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Hunt Oil has taken on an oil concession that covers not only Manu National Park’s Cultural Zone, but also the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. Will we have a chance to defend these parts of the Amazon rainforest? As I learned, it depends very much on whom you ask.

It is March 2009 and I am on the phone with the president of a Peruvian NGO who promotes legal justice for indigenous peoples. The establishment of the oil block #76 in the Madre de Dios area was done in an illegal way by the Peruvian national government, therefore I ask him: “Why did you recommend the indigenous people to negotiate instead of telling them to fight the oil company’s illegal presence?”

His answer comes in a confident tone of voice, which gives me the idea I am talking to the right person: “Because there is no way they would have ever won a lawsuit against the oil company. In this country, no lawsuit against an oil company has ever been won by local people. It is just impossible. So really the best they can do is to accept the exploitation and make the best of it for themselves, by asking for as much compensation money as they can get.”

His words hit me as being true, because, as far as I had heard of, winners of legal claims at this scale are usually the players with the biggest bank accounts. This was very disappointing, as I did not want to believe this fight would end without even having started.

Oil Block 76 covers both Manu National Park’s Cultural Zone, west of the Alto Madre de Dios River, and almost all of the Amarakaeri Reserve, east of the Alto Madre River. Together this is about 522.000 hectares (or almost 1,3 million acres) of the Amazon rainforest.

Manu’s Cultural Zone is part of UNESCO’s Manu Biosphere Reserve. Biospheres do not exist as protected areas under Peruvian law, but still, the Peruvian government acknowledged the UNESCO status since its establishment in 1977. Then, the Cultural Zone was indicated on official maps of Manu and the state would use the Cultural Zone’s UNESCO status to limit the local people’s agricultural and logging activities.

However, ever since 2006 somehow the Cultural Zone had disappeared from the Manu maps. Would this be connected to the fact that 2006 is also the year the Peruvian state signed its contract with the oil company for Block 76? Maybe the UNESCO limitations were counterproductive for the oil company’s upcoming activities? Practically, this meant Manu’s Cultural Zone had lost all of its protective status, and the people living there have no special rights to protest anything that happens in that area.

The Amarakaeri Reserve, on the other hand, has been created in 2002 as a protected area in favour of the Amazon people inside and around the Reserve. As established by Peruvian law, its original inhabitants do have special rights. The regulations and Management Plan for the Reserve can be proposed by both its inhabitants and the government, but in the end, they can only be legalized if they have been approved of by its indigenous inhabitants. These rights are based on Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 1993 Peru ratified the convention.

So with their rights in place, the Amarakaeri people made their own proposal for the Management Plan of 2008. They did foresee the possibility of an oil company entering their territory: they explicitly wrote that hydrocarbon activities were considered to be harmful to the environment they live in and therefore to their own health. They also determined that the center of the Amarakaeri Reserve, where all its main rivers have their origin, was off limits for hydrocarbon or any other contaminating activities. These rivers are the Amarakaeri people’s only source of water for drinking, cooking and washing and its fish is their main source of proteins.

Still, in the final management plan, and by deviously manipulating the Amarakaeri people, the Ministry of Agriculture under its sub director Luis Alfaro replaced the sentence “hydrocarbon activities are considered to be harmful to the environment we live in and therefore to our own health” by “hydrocarbon exploitation and rainforest conservation are compatible activities”. Also, the part where the indigenous people explicitly establish that contaminating activities had to be excluded from the central Amarakaeri area, was simply deleted from the final text.

A recent article by Justin Catanoso underwrites the fact that indigenous people oftentimes care more about conservation of their environment than their governments.  Resulting in far lower deforestation rates where indigenous people are allowed to administrate their own land.

So the Amarakaeri people officially have the possibility to deny the presence of an oil company by stating so in their Management Plan. But in reality, they unknowingly signed and thereby validated an altered Management Plan, frustrating their legal rights. By this time, the oil company must have felt they had free play as now they had access to almost all of Manu’s Cultural Zone and the neighboring Amarakaeri Reserve. Plus the official Management Plan said hydrocarbon activities were no menace to conservation of the rainforest.

And the president of the legal justice NGO had also told me that lawsuits were unthinkable, no matter how fraudulent the state’s dealings had been. Was there no way to protest this upcoming harm to the Amazon? Was there no way to retrieve the Amarakaeri people’s rights?

A couple of weeks later, a friend sent me an e-mail with a link to a BBC interview that had taken place in January of 2009. Knowing about my conversation with the NGO, he wrote: “But look at this!” In the interview, two Peruvian lawyers of the Cordillera Escalera Reserve of the San Martin department in northern Peru, were interviewed about their lawsuit against the Canadian Talisman oil company. The judges of Peru’s highest court ruled the oil company’s presence in San Martin to be illegal, based on the Reserve’s Management Plan. The indigenous people had won, in a situation very similar to the Amarakaeri situation. And for sure Talisman was the one with the biggest bank account.

This was good news, as this meant fighting an oil company in a legal way is an option. There was a way forward.

Ah, and there was a third person in the BBC interview. He and his NGO had been supportive of the legal process. Guess who this third person was? Yés, the president of that Peruvian NGO promoting legal justice for indigenous people. He was interviewed by the BBC three months before he told me over the phone that, as a fact, in Perú no law suit had ever been won against an oil company!

What made this NGO president tell such a lie, which could have convinced both the Amarakaeri people and me that we should not even think of starting a lawsuit against the government’s illegal practices in establishing Block #76? Over a year earlier, this NGO had been involved in a case where the government tried to change the limits of another National Park, Bahuaje-Sonene, also in Southeast Peru, in favour of the same oil company, Hunt Oil. Changing the limits would have enabled Hunt Oil to drill inside the park, where the best gas fields are located. This NGO actually prevented the state from changing the limits, and they were considered the real conservation heroes.

The state reacted by awarding this same NGO with a $2-million project, and if they did this with the aim for the NGO to defend the state’s future points of view instead of nature´s and indigenous people´s, one could say they had been successful. I was reminded as to how easily a human being can change his/her ideas and how important it is to do updated background checks of any source of information one uses in important decision making.

In spite of the NGO-sabotage intent, I contacted the two Peruvian lawyers of the Cordillera de Escalera Reserve lawsuit. They studied the Amarakaeri case, and decided to come over to Cusco to explain their findings in a meeting with Manu tourism representatives and later with the Amarakaeri representatives. Yes, we took our first step!