11/12/2012 12:33 GMT | Updated 09/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Peru to Be Sued for Gas Expansion in 'Isolated' Peoples' Territories

Four Peruvian indigenous organizations have pledged to sue the government and Argentinian company Pluspetrol over plans to expand gas operations in the Camisea region in the remote Amazon.

The Camisea Project, as it has come to be called, is already Peru's biggest hydrocarbon producer. Plans to build three new wells in a concession area called Lot 88 were approved earlier this year by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and Pluspetrol is hoping to obtain approval for a further 18 wells and 2D and 3D seismic testing.

At the same time, there are plans to create a brand new concession, Lot Fitzcarrald, to the east of Lot 88.

All of these operations are in the heart of territory belonging to indigenous peoples in 'voluntary isolation', as Peruvian law calls them, who live without regular contact with anyone else. In 1990 a reserve was established specifically for them, but 74% of Lot 88 now overlaps it, according to Peruvian NGO DAR, and Lot Fitzcarrald is projected to include parts of it too.

The pledge to sue was made by AIDESEP, based in Lima, FENAMAD, ORAU and COMARU, and announced publicly on 10 December in Peruvian newspaper La Primera.

'The indigenous organizations signing this statement have decided to take legal action against the Peruvian state and the company responsible,' their statement reads. 'The imminent expansion of these activities in Lot 88, as well as in Lot Fitzcarrald, would result in the extinction of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact.'

The statement points out that expansion violates Peruvian law. A Supreme Decree issued in 2003 specifically says that 'the granting of new rights involving the exploitation of natural resources (in the reserve) is prohibited.'

The Camisea project has already had a disastrous impact on indigenous peoples living in the region, particularly those who were previously isolated or in the initial stages of contact. According to Peru's Ministry of Health, a diarrhea outbreak that killed several Nanti people in the reserve was directly connected to an epidemic in a Camisea work camp, and some people draw a connection between exploration by Shell in the region in the early 1980s and 'first contact' with the Nahua people, a group of whom were captured by loggers, and their subsequent decimation by diseases.

'The entrance into this region in the 1980s by the multinational company Shell was devastating,' says the recent statement by the four indigenous organizations. '60% of the Nahua people were exterminated as a result of epidemics. Our question is: do we want to take people's lives for the sake of money again?'

The impact on already 'contacted' people has been devastating too. A recently published report by the South Peru Panel describes social development in the region as 'shipwrecked', and documented many problems including contamination from gas spills, decline of fish, alcoholism and the arrival of 'frightening' new illnesses, including HIV/AIDS.