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Rumble in the jungle

Could uncontacted Amazonian tribes in Peru be wiped out by oil giants? Not if they don’t exist. If they do, they could impede the country’s quest for a windfall. Rory Carroll reports.

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Stand on the muddy riverbank at Copal Urco just before dawn and it is easy to see why the Amazon breeds legends. The vast river swishes past, almost invisible in the gloom. Insect and animal noises seep from the dense blackness of the forest. The day barely begun and already humid. As the sun rises, the blackness recedes, revealing massive, tightly packed trees. Even when the light hardens, it fails to penetrate far inside the jungle. The foliage is too thick, a wall sealing off an impenetrable realm.

Here is where fables begin. Anacondas the length of 10 men; ancient stone cities filled with treasure; spirits who answer a whistle; white tribes descended from conquistador shipwrecks. The stories have tantalised for centuries but the one that endures is that of uncontacted tribes -- isolated communities of nomads who live deep in the forest much as their ancestors have done for millennia, cut off from the modern world.

To the village of Copal Urco, home to a few hundred indigenous Kichwa farmers and fishermen near Peru’s border with Ecuador, uncontacted tribes are no myth. They themselves were uncontacted once, until European missionaries and soldiers sailed up their river, and they say such groups still live deeper in their forest. Some are thought to have had brief contact with outsiders decades ago during the rubber boom but then, frightened or repulsed, retreated. They have mostly covered their tracks since, says Roger Yume, 38, the village apu, or chief. “We have seen the signs.” Footprints, tracks through foliage, occasional glimpses of fleeting figures -- there is no doubt. “They exist. Our brothers exist.”

Not everyone agrees. The existence of uncontacted tribes in Brazil and Ecuador is accepted, but Peru’s government has ridiculed the notion of such communities in its part of the Amazon. President Alan Garcia says the “figure of the jungle native” is a ruse to prevent oil exploration. Daniel Saba, former head of the state oil company, Perúpetro, is even more scornful. “It’s absurd to say there are uncontacted peoples when no one has seen them. So, who are these uncontacted tribes people are talking about?”

It is an urgent question. Peru, home to 70 million hectares of Amazon, second in size only to Brazil, has parcelled up almost three-quarters of its rain forest for oil and gas projects. Of 64 exploration blocks, known as lots, all but eight have been created since 2004. “The Peruvian Amazon is now experiencing a huge wave of hydrocarbon exploration,” says Matt Finer, co-author of a study of oil and gas projects in the western Amazon by Duke University and Save America’s Forests.

Oil extraction is not subtle. It involves helicopters, barges, road clearance, drilling platforms, wells and pipelines. Technology is cleaner than before but still pollutes waterways and frightens game. And the workers still bring germs, which threaten tribes with no immunity to outsiders’ diseases. Flu and other ailments brought by conquistadors wiped out much of Latin America’s indigenous population, and more recent interlopers -- loggers, missionaries, scientists and journalists -- have wrought deadly consequences in isolated communities. After incursions by oil men into Nahua territory in the 1980s, more than half the tribe reportedly died. “If companies go in, it’s likely to destroy the Indians completely and then they really won’t exist,” says Stephen Corry of the advocacy group Survival International.

Even oil companies admit their presence would have serious implications for uncontacted tribes. The question is: are there any? If so, by law, the exploration should be halted or at least heavily circumscribed. That would impede Peru’s hopes of becoming a net oil exporter -- a windfall that could go a long way in an impoverished nation of 28 million. Social anthropologists say that would be a small price for preserving humanity’s rich mosaic.

The frontline of this existential battle is Lot 67. A swath of jungle in the Marañón basin in north-east Peru, it comprises the Paiche, Dorado and Piraña oilfields, which contain an estimated 300 million barrels -- a geological and commercial jackpot. An Anglo-French company, Perenco, holds exclusive rights. It plans to spend US$2 billion -- the country’s biggest investment -- drilling 100 wells from 10 platforms. The crude will be shipped and piped nearly 1,000 kilometres to the Pacific coast. Extensive seismic testing has been conducted and installations built. Barges await the first barrels.

To settled indigenous communities such as Copal Urco, this spells death to their “hidden brothers”. They say there are three uncontacted tribes in Perenco’s area, the Pananujuri, Taromenane and Trashumancia. Peru’s indigenous umbrella group, Aidesep, estimates their joint population at 100. Stories about sightings are passed up and down the Napo River. Denis Nantip, 22, says his uncle encountered one group in 2004. “He was deep in the forest with a logger. They were bathing in the river and suddenly saw people staring at them. They had spears and leaves with string covering their genitals.” The two intruders were left unharmed but loggers never dared venture back to that part of the forest.

Perenco, echoing Peru’s government, dismisses these claims as rumour and misinformation by groups opposed to economic development. “This is similar to the Loch Ness monster. Much talk but never any evidence,” says Rodrigo Márquez, Perenco’s Latin American regional manager. “We have done very detailed studies to ascertain if there are uncontacted tribes because that would be a very serious matter. The evidence is nonexistent.”

A team of investigators -- anthropologists, biologists, linguists, historians, archaeologists, forestry engineers -- combed Lot 67. They looked for footprints, dwellings and spears. They looked for animal traps, paths, patches of cultivation. They asked the Arabella tribe, which has been in intermittent contact with the outside world since the 1940s, about recent sightings or evidence. They analysed Arabella speech patterns and oral histories for clues. Result: nothing. No compelling evidence, no compelling indications. The 137-page final report concludes that if there were uncontacted tribes, they were long gone, either dead or in Ecuador. The findings opened Lot 67 to an oil deal that the government declared to be in the national interest. “All these studies have shown there is no trace at all,” Márquez says.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Tracking uncontacted tribes, it turns out, is a detective story within a detective story.

Iquitos, reputedly the world’s largest town inaccessible by road, is a sultry, humid outgrowth of the rubber boom, a bustle of oil men, backpackers, missionaries, traders and prostitutes perched by the Amazon River. By the docks, on Avenida La Marina, there is an office stencilled with the word “Daimi” and a rainbow logo. It is a consultancy that carries out environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for oil companies, a mandatory requirement for government authorisation to explore and drill. They can make or break a company’s bid to drill, and shape the regulations under which they operate. Daimi, plucking scientists from different institutions, has done studies for eight companies besides Perenco, including Argentina’s Pluspetrol, Brazil’s Petrobras, Canada’s Hunt, Spain’s Repsol and the United States’ Oxy.

Oil companies pay for EIAs and insist that the reports are independent and impartial. Within the NGO and academic community, there are some who have long claimed they are not. But there is nothing concrete, and it is difficult to investigate since even those with university tenure often rely on EIA commissions to supplement meagre salaries.

Virginia Montoya sits in her office, maps and books piled on her desk, and lets the question hang in the air. The silence stretches to a few seconds. She is a director of the Institution for Research on the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP), a senior anthropologist and champion of indigenous women’s rights. She was also a consultant on Daimi’s report. Does she think there are uncontacted tribes in Lot 67? Montoya fidgets, then takes a decision. “Yes. Yes, I do.” She hesitates once more. “There is no doubt in my mind that there are uncontacted groups there.” She says she had documented evidence, especially pathways. “I was really upset when I saw the final report. It didn’t lie; the language was technically correct, but it did not reflect my view.”

On the other side of Iquitos, on a rutted road of colourfully painted houses, there is the same long pause before Teudulio Grandez answers the same question. An anthropology professor at the National University of the Peruvian Amazon (UNAP), he was cited as a lead author in the Daimi report. A portrait of Che Guevara looks down from the wall as he wrestles with his answer. Finally, it comes out. “Yes. Certain nomadic groups are there. Our conclusion is that there are.” He exhales deeply.

And then, in another part of Iquitos, a third voice. Lino Noriega, a forestry engineer, participated in eight missions to Lot 67 to investigate the impact of seismic tests -- small explosions that cleared strips of forest and probed the soil. (He has since left Daimi following a contractual dispute.) “They said there were no uncontacted groups. But there were footprints, signs of dwellings.”

There is no single smoking gun in the three testimonies. The allegations were put to Daimi, but they were unable to put forward anyone to respond. Perenco’s regional manager, Márquez, defends the EIA research. “These are just opinions. These scientists need to produce evidence. We have gone to tremendous effort to put these reports together in the most professional way. It’s easy to build conspiracy theories.”

EIAs are vetted by several government departments. “We are committed to environmental protection. We don’t want these reports to be wishy-washy,” says the foreign minister, José Antonio García Belaúnde. He promises to look into the Lot 67 allegations.

Critics say the environment ministry has little clout against more powerful departments driving the oil rush. Peru’s government is not impartial and does not encourage genuinely independent EIAs, says José Luís de la Bastida, a Peru oil specialist at the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI). Last year the energy minister and head of state oil company Petroperú resigned amid a scandal over alleged kickbacks from a Norwegian oil company to the governing party. They denied any wrongdoing. There is also unease over the revolving door between oil companies and government. “A lot of overlap; it’s an old boys’ network,” says Gregor MacLennan of advocacy group Amazon Watch.

Lima is, and feels, a long way from the Amazon. A sprawling coastal capital of eight million people ringed by slums, its downtown has Starbucks, shiny skyscrapers, smart government offices and some of South America’s best restaurants. Historically it has looked outwards to the Pacific Ocean and seldom thought about the 300,000 dark-skinned “nativo” forest-dwellers, little more than 1% of the population. It has had even less reason to ponder uncontacted tribes. There was little dissent last year when president Garcia decreed laws carving up the Amazon for oil, gas, mining and biofuel projects.

The nativos, however, rose up. Scattered, impoverished and marginalised, they organised protests against what they said were land-grabbing polluters who poisoned their soil and rivers. They blocked pipelines, roads and waterways. The president denounced them as “ignorant” saboteurs and in June ordered security forces to lift the blockades. In the town of Bagua, mayhem erupted. Officially, 24 police and 11 protesters died. Indigenous groups say there were dozens if not hundreds of civilian casualties and that bodies were burned and dumped in rivers -- claims the government denies.

Garcia, realising he had misjudged indigenous wrath and strength, revoked two of the most controversial decrees, 1090 and 1064, which would have opened the Amazon to biofuel plantations. Indigenous groups suspended the protests but oil and gas projects are still going ahead. “The future scenario remains terrifying. The Peruvian Amazon is still blanketed in concessions,” says Finer, co-author of the Duke University study.

There are two views about what happens next. Brother Paul McAuley, a British Catholic lay missionary, teacher and pro-indigenous activist in Iquitos, believes a flame of resistance has been lit. He sees it in his civil association, Red Ambiental Loretana. Indigenous communities are organising, plotting their next move. “I think they’re going to win this.” The 61-year-old’s mild manner belies a combative streak which has earned him death threats and a “terrorist” label from pro-government media.

Had he not already given it away, he would have returned his MBE (for services to education in Peru) in protest at what he sees as Britain’s complicity. He hopes the Amazon’s “spiritual force” will mobilise western public opinion against the oil companies. “More than its oil, what the west needs is the Amazon’s spiritual energy.”

The fatalistic view holds that it’ll take a miracle, divine or otherwise, to stop the drilling. Wells are being dug, pipelines laid, profits calculated. Oil companies and the Peruvian government are committed -- especially to the great prize that is Lot 67. Jack MacCarthy, an American surgeon and Catholic missionary who has spent 23 years in the jungle, believes the die is cast. “If Perenco doesn’t drill, someone else will. I don’t think there’s any way to keep that oil in the ground. There are enough powerful and rich people in the world who want it. And they’ll get it, regardless of the cost.”

In which case, if there are uncontacted tribes in Lot 67, their fate may be to disappear -- definitively -- and join the legends of the Amazon.


www.guardian.co.uk

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Homepage image by guenno

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

原始部落

亚马逊森林深处究竟是否生活着土著部落?对于这个问题,那些支持者应该拿出有力的证明,或是资深研究人员的论述,或是目击者们的陈述。否则,在政府和石油巨头的联合下,油气开发将是势不可挡的。

Aboriginal tribes

Are there aboriginal tribes living down deep in the Amazon Forest? The supporters should provide convincing evidences, discussions from senior researchers, or descriptions from witnesses. Or else, natural gas and oil exploration will be inevitable with the government and oil giants joining forces.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

移居

我觉得,那些土著部落不可能永远过着远离世间的生活,如果不是现在,那么终有一天,他们也要面对外面的现代世界。

政府可以制定系统、详细的计划,把那些深居丛林的土著部落迁居出来,让他们与现代文明生活接轨。这样一来,当地的石油资源也能得到开发,人们的生活也能改善。

Migration

I dont think these aboriginal tribes will be able to stay away from the world forever. If not now, then one day, they will need to face the modern world outside. Governments should establish systems and detailed plans to resettle the aboriginal tribes in the forests, so that they can catch up with the modern civilized lives. In this way, the local oil resources can be explored while people's livelihood can be improved.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

这不是暴力是什么?

我不同意2号的观点。生活质量是否得到改善是我们以现代化、工业化的价值观做出的判断。我们强迫人家改变生活方式,搬离家园,放弃信仰,反而理直气壮的说“我是在帮你的忙”。这种强加给别人的价值观,看上去很有道理,实则是另一种暴力。

就像在中国一样,我们让三峡移民住上了单元房,我们让西藏牧民骑上了摩托车,但究竟是他们获益了,还是强迫他们改变的人获得更大的收益?

What is it if not violence?

I don't agree with the viewpoints of commentator 2. Living standard is judged by the scope of modernization and industrialization. We are forcing people to change their lifestyles, to resettle their homes, and to dispose their beliefs, telling them "we are doing you a big favor" as if we are righteous to do so. Such imposed values seems to make sense but are actually violence.

Residents in the three gorges, China, were resettled to modern aparments while Tibetan herdsmen now ride on motorbikes. But do these people receive the benefits? Or, do those people forcing the chances enjoy more benefits?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

土著石油并没有需求

如果丛林中土著的权利能受到尊重,森林能不被打扰,他们将远比当下幸福。相比外人,土著往往才是更称职的森林管理者。

在最近于伦敦召开的首脑峰会上,世界各国领导人承诺将限制二氧化碳排放,确保地球平均气温上升不超过摄氏2度(相比1990年水平)。这使得土著的石油不太可能有市场。此外,开采石油会对森林造成严重破坏,从而导致更多的二氧化碳排放量(约20%的温室气体来自“森林开伐”)。

就在秘鲁分别与中、美签署了自由贸易协定后不久,秘鲁当局对抗土著的举动引发了最近亚马孙地区的暴力事件。

几乎没有证据表明秘鲁的穷人能受益于经济增长。事实上,贫富差距和贫困反而在不断扩大。

No need for the indigenous people's oil

Indigenous forest people would be much happier if their rights were respected and their forest were left undisturbed. They tend to be far better stewards of the forest than outsiders.

At the recent London Summit, world leaders promised to ensure that average temperatures do not rise more than 2 degrees Centigrade (above 1990 levels) by curbing carbon emissions. This makes it unlikely that there will be a market for the indigenous people's oil. Further, exploitation of their oil would severely degrade their forest - leading to yet more carbon emissions (nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions derive from "deforestation").

The recent violence in the Amazon region by the Peruvian authorities against indigenous peoples followed shortly after Peru signed Free Trade Agreements with China and, separately, the USA.

There is little evidence that the poor in Peru have benefited from economic growth. Indeed, the gap between the rich and poor has widened.