How Can We Trust What Big Gas Companies Say?

Back in late February, following the revelation that oil and gas company Pluspetrol wanted to conduct "geological exploration" in Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon, a company spokesperson did a high-profile interview with Lima-based newspaper El Comercio.

At the very end of the interview, Daniel Guerra Zela, described as Pluspetrol's Director of Institutional Relations, made one particularly outrageous claim: that Pluspetrol workers had never had any kind of contact with "uncontacted" or "voluntarily isolated" indigenous people after more than 10 years operating almost immediately to the west of Manu in a region known as Camisea, where the government established a supposedly "intangible" reserve for such people but later permitted a Pluspetrol-led consortium to explore for and exploit gas there.

"Have you ever had relations with the no contactados?" asked El Comercio's Alvaro Gastañadui Ramirez.

"Pluspetrol has operated since 2000 and we have not seen any native groups who are uncontacted or in voluntary isolation," replied Guerra Zela.

Is Guerra Zela lying or just seriously misinformed?

The fact is, since operations began in the Camisea region under Pluspetrol in a concession called 'Lot 88', countless encounters with, or sightings or physical evidence of, 'isolated' indigenous people have been registered, recorded, or subsequently acknowledged by a wide variety of sources going all the way back to 2002 and as recently as November 2012. These include local Matsigenka, Nahua and Nanti, anthropologists, NGOs, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Pluspetrol itself, companies contracted by Pluspetrol, and various Peruvian state institutions including the Ministry of Health, members of a Congressional commission on indigenous peoples, and even the state entity specifically established to coordinate oversight of the Camisea project, the GTCI.

Indeed, some of the most detailed accounts are Pluspetrol's own. True, its 2010 'Environmental and Social Sustainability Report' doesn't reveal much -- 'watchmen registered 11 sightings in the vicinity of Pluspetrol locations. Most of these events were related to signs of 'mitayo' (hunting) activities' -- but it has sometimes reported exact times, numbers and even physical descriptions:

'August 15, 10:30 a.m.: Visual contact of a naked native, with his private parts covered with a piece of bark, and the body, face and hair painted with achiote... August 15, 11:30 a.m.: Visual contact with 4 naked indigenous . . . August 16, 12:45pm: Visual contact with 5 naked indigenous... August 18, 1:00 p.m.: Meeting and contact with three naked natives without paintings on their bodies...'

Other examples are less graphic, but still worth highlighting:

'3D seismic tests... led to evidence and sightings of indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact in the north and north-east of the lot,' reported two anthropologists contracted by the GTCI and the government's then indigenous affairs department, CONAPA, in a report dated 2003.

'Another encounter with a group of seven non-contacted indigenous occurred in August 2002, during seismic activities in seismic line 34,' reported the IDB the same year.

'[Veritas, a company contracted by Pluspetrol] states that two members of the Cashiriari community informed them that 24 'naked ones' (calatos) carrying arrows had been seen by cooks,' reported Amazon Watch.

Not all accounts are so unequivocal. A November 2011 report by Matrix Solutions, contracted by the IDB to monitor the social and environmental impacts of operations in the Camisea region, refers to 'encounters with seven groups of people', but doesn't say exactly who these groups were:

'The social contingency program for peoples in initial contact is part of the Community Relations Plan approved by the IDB. The program aims to prevent or deal with possible contacts with peoples in isolation or initial contact who move around the areas surrounding the project. There are bi-lingual lookouts in the Pluspetrol camps and at operations sites inside the reserve [established for the 'isolated' peoples] ... During this period the lookouts reported encounters with seven groups of people and twice evidence of human presence...'

Why is highlighting the misinformation put about by Guerra Zela so important? It's not just about the obvious fact that oil and gas companies don't tell the truth. Pluspetrol is currently planning on expanding its operations in 'Lot 88', and sometimes plays down the existence of the 'isolated' people as a way of parrying concerns about the impacts its operations might have on them. Three new wells have already been approved by Peru's Energy Ministry, and the green light for a further 18 wells, seismic tests and a 10km pipeline -- all deeper north, east and south into the 'intangible' reserve -- is pending.

Moreover, some of the contact or sightings documented in the past didn't happen by accident. Although Pluspetrol claims it has a 'no contact policy', reports -- including its own -- indicate that in the past it has deliberately attempted to make contact with otherwise 'isolated' people.

'[Company anthropologist Jose Luis Carbajal] openly admitted that Pluspetrol seeks and makes contact with Kirineri peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Reserve,' Amazon Watch has reported. 'Mr. Carbajal stated that a group of company representatives accompanied by a Machiguenga guide approach isolated peoples announcing their presence through a loud speaker...'

Does using a loud speaker really sound like a 'no contact policy'? According to his Linkedin profile, Carbajal is now an independent consultant, but maybe he and Guerra Zela should compare notes.

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