Why Peru's Rainforest Is About to Be Decimated While Across the Border Celebrities Rally to Save Ecuador's Rainforest

ConocoPhillips, other companies and Peru's government are violating international law and endangering the existence of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

Almost everyone has heard about Ecuador's plan to keep the oil underground: that's to say, to forgo drilling millions of barrels of oil in the Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon in return for billions of dollars compensation. The Yasuni-ITT initiative, as it is known, has even caught the imagination of the likes ofLeonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton, both of whom met Ecuador's vice president last month.  

Since it was first proposed in 2007, Yasuni-ITT has generated huge controversy. Some see it as a key way to combat climate change, and Ecuador itself has dubbed it a chance to "make history." Others suspect it is simply a clever ruse to make some easy money and that Ecuador, in the future, will drill for the oil anyway. Any day now, the initiative is expected to be finalized, pending a deal between Ecuador and the UN.  

But what's happening just across the border in Peru?

No such history in the making. ConocoPhillips is gearing up to explore for oil by cutting 454 kms of seismic lines through the rainforest -- i.e. dynamiting it -- while another company, Perenco, has recently revealed plans tobuild a pipeline through the region to help move Conoco's oil, if found, and 300 million barrels of heavy crude found several years ago to Peru's Pacific Coast.  

When I say just across the border, I mean it. In fact, there is a group of nomadic uncontacted Indians that appears to move backward and forward between Ecuador and Peru -- between the zone one country has said it is prepared to leave alone, and one the other has declared a "national necessity" to devastate and drill. The Indians are known as the Taromenane, related to the celebrated Waorani.  

As a team of scientists has recently argued, Yasuni and this part of Peru are, environmentally speaking, much the same. It is an area uniquely rich in amphibians, birds, mammals and plants, so much so that one of the scientists, Dr Matt Finer, described it as "the most biodiverse area in South America." Ecuador's government, to some degree, appears to have recognized that. Not so Peru's.   

When the decision was made in 2006 to exploit the 300 million barrels, Peru's president, Alan Garcia, marked the occasion by personally visiting the site in the remote Amazon, with the press and his energy minister, Juan Valdivia Romero, in tow. "We'll be a net exporter of oil," declared Valdivia. The message was clear: these are oil deposits that Peru's top brass are determined to exploit.  

That determination is best illustrated by Peru's attitude to the uncontacted tribes in the region. Garcia has publicly claimed such tribes have been "invented," and a report by the government's indigenous affairs department, INDEPA, concludes there aren't any in this area. So too the companies. Both Perenco and Repsol-YPF, ConocoPhillips' partner in the region, say there is no proof of the tribes' existence.  

What could happen if the government and companies get their way? Disaster. The pipeline is projected to be 207 kilometers long and to affect the rainforest for 500 meters on either side, but the biggest threat of all is the risk of contact between company workers and the uncontacted tribes. The latter have no immunity to outsiders' diseases, meaning that any form of contact can decimate them.  

What many people -- Leonardo DiCaprio and Edward Norton included -- are so desperate to avoid in Yasuni is already happening a few kilometers away in Peru: to the same unique rainforest, and to some of the same people. By working there, ConocoPhillips, the other companies and Peru's government are violating international law and endangering the existence of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

David Hill is a researcher for Survival International.
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