Does Peru Care More About Parks Than People?

When oil and gas company Pluspetrol applied for permission to do 'geological exploration' in the 'strictly protected zone' of the Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon in September 2011, the Peruvian state institution responsible for the country's 'protected natural areas', SERNANP, refused.

Two main reasons were given. The first was that 'geological exploration' in that part of Manu is prohibited and the only activities permitted are environmental monitoring and scientific research -- an extremely significant response given that Pluspetrol initially claimed, once its intent to enter Manu was exposed in the international media, that its interest was purely 'scientific.' Could the company have chosen a worse cover story?

The second reason given by SERNANP was that the 'strictly protected zone' in Manu is inhabited by 'indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation who should be protected so they can live as they choose.' That is correct, but if SERNANP is opposed to Pluspetrol entering a national park partly because 'isolated' people live there, why isn't it opposed to the very same company entering an area almost immediately to the west of Manu where 'isolated' people also live?

Pluspetrol is currently planning on expanding its operations in a concession known as 'Lot 88', almost 75% of which overlaps the supposedly 'intangible' Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve (KNNR) which was established for indigenous peoples in 'voluntary isolation' and 'initial contact' in 1990, borders Manu National Park and acts as part of its official buffer zone.

The first phase of expansion was approved by Peru's Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) in April 2012, following an initial green light from SERNANP in October 2010 and a favorable 'technical opinion' on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of Pluspetrol's plans -- which must be favorable for the company to proceed -- from SERNANP in March 2012. This phase consists of three wells, approximately 10kms further east into the KNNR and buffer zone.

The second phase of expansion has not been approved by MEM, although SERNANP gave it the initial green light in December 2010. This would take Pluspetrol even further east, north and south into the KNNR and buffer zone, and consists of 2D and 3D seismic tests, a 10km pipeline and 18 more wells in six different locations - the most easterly being between just 15 and 20kms from one of the rivers in Manu where Pluspetrol wanted to do 'geological exploration' in late 2011.

One of the reasons MEM has not approved this second phase is because SERNANP has not given a favorable 'technical opinion' on the EIA for it, which was submitted to MEM by Pluspetrol last November. In what can only be described as an 'unfavorable' 'technical opinion' issued in February this year SERNANP made 69 criticisms -- formally called 'observations' -- which Pluspetrol was required to respond to. The penultimate 'observation', no. 68, was that the expansion could lead to new settlements being established in Manu National Park and conflict between the indigenous peoples living there, and it asked Pluspetrol to indicate what it could do to prevent this from happening.

'Knowing that the nomadic populations frequently move between the reserve and the Manu river basin, as described in the EIA, it is believed that, as a result of the expansion, the migration of these people to Manu will be frequent and lead to new settlements being established in the area,' SERNANP stated on 6 February. 'This will mean using the natural resources in the region and could generate conflict with the indigenous communities in the Manu River basin inside the Manu National Park.'

Pluspetrol responded in March, but it wasn't to SERNANP's satisfaction either. On 4 June last month, it issued another 'unfavorable' 'technical opinion' stating that 21 of its previous 69 'observations' hadn't been dealt with adequately and no 'favorable' 'technical opinion' would be granted until that happened.

But why isn't SERNANP opposed outright to Pluspetrol operating in the KNNR, like it was in September 2011 with Manu? Why has it already approved three wells and appears disposed to approve 18 more, a pipeline and 2D and 3D seismic tests?

Indeed, it should also be pointed out that initially Pluspetrol hoped to expand beyond 'Lot 88' and conduct its seismic tests yet further east, north and south into the KNNR and buffer zone. These were the plans SERNANP gave the initial green light to in December 2010, but were later scrapped following objections from Peru's indigenous affairs department, INDEPA.

SERNANP's position seems to be a simple one: no to Pluspetrol entering 'isolated' peoples' territories in a national park but yes to Pluspetrol entering 'isolated' peoples' territories in an 'intangible' reserve.

Does Peru care more about parks than people? If SERNANP endorses Pluspetrol's expansion deeper into the KNNR, the answer could be yes.

David Hill is a freelance journalist and currently a consultant for the Forest Peoples Programme, an international human rights organization supporting indigenous organizations in Peru concerned about the impacts of the Camisea gas project's expansion on 'isolated' indigenous peoples.