Oil Company Threatens Amazon Reserve for Isolated Indigenous Tribes

A struggle is brewing over a northern swath of the Peruvian Amazon between the Napo and Tigre rivers.

Peruvian Amazon destruction


A struggle is brewing over a northern swath of the Peruvian Amazon between the Napo and Tigre rivers. On one side stands a French and English oil company and the local leaders hoping for a share of their profits. On the other side stand more than 20 nearby Indigenous communities and the broader Indigenous movement that represents them.

The question? Whether the area will continue to be exploited for oil or turned into a reserve.

“Human lives depend on it!” Survival International South America researcher Teresa Mayo tells Treehugger in an email of the creation of the reserve. “It’s not only nature that's at risk of catastrophe. Uncontacted Indigenous peoples live there and will face extermination if their territory is not properly protected from extractive activities and outsiders.”

Teresa Mayo

Uncontacted tribes’ lands are the most biodiverse territories and include the best-conserved forests in the world. That’s not a coincidence.

What’s at Stake? 

Uncontacted tribes are Indigenous communities that chose to live in isolation from outside groups, according to Survival International.

“Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable peoples in the world,” Mayo explains. “History has shown how whole tribes have died after forced contact due to direct or indirect violence against them or because of external diseases that are common to our societies–such as common cold, measles, or malaria–but which are lethal in many cases for them. The only way of protecting their lives is respecting their recognized right to remain uncontacted, which can only be achieved by protecting their territory.”

One tragic example of what happens to these communities if their isolation is not respected is the story of “The Man of the Hole,” who passed away in Brazil this August, Survival International reported at the time. The man was the sole survivor of a genocide waged against his people by cattle ranchers beginning in the 1970s.  For decades he lived entirely alone, digging large holes and avoiding human interaction, subsisting in a sliver of forest surrounded by the farms in whose name his community was killed. 

However, if uncontacted tribes are allowed to live at peace in their territories, this can be mutually beneficial for the communities and the planet.

“Uncontacted tribes’ lands are the most biodiverse territories and include the best-conserved forests in the world. That’s not a coincidence,” Mayo says. “Not only are they the best guardians of the forests and have always managed them in a sustainable way, but also the legal status of ‘Indigenous Territory’ is the one that offers more effective protection of nature.” 

 She added this was especially the case for recognized territories that are home to uncontacted groups. 

A 19-Year Struggle 

Indigenous activists in Peru are hoping that the Napo Tigre Indigenous Reserve will become one such territory. The reserve would be located near the Ecuadorian border in the Peruvian provinces of Maynas and Loreto, according to an Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP) statement translated by Amazon Watch

The Indigenous groups surrounding the proposed reserve have long known that uncontacted tribes lived within its bounds, and the broader Indigenous movement in Peru first asked the government to recognize the existence of these tribes 19 years ago.

However, the proposed reserve is also home to something else: oil. Two oil blocks—numbered 39 and 67—coincide with the uncontacted groups’ territory. 

The blocks are operated by an Anglo-French oil company called Perenco that is run by one of the richest men in France, an amateur race-car driver named François Perrodo, as Survival International noted in a press release. It has been opposing the creation of a reserve there for years, together with another company called PetroPeru, Mayo tells Treehugger. 

“The creation of Napo-Tigre Reserve is the longest delayed (from the ones still awaiting recognition) and has the strongest opposition from the hydrocarbon lobby,” Mayo says. 

However, on July 25, the Multisectoral Commission of Law No. 28736, Law for the Protection of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact, officially recognized the existence of members of the Aewa, Taushiro, Tagaeri, Taromenane, and Zaparo peoples living in voluntary isolation in the proposed reserve. This was based on 292 pieces of evidence and is the first step in the process of creating a reserve. 

At the same time, Perenco has been stepping up its lobbying against the reserve’s establishment In April, it asked the government to repeal the National Law for the Protection of Indigenous Peoples in Isolation altogether. Then, in June, it sued the Ministry of Culture to block the creation of the reserve and to be included in the process of establishing it. 

“It is incredible and totally unacceptable that this foreign company has sued the Peruvian government in order to ignore the existence of these groups of human beings,” Julio Cusurichi, a Goldman Prize winner and a member of AIDESEP’s National Council, said in a statement reported by Amazon Watch.  

In a statement emailed to Treehugger, Perenco cast doubt on the presence of Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact (PIACI) in the area. 

“The status of the procedure for the creation of the Napo-Tigre reserve is still at an early stage and more studies are required to confirm the existence of PIACI,” a company spokesperson said. “What is sure is that in the current area of operations there are no PIACI, but a project integrated into its environment.

Under Peruvian law, Perenco should be included in evaluating the PIACI case, which has not happened.  It is for this reason we have filed a claim requesting the current procedure be annulled and replaced by a lawful one.” 

However, Survival International points to Perenco’s long history of running roughshod over environmental and human rights protections in both Latin America and Africa. In Peru, it has ignored the voices of Indigenous peoples almost since it began operating in the country in 2008. In 2009, at least one Perenco boat joined Peruvian armed forces in breaking an Indigenous blockade on the Napo River protesting environmental exploitation in the area. In 2010, the company instructed workers building a pipeline there to try and convince any uncontacted groups they encountered to return to their homes and to frighten them off with flare guns if they attacked. 

The Peruvian government declared Perenco’s work on Lot 67 to be of national importance in 2009. Indigenous activists and their allies are hoping that this time the government will side with the vulnerable uncontacted tribes over the foreign oil company. 

“If the Peruvian government continues to allow extractive activities in Napo-Tigre, both nature and peoples risk being wiped out,” Mayo says.