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Peru's Amazon at Risk: '21st Century Oil Firms With 18th Century Laws?'

18/03/2014 10:53 GMT | Updated 17/05/2014 10:59 BST

I'll give you three words: 'terrible', 'incredible', 'outrageous.'

Those were three off-the-cuff responses from three people last week to an announcement that Peru is planning a new law loosening the social and environmental checks on oil and gas companies.

Given that these three people have spent years between them working to defend the Peruvian environment and Peruvians' human rights and seen all manner of government, company or others' chicanery, their responses make it clear just how, well, 'terrible', 'incredible' and 'outrageous' the proposed law really is.

The announcement was made by the Energy Minister, Eleodoro Mayorga Alba, who told an oil and gas industry audience in Lima that companies will no longer have to research, write and have approved 'Environmental Impact Assessments' (EIAs) when they want to explore by conducting seismic operations, that the Environment Ministry is in agreement, and that he hoped he could sign the new law 'in the next few days.'

Reaction was immediate: a statement from the Environment Ministry saying no agreements had been reached, a botched intervention by president Ollanta Humala via his Facebook account, heated media debate, and various statements protesting the proposed law - one signed by 35 civil society organizations and 25 individuals and another by Peru's College of Biologists.

'The EIA's aim is to identify the probable social and environmental impacts of oil and gas activity in all its exploration phases and then exploitation, proposing mitigation measures in order to respect the constitutional rights to life and health of local people and to respect and to conserve the natural resources and biodiversity which belongs to all Peruvians,' the Biologists say. '[Eliminating EIAs] would be a mistake and would run contrary to attempts in this country to make advances in environmental issues, like so many countries around the world are doing.'

Both statements - by the Biologists and the 35 civil society organizations - point out that 'eliminating' EIAs, as Mayorga calls it, runs contrary to existing Peruvian law, and there's also concern that it would violate international law which is binding in Peru.

The Energy Ministry swiftly issued a statement in an attempt to qualify Mayorga's remarks, saying that, among other things, a 'Declaration of Environmental Impact' (DIA) may be required - 'quicker and simpler' than an EIA - and that an EIA could still be required in some cases. However, Mayorga, who was only sworn in as minister on 25 February, reiterated his position in an interview with Peruvian newspaper La Republica published on Friday.

Asked if his proposal had not been 'well-received', he said, 'Unfortunately, yes, it was a matter of form, but fundamentally we are convinced that this is important.'

Asked if this would mean a 'relaxation of Peruvian environmental legislation', he replied:

'The one who ultimately decides these things is the Environment Minister. . . We, as a sector, see that exploration is paralyzed and that in order to advance we have to modify the law. . . Today we realize that there are activities in the exploration phase which it doesn't make any sense to do - environmental impact assessments - and which don't make us competitive with other countries. As a result, it has to change.'

The aim of the proposed law is to speed up the oil and gas exploration process and attract more investors.

'We think that there is pressure from the private sector and the authorities within the energy sector to facilitate investment, weakening the environmental legal framework and undermining social and environmental standards,' says Cesar Gamboa, a lawyer from NGO DAR.

What do, or might, seismic operations involve? In Peru's Amazon - where millions of hectares are currently parceled out for oil and gas exploration, and millions more are set to be auctioned this year - they often involve huge areas of land, 100s of workers, intensive boat and helicopter transport, and heli-pads, drop-zones, camps and 1000s of kms of paths cut out of the forest.

The Oil Industry International Exploration and Production Forum recognized over 20 years ago that EIAs are essential for seismic operations in tropical rainforests, and Peru's own Defensoria del Pueblo, back in 2006, described the seismic stage as the 'riskiest' stage of all exploration for certain indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Indeed, as the Biologists said in their recent statement, 'many exploration activities have generated serious impacts on the ecosystems and biodiversity in this country and marginalized the rights of indigenous peoples.'

What might indigenous peoples themselves have to say about the impacts of seismic operations on their lives? AIDESEP, a Lima-based organization claiming to represent more than 1,400 indigenous communities in the Amazon, issued a scorching statement in response to Mayorga's announcement titled ''21st century' oil and gas firms with 18th century laws?', which laid the blame for the proposed law on 'technocratic dictatorships by people who will never live in the Amazon' and included the following:

'70% of the Amazon has already been conceded to oil and gas lots, which first they impose on our communities and then later 'consult' us about them. We know the harsh reality of EIAs: done at speed, approved 'loosely', applied even more so, and 'protecting' business better than the Amazon and its sons, our peoples. . . We suffer from the seismic operations directly: 1000s of paths three metres wide cut through primary forest crossing lakes, gardens, saltlicks and sacred places. 1000s of explosives. . . 100s of heli-ports. . . Permanent noise frightening away the game from malnourished people. 100s of workers, for months, leaving behind industrial and human waste. Workers transmitting sexual diseases and leaving behind 'fatherless' sons in communities. . . Although not one investment has ever been stopped by an EIA. . . that is no reason to replace them with DIAs, which will be even easier to get around. . . And don't respond to us with the stupid claim: 'You're opposed to development.' You've been 'developing' us for 40 years along the Pastaza, Corrientes, Marañón, Ucayali and Urubamba Rivers and we're now worse off, although the amount of cement, alcohol and AIDS has increased. What we request is a respectful, well-supported debate and agreement that will benefit Peru.'