Repsol to Drill for Oil in Amazon Rainforest in Peru

Company to operate in a region inhabited by indigenous people extremely vulnerable to any contact with outsiders

Repsol has been given the go-ahead by Peru's ministry of energy and mines (MEM) to explore for oil in one "protected" and one proposed reserve in the north of the country in the remote Amazon rainforest bordering Ecuador.

According to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the company's plans initially submitted to MEM in 2011 and approved last month, exploration will involve 3D seismic tests across a 680 km2 area and drilling at least 21 wells.

Although Repsol doesn't acknowledge it, all the tests and 20 of the 21 wells fall within a proposed reserve for indigenous peoples who live in what Peruvian law calls "voluntary isolation" and are extremely vulnerable to any kind of contact with outsiders.

The creation of this reserve was proposed by regional indigenous organisation ORAI in 2003 in order to protect the region and prohibit loggers, miners and oil and gas companies – like Repsol – from operating there.

Last December the Inter-American Development Bank agreed to give $1m to Peru with the stated aim of protecting the country's "isolated" indigenous peoples – some of which was scheduled to be spent on turning the proposed reserve in this region into a real one.

In 2007 national indigenous organisation AIDESEP appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to help stop Repsol, but Peru's ministry of justice and human rights is casting doubt on the "isolated" peoples' existence and urging the IACHR to close the case.

In a letter to the IACHR in April last year, forwarded to AIDESEP this January, the ministry wrote:

The amount of time that has gone by (more than four years) since the appeal was made (August 2007) suggests that the situation is not a serious or urgent one, or that, in the hypothetical case it was ever serious or urgent, it isn't any longer. ... It is essential to highlight that the existence of the [indigenous] people [in voluntary isolation] is not even certain.

According to the EIA – prepared by Repsol together with a consultancy called Gema – the seismic tests will require detonating explosives underground, 42 camps, 75 "heliports", over 1,300 workers, 3,800 "drop-zones", and 2,343 miles (3,770kms) of 1.5 metre-wide paths cut out of the forest.

These tests are due to take place in the heart of the proposed reserve very near an area where, according to a map sent by regional indigenous organisation ORPIO to the IACHR last year, "isolated" people were spotted in 2008.

Six of the wells – each one requiring 247 workers – will be inside the Pucacuro National Reserve, a supposedly "protected" 637,953 hectare area created three years ago which would be partially overlapped by the "isolated" peoples' reserve if it was established.

The Pucacuro Reserve's stated aim is to protect "one of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation at the global level," according to the government department responsible, SERNANP, and is renowned for its "exceptional richness of species."

David Freitas, from ORPIO, condemns Repsol's plans to operate in this region:

The consequences for the isolated indigenous peoples could be fatal. This is a brutal, unwitting way of making sure they disappear – for nothing more than outside economic interests. Ten years have passed since the reserve was proposed but nothing concrete has been done.

Repsol says it is "aware of the region's biological richness" and will not do anything without the government's permission, claiming that after operating in the region "for the last 10 years" and performing "various studies" it has found no proof the "isolated" peoples exist.

Repsol's Gonzalo Velasco Perez says:

Despite the fact we have no evidence for the existence of people in voluntary isolation, we have implemented an anthropological contingency plan that guarantees that, in the remote and improbable eventuality that there is a sighting of an uncontacted person, our team will always act appropriately by aiming to avoid contact and informing the relevant authorities.

Just two days before Repsol's EIA was approved, the ministry of culture held a meeting in Lima about "isolated" indigenous peoples – supported by USAid and attended by government and civil society representatives from other south American countries.

"I was astonished by the hypocrisy and the way they tried to claim all is well," says Freitas. "When asked about the proposed reserves, Peru's representative said, 'We're continuing doing studies to see who, how many and where the isolated people are exactly' and other idiotic things."

Both AIDESEP and Orpio have already written reports listing considerable evidence of the "isolated" indigenous peoples in the region where Repsol is operating, and other companies, numerous state institutions, NGOs and individuals have acknowledged their existence.

Even Repsol itself has previously acknowledged that there are "isolated" peoples in this region, holding a public meeting in 2003, titled "The Uncontacted People", in a town called Santa Clotilde on the River Napo downriver from its operations.

Repsol's concession, known as "Lot 39", is an 886,820 hectare area between the River Napo and River Tigre in Peru's Loreto department where MEM estimates "probable" oil reserves to be larger than any other concession in the country.

According to a ground-breaking article published last month about oil and gas operations in Loreto, Repsol could reduce its impact in "Lot 39" if it adopted industry best practices and used a different drilling technique requiring fewer wells.

"At the core of best practice is extended reach drilling (ERD) where the horizontal reach is at least two times greater than the vertical depth," the article states. "[This] means a single drilling platform can reach multiple distant targets in an oil or gas deposit."

Matt Finer, one of the article's authors and a scientist at the Center for International Environmental Law, calls Repsol's plans "troubling" on ecological, social and technical grounds:

The fact that Repsol's planned project overlaps a national protected area and a proposed reserve for uncontacted indigenous groups in one of the most intact and biodiverse corners of the Amazon is highly troubling. It's also troubling on technical grounds due to the lack of consideration of ERD. Our study found that instead of drilling 21 platforms, these same areas could be reached with just six by using ERD, thus greatly reducing the footprint of the project.

But Repsol's Velasco Perez says that ERD is not applicable at this stage in their operations, ie in the exploratory phase, and that it is "only applicable in production drilling, in certain geological conditions and for certain types of wells."

Repsol has held the license to operate in "Lot 39" since 1999 and has already carried out some seismic tests and drilled exploratory wells, discovering heavy crude deposits, according to the company, in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

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