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Peruvian Indigenous Leader: 'We Don't Want to Die Because of Oil'

27/03/2015 11:53 GMT | Updated 24/05/2015 10:59 BST

Leaders from the indigenous Matsés people in the Peruvian Amazon say they remain vehemently opposed to potential operations in their territory by a Canada-based oil company.

The Matsés's "Junta Directiva" recently visited Iquitos, the biggest and most accessible city near to their territories in the remote Amazon on both sides of the Peruvian and Brazilian border.

"The Matsés don't want oil companies to enter," says the Junta's leader, Daniel Vela Collantes. "We don't want to live in a contaminated environment - because of what that will mean for our water, for our health."

The Matsés have issued numerous public statements over the last few years opposing operations after the government created two oil and gas concessions in their territories and contracted what is now Pacific Rubiales Energy to work there. Last November, at a binational meeting between Matsés from both Peru and Brazil, they issued another statement "totally rejecting" both concessions, known as "Lot 135" and "Lot 137."

However, despite this and previous statements, Perupetro, the state oil and gas licensing agency, continues to attempt to seek dialogue with the Matsés about the issue. Vela Collantes says that Perupetro recently invited him to a meeting in Iquitos.

"I explained to them the position of the Matsés people," says Vela Collantes. "Our position is not to enter into dialogue with companies, and not to allow them into our territories. We do not want dialogue. They must respect our decision."

"Perupetro knows very well that the Matsés don't want them to enter their territories, but they keep trying to meet with our leaders," says Fernando Shoque Uaqui Beso, the Junta's spokesperson. "And the leader, Daniel Vela, says no."

Uaqui Beso says the main reasons for their opposition are the potential consequences for the environment and the Matsés's health.

"Why are we against oil?" he asks. "Because it'll bring illnesses and we don't want to be ill. We don't want to die because of oil companies."

Uaqui Beso also emphasises the potential contamination of the rivers and the animals, a view shared by the Junta's treasurer, Daniel Nacua Demash.

Oil operations brings "lots of contamination" and "many illnesses", says Nacua Demash.

Many Matsés speak from past experience following exploration in the 1970s by Brazil's state oil and gas company Petrobras in the Brazilian part of their territories, and exploration mainly by US firm Arco in the Peruvian part. According to numerous Matsés alive today, this contaminated their environment and had devastating impacts on the Matsés's health.

"Many people died of illnesses," says Ángel Uaqui Dunu Maya, a former leader of the Matsés's Junta. "The Matsés don't want hydrocarbon activities in their territories but the state wants to explore."

In addition, last September a Matsés delegation visited the River Corrientes elsewhere in Peru's Amazon where oil companies have operated for more than 40 years and the government has declared an "environmental emergency."

"We went to see what the impacts [of oil operations] are," Raimundo Mean Mayoruna, president of the Matsés's General Mayoruna Organization in Brazil, told the November meeting. "Our position is more firm than before."

The Matses's November statement says they intend to take international legal action in order to stop Pacific Rubiales. The company has conducted some exploratory operations in Lot 135 - seismic tests and wells - but has not yet operated in Lot 137.

According to Peruvian NGO CEDIA, Lot 137 overlaps 49% of the Matsés's titled community land and 36% of a supposedly "protected" area called the Matsés National Reserve, while Lot 135 overlaps other parts of their territories and 100,000s of hectares of a proposed reserve for indigenous people living in what Peruvian law calls "isolation", i.e. people who do not have regular contact with any other people.

Pacific Rubiales did not respond to requests for comment.