On 21 December 2009 the UK’s Daily Telegraph published an article titled, ‘Perenco takes its hunt for black gold to the depths of Peru’s rainforest.’ Ignore the fact this was almost three years ago. In light of a decision last month by Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, this article couldn’t be more topical.
Here are five things wrong with it:
1 No mention of the ‘isolated’ indigenous people who could be decimated. The region where Perenco is operating is in the middle of territory inhabited by indigenous people who have no regular contact with outsiders, dubbed ‘isolated’ or ‘uncontacted’ by some NGOs and anthropologists, and who could be decimated if contact between them and company workers is made. Perenco’s operations, together with that of other companies in the region, have been opposed by international organizations such as Survival International, which I used to work for, Save America’s Forests and Amazon Watch, and by indigenous organizations in Peru which have proposed the establishment of a reserve in the region, filed lawsuits, made public condemnations, and appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in an attempt to stop the companies from working there. Even various Peruvian government institutions, including the indigenous affairs department, INDEPA, expressed concerns about the impact on the ‘isolated’ people. Earlier in 2009, this controversy was picked up by other British newspapers: The Independent ran an article on Perenco being sued in Peru’s highest court over the ‘humanitarian disaster’ possibly facing the ‘isolated’ people as a result of its operations, and The Guardian featured a several page colour spread in its Saturday magazine which in turn led to a Financial Times blog. Yet The Telegraph makes no mention of it at all. True, towards the end of the article it briefly acknowledges that some indigenous people may be affected, but the implication is that they are those who are ‘contacted.’ Overall, the impression is that the ‘isolated’ people do not even exist, which is extremely convenient for Perenco since that is what it claims publicly, and that the chief concerns surrounding its operations are environmental rather than to do with human rights.
2 No mention of the protests earlier in the year. In April 2009 indigenous people living in the region blockaded a river with canoes and a cable, thereby stopping Perenco and other companies from accessing their operations further upstream. According to Survival International, the blockade was subsequently broken by at least two boats, one of them Perenco’s. Again, The Telegraph makes no mention of this. The impression is that local people unanimously support the company’s operations, with the ‘local community’, which is actually just one community among many that will be affected, described as ‘fully behind what they are doing.’
3 Lack of balance. The Telegraph acknowledges that oil operations in the Amazon can be environmentally hazardous, but claims that Perenco ‘is doing all it can to prevent any environmental problems’, although it can’t verify that. All three people quoted in the article – Peru’s Environment Minister, the regional president and a Dominican priest – are portrayed as pro-oil, pro-exploration.
4 The Dominican priest. Could The Telegraph have chosen a more inappropriate person at a more inappropriate time as a kind of proxy spokesperson for the interests of indigenous peoples dealing with oil companies? Just two days before the article was published, the priest, Ricardo Alvarez, was identified by historian and former member of the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Bartolome Clavero as the ‘putative author’ of an extraordinary draft, leaked report by a high-profile commission supposedly investigating the causes of violent conflict between indigenous protesters and Peruvian police at Bagua in northern Peru in June that year which left more than 30 people dead and 200 injured. The protests were in response to laws opening up indigenous land to oil and other extractive industries, and the violence made headlines around the world. The leaked report was a bizarre document for a variety of reasons, including a) its series of paternalistic, offensive recommendations to Peru’s indigenous population b) several unlikely, unsubstantiated claims about the country’s ‘isolated’ peoples and c) an attack on NGOs and anthropologists working to defend the ‘isolated’ peoples’ rights, the last of which would make particularly good reading for companies like Perenco. Reaction to the leaked report, from various quarters, was scathing. ‘It oozes racism,’ Clavero wrote, ‘treating indigenous people as ignorant and incapable.’
5 Simple mistakes. The Telegraph spells Peru’s Environment Minister’s name wrong, calling him ‘Antonia Brack’ when really his name is Antonio, and spells the region where Perenco is operating, Loreto, ‘Loretto’ three times and ‘Loretta’ once. Then it claims Iquitos, the biggest town in ‘Loretta’, is so inaccessible ‘you have to fly in from the capital Lima or spend weeks sailing up the Amazon tributaries to reach it.’ Er, no. You can fly in from other towns, not just Lima, or if you’re travelling by boat it would be a matter of days, not weeks, and if you’re coming from elsewhere in Peru you would almost always be sailing downriver, not up.
Why is this so relevant now? Because on 3 August this year Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) gave Perenco permission to expand its operations in ‘Loretta.’ Plans for this expansion were initially submitted to MEM in February 2011, and in April this year were strongly criticised in a report by NGO E-Tech International for failing to use current technology and likely to cause unnecessary environmental impact.
‘Perenco is following a 1970s-era project design format that is totally inappropriate for the Peruvian Amazon,’ said the report’s author Bill Powers.
Does that sound like ‘doing all it can to prevent any environmental problems’?
Of course, anyone who had read The Telegraph’s article from three years ago could be forgiven for thinking that MEM’s recent decision is no cause for concern. No worries about the environment, and no problems for the ‘isolated’ people since they don’t even exist.