Environment

10 Ways Humans Are Destroying Earth's Most Biodiverse Place

Roads, oil/gas operations, narco trade, gold-mining, logging and "human safaris" are among the many threats to Peru's Manu National Park.

Christian Vinces Gallito de las rocas (Rupicola peruviana) national bird of Peru.
Photo Credit: Gallito de las rocas (Rupicola peruviana) national bird of Peru. (Christian Vinces/Shutterstock)

Just under half of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites are under threat, the WWF asserts. Sites deemed threatened include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Pantanal in Brazil and the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo - and 111 others.

But what about the Manu National Park in Peru’s Amazon, which UNESCO calls the most biodiverse place on earth and was declared part of a biosphere reserve in the 1970s? In south-east Peru and stretching for 1.7 million hectares from the tropical Andes to the lowland forest, Manu is home to extraordinary biodiversity and Harakbut, Matsigenka, “Matsigenka-Nanti,” “Mashco-Piro,” Nahua, Quechua and Yine indigenous peoples.

The WWF told the Guardian that Manu didn’t make its threatened list because “at the time of the analysis it did not have any large-scale commercial mining, oil or gas concessions within or overlapping with the park’s borders, and was not listed by the IUCN as at “high” or “very high” threat from any non-extractive industrial activities.” However, as the Guardian has reported over the last few years, Manu and its inhabitants do face numerous threats—including from mining, oil and gas. Here is a quick run-down:

1. A highway through the park.

Peru’s government is planning to build a national highway along the course of the River Manu right through the middle of the park, effectively extending a route called the PE-5S. According to Transport Ministry maps, the highway will run all the way to the border with Bolivia, for 1,130 kms (702 miles). This would also mean entering the Bahuaja Sonene National Park and the Tambopata National Reserve, as well as linking up with the Inter-Oceanica Highway which ultimately connects Peru’s Pacific coast to Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

Map showing how the PE-5S national highway would run right through Manu national park and all the way to the border with Bolivia. (Photograph: Screenshot from a Peruvian transport ministry map)

2. Oil/gas operations in the park.

A Guardian exposé in 2013 revealed how oil and gas company Pluspetrol was planning “geological fieldwork” in—and “the development of”—the far west of Manu, and how it had applied to enter the park in 2011 but was denied by the Environment Ministry agency, SERNANP, which manages it.

Pluspetrol responded to the Guardian by saying it had no interest in exploring in Manu, but reports and rumors have emerged from the region suggesting that one company or other has operated there in recent years. In 2015 the Guardian published a leaked Pluspetrol map again showing its interest in Manu. The oil and gas industry has long eyed the park, and companies—including Shell—have conducted seismic tests there in the past.

Map demonstrating the reasons for the oil and gas industry’s interest in Manu. The yellow blobs are ‘undrilled prospects’, while the red blobs are ‘discovered deposits.’ (Photograph: Screen shot from a Perupetro presentation)

3. Gas operations in the buffer zone.

Pluspetrol heads a consortium, including the US’s Hunt Oil, Spain’s Repsol and South Korea’s SK Innovation, extracting and exploring for gas in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti and Others Reserve (KNNOR), which is part of Manu’s western buffer zone. The concession, called Lot 88, forms part of what is known as the Camisea gas project. It is almost immediately to the west of the very same area in Manu in which the Guardian, in 2013 and 2015, argued that Pluspetrol was interested.

Over the years operations in Lot 88 are reported to have had devastating impacts on the indigenous peoples in the KNNOR, which was established specifically for those living in “isolation” and “initial contact.” In 2013 the Culture Ministry warned that expansion eastwards, towards Manu, could “devastate” the Nahuas and make the “Matsigenka-Nantis” and Kirineris “extinct,” while SERNANP expressed concern it would lead to new settlements being established in Manu, increase pressure on natural resources, and potentially generate conflict among communities living there.

But expansion was permitted, with plans to explore so far east that some seismic tests would be approximately 7.5 kms (4.6 miles) from Manu’s western border and one well would be approximately 10 kms (6.2 miles) away. According to Perupetro, Pluspetrol drilled that well in 2015.

4. Coca cultivation and narco-trafficking in the park and buffer zone.

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2016 report on coca cultivation in Peru states that coca has been growing in Manu’s buffer zone “for various years.” In 2015 there were 809 hectares of coca in the buffer zone, the UN reports, although none in the park itself.

The official Management Plan for Manu acknowledges the threat posed by coca cultivation to the buffer zone, as well as the recent “appearance of maceration pits” which it fears that “at any given moment ... will be dug inside the park” too. In 2016 Peruvian media outlet Ojo Publico reported that an anti-drugs prosecutor based in Cusco had “detected various maceration pits even within the jurisdiction of the Manu National Park, one of the Amazon’s last natural paradises.”

5. Illegal logging in the park and buffer zone.

The Management Plan calls illegal logging in Manu’s buffer zone, particularly on the eastern side, “the real problem.” Some indigenous communities have permission to extract wood from that area, but SERNANP holds no authority there and the Environment Ministry argues that the communities’ operations are not properly supervised by the regional government. Loggers are sometimes reported to enter the park itself.

6. Mercury contamination from gold-mining outside the park.

Gold-mining has been estimated to have destroyed over 150,000 hectares in Peru’s southern Amazon, mostly in the Madre de Dios region, and involved dumping 100s of tons of mercury into the rivers. In May 2016 the government—pathetically—announced a Declaration of Emergency across all Madre de Dios because of mercury contamination.

According to a map based on preliminary research by scientists at the Duke Global Health Institute in the U.S., the most contaminated area in Madre de Dios is upriver from the mining along the stretch of the River Madre de Dios between towns called Boca Colorado and Boca Manu, a significant part of which is in Manu’s buffer zone. The map suggests the second worse-hit area is inside the park, immediately upriver from Boca Manu, along the River Manu’s left bank. The right bank is reported to be affected too.

7. A road through the buffer zone.

A road has been cleared along the right bank of the River Madre de Dios in the buffer zone of the supposedly “protected” Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, just across the river from Manu. Members of two local indigenous communities, Shipetiari and Diamante, are reported to be in favor and detained approximately 40 people in 2015 to make themselves heard on the issue, but the road has provoked vigorous concern and/or opposition—from regional indigenous federation FENAMAD, local indigenous organization COHARYIMA, a Cusco judge, the Culture Ministry, the Environment Ministry and even UNESCO.

According to SERNANP, which set in motion an official complaint about the road made by the Environment Ministry to a prosecutor in Madre de Dios against the regional governor and two others, it is “clearly related to gold-mining and illegal logging interests.” Ultimately, it is slated to run to Boca Manu and then along the River Manu to Boca Colorado through Manu’s buffer zone—effectively the same route identified for the PE-5S extension.

8. Deforestation in the park and buffer zone.

Between 2010 and 2014 Manu had more forest cleared than any other national park in Peru’s Amazon with the exception of the Rio Abiseo National Park in the San Martin region, according to a 2015 report by the Environment Ministry. That same report states that in its buffer zone 583 hectares were cleared. No possible causes were suggested, but the Management Plan cites coca and other agriculture as reasons for the deforestation in the buffer zone.

9. “Human safaris.”

The appearance of a group of indigenous people living in “isolation” along the left bank of the upper River Madre de Dios in 2011 has led some tourist operators to offer trips to “spot” and photograph or film them. Such “human safaris” have been vigorously condemned by FENAMAD and others - not only for the obvious ethical reasons, but because of the danger that contact poses to the “Mashco-Piros,” as they are widely-known, because of their lack of immunological defenses which means potentially fatal diseases can be easily transmitted to them.

These “human safaris” are arguably the most obvious indication of how the “Mashco-Piros” and other indigenous peoples in “isolation” in Manu are being increasingly boxed in by what is going on around them—by the oil/gas operations, the road, the logging, the gold-mining, coca, colonization and even some tourism. Severe tension and conflict between them and their most immediate neighbors—Diamante and Shipetiari—has resulted in two men from those communities being killed in recent years.

10. Oil/gas operations to the park’s east.

Hunt Oil, partnered by Pluspetrol and Repsol, runs an oil and gas concession immediately to Manu’s east and overlapping most of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. The concession, Lot 76, includes parts of Manu’s buffer zone, Shipetiari and another indigenous community bordering the park, although the area where Hunt has explored until now is to the east and on the other side of the River Madre de Dios. The prospective deposits—marked on the map above—appear to be part of the same trend as those in Lot 88 and Manu.

David Hill is a Guardian environment writer reporting on human rights and environmental issues in Latin America, and a consultant for Global Witness researching Peruvian forest governance. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHillTweets.

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