping with a dozen indigenous communities and state forestry lands, the concession includes 100,000 hectares that have been proposed as a communal reserve for the indigenous communities.

Ashéninka villagers on the Yurua River.

Ashéninka villagers on the Yurua River.

UAC and its sister organization, ProPúrus, have been working with the Yurua’s indigenous communities since 2006. In late 2013, we began a collaborative project with Aconadiysh and Peru’s Ministry of Culture to assess the status of isolated tribes throughout the region. Two distinct tribes live inside the Murunahua Reserve and adjacent Alto Purús National Park, and travel through the oil and gas concession during their seasonal migrations.

Over the past 10 years these isolated tribes have been displaced by widespread illegal mahogany logging. While logging has decreased over the past few years, due in large part to improved vigilance and protection activities as well as international accords to prevent the trade of illegally harvested mahogany, the opening of Concession 169 to oil and gas exploration will disrupt the tribes’ migration patterns, make them susceptible to diseases brought by outsiders, and most likely result in outright violence.

Furthermore, opening the concession to exploration conflicts with a proposal submitted by Ucayali’s indigenous organization, ORAU, to Peru’s protected areas agency, Sernanp, to protect part of the concession as an indigenous communal reserve. Oil and gas exploration would obviously run contrary to the communal reserve’s objectives of protecting land for sustainable resource use by local communities.

Chitonahua woman in initial contact. An estimated half of her tribe died from diseases during forced contact with loggers.

Chitonahua woman in initial contact. An estimated half of her tribe died from diseases during forced contact with loggers in the mid 1990’s.

Concession 169 also overlaps several titled Ashéninka, Yaminahua and Amahuaca communities. Hunting, fishing and other subsistence activities would certainly be affected by the seismic testing. Among the communities is a settlement of Chitonahua people in initial contact with modern society. Originally contacted by illegal loggers in the mid-1990’s—which resulted in the death of half of the tribe—the group has adopted a sedimentary lifestyle but remains highly vulnerable to contact with outsiders.

Areas used by the isolated tribes must be removed from the concession if Peru is to uphold international and its own laws respecting the rights of isolated  tribes.  History has taught us that contact with not only loggers but with oil and gas workers has devastated tribes.

Additionally, all members of the Yurua communities need to fully understand the social, cultural, and environmental impacts that will accompany seismic testing and extraction of hydrocarbons in their forest. Most do not speak Spanish and were not able to understand the community presentations conducted by Perúpetro’s representatives.

The risks this project presents to the Yurua’s indigenous peoples, both isolated and settled, as well as world-class biodiversity within its forests is underscored by Peru’s recent announcement that it will no longer require oil companies to conduct environmental impact statements before beginning seismic testing and exploration.