Plans are afoot to abolish a reserve for vulnerable indigenous peoples in Peru’s Amazon in order to exploit massive gas deposits and facilitate Christian evangelization, according to a report by Lima-based NGO Perú Equidad – Center for Public Policies and Human Rights. Established in 1990, what is now called the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti and Others’ Reserve (KNNOR), is officially intended to protect the lives and territories of indigenous peoples living in what Peruvian law calls “isolation” and “initial contact.”
Plans are afoot to abolish a reserve for vulnerable indigenous peoples in Peru’s Amazon in order to exploit massive gas deposits and facilitate Christian evangelization, according to a report by Lima-based NGO Perú Equidad – Centerfor Public Policies and Human Rights.
The report, La Batalla por “los Nanti,” argues that Peruvian state institutions, gas company Pluspetrol, and the Dominican mission have adopted a series of behind-the-scene tactics intended ultimately to “dissolve” or “extinguish” the reserve.
Established in 1990, what is now called the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti and Others’ Reserve (KNNOR), is officially intended to protect the lives and territories of indigenous peoples living in what Peruvian law calls “isolation” and “initial contact.”
Although almost 25 percent of the KNNOR has been included within a gas concession run by Pluspetrol for over 10 years, Perú Equidad believes the reserve now stands to be abolished altogether in order to facilitate operations in the concession as well as open up new areas outside of it.
Pluspetrol’s concession, called “Lot 88”, includes the San Martín and Cashiriari gas fields to the north and south of the River Camisea. The Camisea gas project, as operations are known, is Peru’s largest ever energy development scheme.
“There is an obvious strategy to dissolve the reserve, which will mainly benefit Pluspetrol,” the report reads. “State sectors interested in expanding the gas frontier are participating actively. So too is the Dominican mission, for which the reserve is an obstacle to missionizing.”
According to Perú Equidad, this strategy revolves around a small group of indigenous people who since the 1990s have been known as “Nantis” by many outsiders, but since 2011 have sometimes said publicly they are “Matsigenkas,” who number in the thousands.
Many “Matsigenka-Nantis”, as Perú Equidad calls them, live in “initial contact” inside the KNNOR, to the east of “Lot 88,” in a region of crucial interest to Pluspetrol and possible future gas production.
“’The Battle’ refers to the strategies to assimilate [the “Matsigenka-Nantis”] … [and] extinguish the KNNOR, bearing in mind they live in the region closest to a deposit of huge interest to the gas industry which is expanding Peru’s biggest hydrocarbons project,” the report states.
One of the key elements of the strategy identified by Perú Equidad is giving the “Matsigenka-Nantis” national identity documents (DNIs) – an initiative they argue has been vigorously promoted by the Dominican mission based in a Matsigenka community called Kirigueti.
While Perú Equidad acknowledges the “Matsigenka-Nantis” have the right to DNIs, that they want them, and that there are advantages to doing so, it argues the idea was “sold” to them and made to appear their own although they themselves may not understand the “true significance.”
“The identity documents are above all a useful tool to prove they’re no longer people who reject or limit their relations with the state: a cardinal message from the perspective of dissolving the reserve,” the report states.
“It’s easy to see that the logic being promoted is that having left behind being in isolation and initial contact the risks from accidental contact that made the reserve necessary no longer apply,” it continues.
Another key element in the strategy identified by Perú Equidad is proposals to create titled communities for the “Matsigenka-Nantis” – an initiative they suggest has been promoted by the mission, Pluspetrol and state institutions.
While acknowledging the “Matsigenka-Nantis” have the right to title, the report argues they may not understand the implications and cites a Culture Ministry assertion that they can fully enjoy their rights even if they continue living in the reserve.
According to Perú Equidad, turning the KNNOR into titled communities could reduce the size of the “Matsigenka-Nantis’” territories, and make it easier for gas companies, logging firms operating legally, illegal loggers, and even members of neighboring communities to enter.
“For the gas companies, titling [the KNNOR] would represent a double win,” the report states. “Not only would it open the possibility of new concessions in what is currently the reserve, but it would exonerate them from being subject to the authority of the Culture Ministry.”
Other elements in the strategy identified by Perú Equidad include weakening the legislation protecting the reserve, claiming its inhabitants are “poor” or live in “extreme poverty” in order to justify their integration and “recruiting” indigenous organizations to provide support.
Indeed, the report argues that the recent, publicly-declared affirmations that they are “Matsigenkas,” rather than “Nantis”, can be explained by the strategy to abolish the reserve and is directly linked to the DNIs.
While acknowledging it is the “Matsigenka-Nantis” right to be called whatever they choose, Perú Equidad believes their recent assertion they are “Matsigenkas” should be understood in the context of the reserve, gas operations, and the influence of “third parties.”
“The aim is to establish that [the “Matsigenka-Nantis”] – now they have identity documents – are no longer vulnerable because they form part of a larger people not on the verge of extinction,” the report states. “It is to pretend their condition as a vulnerable people has been ‘resolved.’”
The Dominican missionary based at Kirigueti, David Martinez de Aguirre, strongly rejects Perú Equidad’s conclusions, saying La Batalla is full of “wild,” “disjointed” information, “much of it false, some half-truths, and other true things taken out of context.”
“This has led them to the erroneous conclusion that the Catholic missions – specifically the mission at Kirigueti – are hatching a plan to make the Kugapakori Nahua Reserve disappear,” Martinez told Upside Down World.
Regarding the DNIs, Martinez says the state requested the mission’s help in liaising with the Matsigenkas, that it is the latter’s right to have identity documents, that they wanted them, and that having them doesn’t mean the end of the reserve.
As for land title, Martinez denies he has promoted it, but argues that the Matsigenkas can’t control their territory while it remains a reserve, saying that they weren’t consulted about gas operations and that other Matsigenkas entering to fell timber can’t be stopped.
“Titling their land could be a risk, but so too is not titling it,” he says. “The danger is not whether it is titled or not. The danger is the role the state is playing in these territories, titled or not, and how it recognizes the rights of the people living there.”
Martinez says the feeling among the Matsigenkas is that the reserve “oppresses” them and “prohibits them from meeting their true aspirations,” and that the “only thing the law supposedly protecting them does is annul their right to make decisions about their territory.”
“The companies’ community relations teams look for weaknesses in order to meet their objectives – at whatever cost,” says Martinez. “They exploit any law, any circumstance. But that shouldn’t mean, as a consequence, annulling the rights of the population.”
Lawyer Juan Carlos Ruiz Molleda says that Perú Equidad’s report exposes “what lies behind the way the state is acting” and denounces the way it “plays with the concept of self-determination among people in isolation and initial contact.”
“[The “Matsigenka-Nantis”] are cornered,” he says. “They don’t have any option, they don’t have any capacity to negotiate, and they’re having things imposed on them by the government, but the government presents it as if it is NGOs who don’t respect what they want.”
The KNNOR was the first of five reserves currently established specifically for indigenous peoples living in “isolation” in Peru, which in total cover more than 2.5 million hectares. Another five reserves have been proposed and would total almost 4 million hectares if created.
“The KNNOR’s dissolution sets a very dangerous precedent for the other reserves,” says lawyer Pedro García Hierro, one of the report’s authors. “It threatens the [“Matsigenka-Nanti’s”] autonomy and capacity to move around, and the increase in contacts is a serious health risk.”
Indigenous peoples in “isolation” and “initial contact” are extremely vulnerable to contact with “outsiders” because of their lack of immunological defenses, meaning that diseases and fatal epidemics can spread among them very easily.
Pluspetrol was given the green light by Peru’s government earlier this year to expand operations in “Lot 88” following a controversial approval process and a call from the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, among others, to suspend the expansion.
Peru’s Vice-Minister for Inter-Culturality, Patricia Balbuena Palacios, as well as Pluspetrol, could not be reached for comment.
Photo by Javier Flores.