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A travesty: The Economist on ‘isolated Indians’

Article on Amazon gas project reads like clumsy corporate PR


This article was written by David Hill for his Substack blog. You can read the original here.

Main image: The confluence of the River Camisea and River Urubamba in the Peruvian Amazon. Credit: David Hill

Ten years ago this month The Economist published probably the most slapdash journalistic article in a serious mainstream media publication I’ve ever come across about a human rights or environmental issue that I’m familiar with. Titled “Drilling in the Wilderness”, the article was about the proposed expansion of the Camisea gas project – a pioneering Latin American energy development – even deeper into a purportedly protected reserve for indigenous people living in “isolation” and “initial contact” in one of the remotest parts of Peru’s Amazon. Ultimately, the article – which acknowledged its author had travelled as a “guest” of the company running the project – read like clumsy corporate PR: misleading assertions, unverified claims, basic factual mistakes and crucial information omitted.

The Economist, April 2014

Of course, spending your time drawing attention to such mainstream media howlers like this one can feel like going down a proverbial black hole, but sometimes an article is so awful, so irresponsible, it merits some kind of response – particularly if the issues remain current. Here, then, are 10 of the most important things that caught my attention:

1 The Economist quoted Pluspetrol, the Argentine-Dutch company leading the consortium that runs the project, saying “they have never encountered any isolated Indians.” 

False. Between 2002 and 2013 countless encounters with – or sightings or physical evidence of – indigenous people in “isolation” had been registered, recorded and/or acknowledged by Pluspetrol, a company contracted by Pluspetrol, Peruvian state institutions, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), companies contracted by the IDB, a company contracted by the US’s Export-Import Bank, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, anthropologists, a consultant contracted by the world’s most well-known conservation organisations, and many indigenous people living in the Camisea region. Indeed, Pluspetrol had previously acknowledged on numerous occasions that there were indigenous people in “isolation” in the reserve, and had admitted that contact during its expansion was “probable” and potentially dangerous.  

2 The Economist stated “Foreign NGOs such as Survival International accuse Pluspetrol and the government of threatening the survival of these isolated tribes. “There is a serious risk to people in initial contact,” says Vanessa Cueto of DAR, a Peruvian NGO.””

Deeply misleading, given that this arguably implied it was only NGOs – and mainly foreign ones – concerned about the expansion. Actually, the two key Peruvian state institutions responsible for indigenous people had stated in official reports that the expansion threatened the survival of the reserve’s inhabitants, as had the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington DC, and five of Peru’s most well-known indigenous federations. Not only that, but two lawsuits trying to stop all operations in the reserve had been filed by a Peruvian NGO, and dozens of Peruvian organisations and individuals had written to President Ollanta Humala about the issue in July 2013, August 2013 and then again in February 2014 – the latter just two months before The Economist went to print. 

3 The Economist stated “there are unconfirmed reports of visits to streams by nomadic Pukirieri Indians” in the north-west of Pluspetrol’s concession, formally called “Lot 88.”

False again. Evidence of indigenous people in “isolation” and “initial contact” – often referred to as the “Kirineri” – in that part of Lot 88 had been reported and/or accepted by state institutions, indigenous federations, NGOs and anthropologists for years – and no one was calling them “Pukirieri”! Perhaps The Economist got confused between an indigenous community elsewhere in Peru’s Amazon along the River Tambopata, a long way from Camisea, where the surviving Pukirieri live, and the River Paquiria flowing through the north-west of Lot 88?

4 The Economist stated Pluspetrol’s expansion plans were “approved by the government in January.”

Yes, but it should also have acknowledged the highly controversial and irregular administrative process that approval involved. Arguably most egregious was the way a Ministry of Culture report effectively blocking the expansion because it could “devastate” and/or make “extinct” some of the indigenous people in the reserve was “disappeared”, initially by being removed from the Ministry’s website, then the resolution approving it being annulled, and then an entirely new report being written – not by the Ministry, but a sub-contracted external team, at least one of whom had an obvious conflict of interest. This affair led to a swathe of resignations by the Culture Minister, a Culture Vice-Minister, the director of the Culture Ministry department responsible for the “disappeared” report, and at least one member of the Ministry’s team which authored it. As documented by Peruvian media, pressure on the Ministry had come directly from Peru’s First Lady, Nadine Herrera, among other quarters.

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5 The Economist stated “Camisea was developed with a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank.” 

Deeply misleading, given that the IDB loan was tiny and none of it was spent on Lot 88 operations. US$5 million went to Peru’s government “to strengthen [its] capacity to supervise, monitor and inspect the environmental and social aspects of the Camisea gas project”, and US$75 million went to the consortium building the pipelines, Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP), transporting the gas and natural gas liquids from the Amazon to the Pacific coast. That amounted to a mere US$80 million out of an approximate total of US$1.7 billion.

6 The Economist stated the IDB “set rigorous environmental safeguards.”

Deeply misleading as well, given that in practice those safeguards have meant little or nothing, with the NGO DAR stating in a 2007 report: “of the 21 commitments assumed by the Peruvian state, none has been fully complied with. 11 have seen only a partial advance and 10 haven’t been met.” Indeed, this reference to the safeguards was not only misleading but grossly ironic too, since the most important one regarding the reserve’s inhabitants – number 4 – arguably now stood to be violated by the expansion. 

7 The Economist stated “Shell began exploring Camisea in the 1980s” and built an “access road” which was “used by illegal loggers, who enslaved isolated Nahua Indians; 300 of them died from diseases to which they had no immunity.”

No doubt about it, Shell’s exploration facilitated the dramatic encounter between a group of Nahua men and loggers that ultimately led to sustained contact and the tragic death of almost half the Nahua population, but what The Economist failed to mention is that Shell – despite the dangers involved – had been actively trying to contact them for some time. That included flying over the forest and shouting through a megaphone hoping the Nahua down below might hear them. It would also have been appropriate to acknowledge how, since that devastating experience in the mid-1980s, many Nahua have continued to struggle with all kinds of serious health problems.

8 The Economist stated “the chief of 470 Nahua Indians” – “Indians”? – and his daughter had “just been to [Washington DC to] denounce the NGOs that want to block the expansion.”

Just not that simple. Several months before that, national indigenous federation AIDESEP had brought back a statement from the Nahua’s village saying that they were opposed to Pluspetrol operating in their territory. What had apparently changed between then and the hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in DC in November? Not clear, but it is worth noting that neither the Nahua “chief” nor his daughter actually said anything during the hearing, and their first night’s accommodation travelling to the US was charged to Pluspetrol.

AIDESEP video from April 2024 explaining the actions they take to protect PIACI (Indigenous People in Isolation and Initial Contact).

9 The Economist stated a “scheme funded by [Pluspetrol] but run by an NGO employs a small team of Indians as environmental monitors. Cristóbal Rivas, a Machiguenga Indian who is the scheme’s president, says they have investigated small leaks of diesel but that in 11 years there has been no serious impact on the forest.”

Deeply misleading yet again. Environmental impacts of the Camisea project have included erosion caused by poor pipeline construction, pipeline ruptures, the widely-reported “decimation of wildlife in the Camisea River basin”, as UNESCO has put it, and the severe decline of fish stocks in rivers. The “scheme” referred to is the Programa de Monitoreo Ambiental Comunitario-Bajo Urubamba (PMAC-BU) – a fundamentally flawed program, as anyone familiar with Camisea would agree, that is utterly unable to monitor Lot 88’s real impacts. As the president of one Matsigenka community in the region told me years ago, “PMAC monitors only report what the company lets them report”, or as another community president put it, “When something goes wrong it’s Pluspetrol that knows and they don’t tell PMAC or the community. They deal with it themselves. They might tell PMAC four or five days later. . .” or, in the words of a third community president, “You can’t trust PMAC. They work with the company.” 

10 The Economist said absolutely nothing about the appalling health struggles of the indigenous people arguably most impacted by the project.

This was possibly most slapdash of all. The article failed to mention how increasing contact between some “Nanti”, as they had often been called since the 1990s, living upriver from Lot 88 and the rest of Peru has had such devastating impacts, with a 2003 Health Ministry report estimating that epidemics had caused the death of between 30% and 60% of them. In recent decades that contact has largely been precipitated by the gas project, and it was precisely because of the “Nanti’s” general health that the “disappeared” Culture Ministry report had warned that Pluspetrol’s expansion threatened to make them “extinct.” Indeed, The Economist’s only reference to these people naively referred to them as “Machiguenga”, thereby falling for a kind of re-branding strategy that Peruvian NGO Peru Equidad claimed in a 2014 report had been adopted for various reasons – among them, in the longer-term, to attempt to extinguish the reserve, to open up their territories to yet more gas exploration, and to play down any “extinction” talk. Without acknowledging the recurring epidemics of acute respiratory infections, severe diarrhoea and regular deaths among these “Machiguenga” over the years – some of which have been directly linked to Camisea by the Health Ministry – no wonder The Economist could bring itself to so blithely and confidently sub-title this travesty of an article: “Energy extraction can coexist with native peoples and forests.”