Anthropologist David Hill is a freelance journalist currently based in South America. He has worked for non-governmental organizations Survival International and Forest Peoples Programme.
On 11 February, the British newspaper The Guardian published an article I wrote highlighting the danger to Peru’s Manu National Park posed by oil and gas company Pluspetrol. Based on a leaked report written by a Lima consultancy contracted by Pluspetrol, the article revealed the company’s interest in conducting geological research in an area described by UNESCO as the most biodiverse place on Earth.
Pluspetrol’s response was intriguing, to say the least. They had previously declined to respond to my questions, but now, within hours of the article being published, they issued a statement in the midst of a frenzy of interest in Peru.
‘No extractive activity whatsoever is planned or has been done outside our concession,’ was one of its immediate claims. Two weeks later, in an interview with Lima newspaper El Comercio, the company categorically asserted, ‘Pluspetrol denies that it has had or has any intention of operating in Manu, in its buffer zone or beyond the boundaries of its lots.’
That first claim is misleading, while the claim made to El Comercio is incorrect.
Operating outside Lot 88
On 25 June 2010, as part of its plans to expand what is known as the ‘Camisea gas project’ in the south-east Peruvian Amazon, Pluspetrol applied for permission from Perupetro, the Peruvian state entity responsible for establishing oil and gas concessions, to conduct seismic tests outside its concession, called ‘Lot 88’, as part of its search for new gas deposits. Ten days later, on 6 July 2010, Perupetro gave it the go-ahead, subject to permission from Peru’s Energy Ministry. This plan to operate beyond the boundaries of its concession was later confirmed at a meeting in Lima on 14 July 2011 – ‘if we don’t go beyond Lot 88 a little we could miss out on useful information,’ a Pluspetrol representative was reported as saying. The same intention was evident in the ‘Terms of Reference’ (TDR) for an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ (EIA) of its expansion plans which the company submitted to the Energy Ministry. This included seismic tests outside Lot 88 and deeper into a reserve supposedly set aside for indigenous peoples in ‘voluntary isolation’, although these plans were opposed by Peru’s indigenous affairs department, INDEPA, and have been scrapped, for now at least.
Manu National Park & Lot 88
As for Manu, Pluspetrol immediately admitted it had applied for permission to enter the park from the Peruvian state entity responsible for protected areas, SERNANP, but claimed this was for ‘scientific interest’ only and denied that ‘it has had or has now any interest in exploring in Manu National Park.’ When I asked whether they were really claiming that their interest in Manu had nothing to do with hydrocarbons, they replied that they had wanted to study ‘the rocks that outcrop in the River Maquizapango region’, to contribute to Peruvians’ education and public understanding of the country’s geology, and that ‘in no way’ did it have anything to do with ‘any kind of extractive activity outside Lot 88.’
It is difficult to believe that a gas company would apply for permission to do geological research in an area believed to hold gas deposits, as Perupetro maps make clear, unless it was interested in the gas. Especially when the company concerned is expanding its operations in that direction anyway, as is known from plans approved last year to drill three wells at a location called San Martin Este and an EIA presented to the Energy Ministry in November 2012 planning eighteen more wells, seismic tests and a pipeline in Lot 88
It seems that Quartz Services, the Lima consultancy which wrote the leaked report exposing Pluspetrol’s intentions to enter Manu, believed its client’s interest was gas, not ‘science.’ Its report mentions ‘scientific activity’ in the very first sentence, but only as the ‘objective base’ of ‘all investment processes’.
‘Our mission as an institution providing technical and specialist services to Pluspetrol will contribute not only to operations in Lot 88,’ Quartz’s report reads, ‘but also to the development of the protected Manu National Park (my italics) and to Peru’s national development through sustained private investment in hydrocarbons.’
SERNANP, the Peruvian state entity responsible for protected areas, seems equally clear about Pluspetrol’s priorities. In a press release issued on 12 February, the day after The Guardian article was published, it makes no mention of ‘scientific interest.’
National parks ‘specifically prohibit the exploitation of natural resources,’ SERNANP stated. ‘Given that, the request by the company Pluspetrol to carry out geological exploration in Manu National Park was denied in October 2011.’
The company changes its story
Now, as the interview with El Comercio in late February made clear, the company is telling a different story. It admits its interest in entering Manu was about gas after all, but the gas in Lot 88, almost immediately to the west, not in Manu itself. ‘The rocks that are 2000 metres below Lot 88 outcrop in Manu,’ Pluspetrol’s Daniel Guerra Zela was reported as saying. ‘It’s the same formation as the surface zone in Manu. Our interest was in understanding their features to correlate them with the structures in Lot 88.’
Certainly, this new version coincides much better with Pluspetrol’s application to SERNANP to enter the park, which makes no mention of ‘science’, or indeed the public interest, and states the company wanted to ‘understand the sub-soil of a much larger area, with emphasis on Lot 88.’ But if its ‘emphasis’ was on Lot 88, it seems reasonable to ask where else it was interested in. Manu itself? The slim area between Manu’s western boundary and Lot 88’s eastern boundary? To the north or south of Lot 88?
However, while all this provides considerable grounds for concern, the situation inside Lot 88 is even more serious. San Martin Este and the areas where Pluspetrol wants to drill eighteen more wells, conduct seismic tests, and build a pipeline are almost all in a reserve for indigenous peoples in ‘voluntary isolation’ – the first such reserve ever created in Peru – who live with no regular contact with ‘outsiders.’ Their rights are being totally ignored, and their lives are being put at considerable risk because they have no immunity to outsiders’ diseases and any kind of contact, no matter how brief, could trigger a devastating epidemic. Yet, as a letter sent by the Energy Ministry to SERNANP on 11 April suggests, Pluspetrol could be given permission to proceed with these operations any day now.