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April 13, 2016
With all the negative press surrounding the ongoing battles between large corporations and native indigenous populations in the Amazon, there are new signs of a growing understanding and possible coexistence. At the Las Malvinas gas-processing plant in the Peruvian Amazon, all those who arrive are taken to a waiting room and shown a video of prohibited actions whilst in the Amazon. The Camisea gas project, which has 600 permanent workers, follows the long list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to the letter, by not bringing in food and by distancing itself from the Amerindian people in the surrounding forest. Before arriving, the only way passengers can board a flight is if they have a medical pass proving they have been vaccinated against flu and yellow fever, with a view to diminishing the spread of infection. All of these rules and regulations come after many years of problems and difficult lessons, learned by both Peru’s most important energy source, Camisea, and the indigenous population. Gas from Camisea’s Peruvian Amazon plant has helped fuel the recent economic growth of Peru, due to its regulated sale price of between $1.80-3.30 per million British thermal units; this price is more than four times less expensive than that of Chile, its energy-short neighbour.
A large majority of Camisea’s gas project, called Block 88 in the Peruvian Amazon, is situated in the government reserve of Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti. Founded in 1990, the reserve was set up to protect the Amerindians, who have cut all ties with the outside world. Whilst the Peruvian government launched this initiative, many sensitive issues remain. Pluspetrol, a firm from Argentina, have recently agreed a deal with the government to conduct seismic tests in Block 88 in order to develop up to six new well sites. The fine balance between ensuring continued economic growth and investment, along with the plight of the local Amerindians, has caught the attention of many foreign NGOs and pressure groups. Many of these groups hold the view that the government is threatening the survival of these isolated tribes and paying little regard to the risks taken by those who make initial contact with tribes.
Camisea has become a test of whether hydrocarbon exploitation can indeed coexist within such a fragile environment and alongside the native tribes. Other companies faced with similar delicate issues, such as the agreed oil exploration in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, are following Block 88 with extremely close attention. The main issue relates to lessons learnt from previous mistakes. For example, in the 1980s Shell constructed access roads when they began exploring Camisea and subsequently these roads were used by illegal loggers who enslaved the local Nahua Indians, of which 300 died from diseases that they had no immunity to. The shadow of this dark history has slowly been fading away, however the scars on the landscape, as well as the hearts and minds of the local tribes, remain.
Camisea has been developed with care and attention, in order to minimise the risk of casting yet another dark shadow over this fragile ecosystem. Developed with a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, rigorous environmental safeguards were set with Pluspetrol using an offshore inland method, treating the forest as delicately as the ocean. No roads lead to or surround Block 88, where access is only possible by helicopter and horizontal drilling is used as it minimises the number of surface sites. The five well sites that are currently located in Camisea are no bigger than a couple of football pitches and are surrounded by deep, dense natural forest with little or no known effects on the environment in the immediate area. When there is a need for maintenance, crews arrive by helicopter to the remotely operated wells, with dismantled equipment which they then reassemble on site.
The ties with the surrounding area are important. In order to ensure that curious workers do not wander off into the forest and into Amerindian territory, the workers are accompanied by local guides. With bright yellow pipelines, the need to conceal the large gas pipes was important so as not to cause visual damage to the area. Where possible, the pipelines have been buried with only the pipes crossing watercourses being visible to the naked eye. A service, funded by the company operating in the area but run by an NGO, employs a small team of local Indians who monitor the environment.
For Peru, the immediate and future benefits of cheap gas from Camisea are clear. However, the decision of how to value this factor against the lives and rights of indigenous populations presents a predicament for the Peruvian government. Nevertheless, although the dark history may never be forgotten, there are positive signs of coexistence and mutual respect. The companies in the area and the Peruvian government no longer assume that they know best for the indigenous people. Instead, they are taking the necessary steps towards consultation and limiting their impact, to ensure that indigenous people in the Amazon and economic growth in Peru can coexist.
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