19/01/2015 07:52 GMT | Updated 18/03/2015 05:59 GMT

If Brazil Bans Oil From Javari Border, Why Won't Peru?

In June 2013 the Brazilian government's National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) recommended to the National Oil, Gas and Biofuels Agency (ANP) that no oil or gas operations should take place within 25 kms of the southern boundary of a protected area called the Javari Valley Indigenous Reserve.

This reserve is in the Amazon basin in the far west of Brazil and considered to be home to more groups of indigenous people living in "isolation" (IPI) than anywhere else in the world. FUNAI's concern was simple: the presence of IPI had been recorded immediately to the south of the reserve in areas included within concessions due to be auctioned to companies by Brazil as part of its "12th oil and gas licensing round."

"[They] aren't aware of the reserve's legal limits and in some regions we have recorded [the IPI] going beyond them," stated internal FUNAI correspondence sent to the ANP.

Two months later FUNAI's recommendation was echoed by UNIVAJA, a federation representing indigenous peoples in the Javari reserve. UNIVAJA released an open letter opposing oil and gas operations - especially any that could affect IPI - and stating, "We reject any proposal that could have social and environmental impacts on our land and peoples."

The ANP's response? To cut back four concessions immediately to the south of the reserve by 25 kms.

Conrado Octavio, from the Brazilian NGO Centro de Trabalho Indigenista (CTI), describes the ANP's decision as "unprecedented" since the return to democracy in Brazil in the 1980s, and calls it the "success" of CTI's and others' work. But he guards against dubbing it a "total success" because other concessions including other indigenous territories weren't cut back and the indigenous peoples living there haven't ever been consulted about them - as is their right under international law. Furthermore, Octavio points out that one of the four cut-back concessions - called "AC-T-08", where Petrobras has won the licence to operate - remains a threat to IPI in the Sierra del Divisor region, even further to the south.

"The consequences of contact between oil companies and indigenous people living in isolation are well-known," Octavio says. "[They include] environmental impacts, deaths from diseases, forced migrations, and increased pressure on their territories by non-indigenous people."

But what about the Javari reserve's western boundary, marked by the River Yaquerana and River Javari? Swim or canoe across it and you enter Peru, where the government is following a very different path.

In 2007 Peru established two oil and gas concessions, Lot 135 and Lot 137, totalling almost 1.5 million hectares and contracted a Canadian company, Pacific Rubiales Energy, to operate there. Almost the entire eastern limit of Lot 135 is the Brazil-Peru border - most of which is the western boundary of the Javari reserve - and the eastern limit of Lot 137 also includes part of the border. Ultimately, this means that more than half of the western boundary of the Javari reserve borders Peruvian oil and gas concessions.

Both Lot 135 and Lot 137 have met with fierce opposition - from Matsés in Peru who stand to be the most impacted, from Matsés and other indigenous people across the border in Brazil who would also be affected, and organisations like CTI.

Indeed, Brazilians have been directly lobbying Peru's government about the concessions. A delegation of Matsés, Marubos, Matís and Kanamaris from the Javari reserve has met with a representative of Peru's embassy in Brasilia, and CTI has written to Peru's Ministry of Culture.

The concerns are numerous. Lot 137 overlaps 49% of the Matsés's titled land and 36% of a supposedly "protected" area called the Matsés National Reserve, while Lot 135 overlaps 100,000s of hectares of a proposed reserve for IPI. Add to that the potential impacts across the border in Brazil and all the people living downstream who are dependent on the River Yaquerana and River Javari.

Pacific Rubiales has conducted some seismic tests and drilled exploratory wells in Lot 135, beginning in late 2012. According to a former president of the Matsés community, Ángel Uaqui Dunu Maya, evidence of IPI has been found where the seismic lines were cut, and one of the wells, which he has visited, is "more or less one km" from the River Yaquerana.

"More or less one km." That's quite a difference from the 25 km limit imposed by the Brazilians just across the border. The question is this: if Brazil bans oil and gas exploration from the Javari reserve boundary, shouldn't Peru too?

Of course many Matsés don't just want Lot 135 and Lot 137 cut back by 25 kms: they want them abolished entirely. Following a meeting in November, Matsés from both Brazil and Peru issued a public statement reiterating their "total" opposition to oil and gas operations in their territories as well as those inhabited by IPI, and claiming that the establishment of the concessions violated their rights under international law.

Numerous Matsés spoke against Lot 135 and Lot 137 during the meeting, which lasted three days. Many say they are prepared to fight - with bows, arrows and spears - if oil company personnel enter their territories.