Corporate Greed Drives COVID-19 Pandemic Inside Peruvian Amazon
Dozens of activists hold a protest in front of Peru's oil company PetroPeru in Lima on September 21, 2017, to support the Achuar, Kichwa and Quechua Amazonic tribes affected by oil industry activites on their ancestral lands. Cris Bouroncle/AFP via Getty Images

Peru’s lawmakers are weighing a vote on crucial legislation, which, if passed, will declare large areas of pristine Amazon rainforest off limits to drilling and mining projects—a clear showdown between Big Oil and corporate mining interests and the rights of Indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon.

Peru’s Congress was expected to vote on the draft bill Thursday, July 2. But the proposal did not make it into the legislative agenda, prompting questions about whether corporate dollars are pulling the strings behind the scenes.

The proposed amendment has revived bitter decades-old social divisions in the country, where Indigenous populations continue to live without access to basic services and have for decades demanded sovereign rights over native territories.

The draft bill seeks to close loopholes in the existing legal framework (PIACI law) which have allowed the oil and gas, logging, and mining industries to extract Amazonian natural resources for decades.

At the heart of these modifications is the protection for Peru’s uncontacted Indigenous peoples who live in voluntary isolation. Under the proposed legislation no new contracts for extraction will be awarded in reserves where uncontacted Indigenous people live.

Peru’s Ministry of Culture estimates around 7000 such uncontacted people live in five Amazonian reserves. They are considered one of the most vulnerable groups facing the current COVID-19 pandemic. There’s another proposal in the works to establish five additional protected areas in the Peruvian Amazon.

The oil industry, which includes state-owned Petroperú, has publicly expressed its dismay at the move and warned lawmakers against passing the legislation, saying it will jeopardize the existing contracts and may drive up the gas and electricity prices.

Silvana Baldovino, an environmental lawyer affiliated with nonprofit group Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA), said the new bill has generated a lot of confrontation because it extends to areas with huge hydrocarbon deposits where there are existing contracts for drilling and extraction.

Explaining the complexity of the issue, Silvana said: “Peru’s economy is historically based on extractive business model. So, the system is based on the recognition of the pre-existing rights [to extraction] and we have to respect that because this is what generates legal stability. And if we start transgressing upon these rights we can be in a big problem down the road.”

She added that a strong campaign is presently causing a lot of confusion about the issue. “They say that the gas and electricity rates will spike and that the main activities will be hampered. But I believe the amendments are quite clear that the pre-existing rights will be honored but with a responsibility to respect the vulnerability of the indigenous communities in isolation. This is the most critical context.”

But even with more than 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 12,000 deaths, the Peruvian government seems bent on jumpstarting the economy. According to Silvana, the decision to reactivate the economy has already been taken, and many companies have already resumed their extractive activities.

She lamented that despite the lockdown the illegal logging and mining activities continued unabated. And even though Indigenous communities closed their borders to deny entry to the outsiders who might be carriers of COVID-19, the pandemic has reached inside the isolated territories, causing death and disease.

Pitched against the political influence of oil and mining corporations and the pandemic devastating their territories, the Indigenous leaders of Peru’s Amazonian tribes have much to worry about. They are also concerned that the government’s push to resume economic activities might derail their efforts to secure legal protections for uncontacted Indigenous people proposed under the new draft law.

To understand the situation in Indigenous territories, TRNN spoke to Lizardo Cauper Pezo, president of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP), which represents nine decentralized organizations located in the north, center, and south of the Peruvian Amazon, 109 federations, and 1,809 native communities.

Appearing in a video interview from the region of Ucayali, Lizardo lamented the lack of assistance in the wake of pandemic. “There is an ongoing racial discrimination against the indigenous people. We are not being helped. All these international companies and consortiums should have gotten together and said well this is what we have to offer you in terms of services and that has not happened. And they don’t care whether we die or fall sick. And this is not something which is just happening now but this is going on for years. The pandemic has made this more visible.”

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Stressing that Indigenous people are not against the development, Lizardo said: “Here we do not even have medicine to heal our wounds. We cannot even face the pandemic. And on top of this we are going to have those [extractive] activities affecting us? So, there is no development for the indigenous communities. And this is what we are being left with: polluted water, contaminated soil, barren soil. And we have no drinking water or any basic services.”

He asserted that the proposed legal amendments are meant to safeguard those Indigenous groups who have no contact with the outside world, and no means to defend themselves. “We want the autonomy and the decision of these people [to be in isolation] respected. However, the government and the big economic groups wishing to just use our resources think otherwise. They believe we are just hindering the development of Peru.”

Lizardo added that the money that reaches the big corporations is laced with Indigenous peoples’ blood “because all these companies working in the Amazon are killing our people. And that’s something they should think about. They have to be more humane and think about other means of earning [money] without destroying the Amazon.”

TRNN also spoke to the Indigenous leader from the Asháninka people of the Peruvian Amazon, Berlin Diques, who had himself contracted COVID-19 and was recovering when he appeared in this interview. “It’s a very tragic situation that the Indigenous people are facing,” he said, adding that “COVID-19 is just taking over and is wiping out everything in its path. And it has arrived in some of the most remote parts of the Amazon.”

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The pandemic has exposed the inefficiency and corruption in the ranks of the government—that we do not exist in policy discussion. And not just for the present government but also for the previous governments,” Berlin said. He added there were very few health facilities found around the region, and those that existed did not have adequate supplies of medicine or the required medical staff.

So, we have been doing our best to try and respond to this by using our traditional knowledge, using different kinds of plants and traditional knowledge we have access to in order to minimize the advance of COVID-19 in our communities.”

Sharing his impressions on the draft law which has prompted confrontation with the corporate interests of the extractive industries, Berlin said: “The current modification in the [existing] law would protect some of the most vulnerable Indigenous people. These are the people who have been for thousands of years living and protecting the Amazon, but at the same time the Peruvian government does not recognize them as citizens.”

Lizardo agrees. “We’re not talking about forest. We are talking about human beings who need to have their rights respected. They have no contact [with the outside world] and no way to protect themselves, and we, the Indigenous organizations, like to emphasize that these people are sovereign.”

Wearing a reflective look, Lizardo finished his thoughts by saying: “We are the last ones to get help. But we are the first ones to suffer the consequence of all climate change. We should not only extract oil and gas and these are not the only activities that generate income. We have to think beyond that. We have to be green. We don’t have to do this to the detriment of the lives of the Indigenous people.”

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Climate Change Reporter (former)

Aman is an experienced broadcast journalist with multimedia skills and has more than a decade of international reporting experience. He has previously worked with globally recognized news media brands, including BBC World Service and VOA. Aman brings with him several years of reporting experience covering political, and diplomatic affairs.