At its AGM in Houston two weeks ago, ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva announced his company would stop exploring for oil in one of the most remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon, known as Lot 39, just across the border from Ecuador and its well known Yasuní initiative to ‘keep the oil in the ground’. Human rights NGO Survival International remarked that Conoco’s decision had been made following ‘global outrage’ against the company’s operations in Lot 39 because of the threats posed to two ‘uncontacted’ indigenous groups living there, while US-based Amazon Watch was quick to hail it as a ‘decision for isolated peoples’ rights’.
Boats in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Greenwich Photography under a CC Licence.
I’ve just come back from the region in question. In Buena Vista, one of the two villages closest to where Conoco has been working, I was shown a house built for a Christian missionary, and several people told me the missionary, a German man named Christian, had built the house as part of his bid to search for an ‘uncontacted’ indigenous group.
‘He’s come here to find the people who live hidden further upriver,’ one woman told me. ‘Los no contactados!’ her husband chimed in, meaning literally the ‘uncontacted people’. Later that day I heard the same from one of Buena Vista’s oldest residents, a man named Modesto, who said Christian wanted to ‘look for them, to talk to them, to teach them.’
But where was the missionary? Back in Iquitos, I was told, the biggest town in Peru’s northern Amazon and possibly the biggest town in the world without road or rail access. Tracking down a missionary named Christian was no easy task anywhere, but eventually, after knocking on various church doors and inquiring around Iquitos’ ex-pat community, I found someone who knew someone who knew him and could direct me to his church. Within minutes I had found out his full name, and I was speaking to his wife down someone else’s mobile and receiving an invitation to dinner at his house: beetroot salad, a fried egg, boiled rice and agouti.
Christian was open about his plans. When I asked about his work in Buena Vista, he said, in excellent English: ‘There are petrol companies up there. There’s another tribe up there. I was looking for them... I want to give them the chance to receive the Gospel.’
He said he was due to travel upriver extremely soon. Was he intending to look for the ‘no contactados’? ‘Yes.’
Had people in Buena Vista ever spoken to him about them? He nodded, as if to say, ‘Many times’.
He mentioned how easily rumours could spread in Buena Vista and how many there had been about him, such as that he was ‘selling information to NGOs’.
Information about what? ‘About the tribe above.’
This region couldn’t be more controversial. Stung by criticism of their activities by indigenous organizations in Peru and international NGOs like Survival and Amazon Watch, Conoco and the other companies operating there, Perenco and Repsol-YPF, have played down the threat their operations pose to the ‘no contactados’ by claiming they don’t exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This is a particularly critical dispute since Perenco is planning to build a 207-kilometre pipeline right through this region in order to extract an estimated 350 million barrels of oil – deposits which were discovered years ago and declared commercially viable in late 2006.
When I asked Christian what the companies thought of his work, he laughed and said, ‘They don’t like it.’
Someone else who might not like it: the ‘no contactados’ themselves. In addition to the total lack of understanding and respect implicit in any missionary’s attempt to convert indigenous people to Christianity, the biggest concern is that contact will decimate the ‘no contactados’ because they don’t have immunity to outsiders’ diseases. Anyone who knows anything about the Amazon knows that, and Christian, who is also a medical doctor, should know better than most.
Right now, Christian is somewhere upriver from Iquitos. What is the Peruvian government going to do?
David Hill is a freelance journalist.