Amazon community ‘grants asylum’ to critics of Correa’s government


Fernando Villavicencio (back, centre) with the Sarayaku community.

Something extraordinary is happening right now in a Kichwa indigenous community, Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Three men wanted by the government for slander – politician Cléver Jiménez, doctor Carlos Figueroa and journalist Fernando Villavicencio – have sought refuge there.

On 24 April, Sarayaku announced it would protect the three Ecuadorians until ‘the state guarantees their physical integrity and respects their human rights and lives’.

Their decision to extend protection to the three men entails risk. The government has mobilized helicopters and canoes of heavily armed police and is said be planning an ‘imminent attack’ called ‘Cleaning up Sarayaku’, according to Quito-based El Comercio newspaper and statements and tweets by community representatives.

In April last year, a court sentenced Jiménez and Villavicencio to 18 months in prison and Figueroa to six months for slandering Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa. Grassroots groups say the charges are politically motivated. Jiménez, from the indigenist-based movement and political party Pachakutik, has been an outspoken critic of the current Ecuadorian government, while Villavicencio is a former labour union leader, author of Ecuador: Made in China, and has been a fierce critic of the present regime.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement in support of the three men calling for Ecuador to suspend a ruling in January 2014 that upheld the sentencing, issuing what it calls ‘precautionary measures’.

Below, Fernando Villavicencio, speaking from Sarayaku during a rare moment of internet access, gives his side of the story:

What are the charges against you?

It’s a lawsuit brought by Rafael Correa as an Ecuadorian citizen, not as president, for supposed slander after congressman Cléver Jiménez, Carlos Figueroa and I requested the public prosecutor to investigate the events of 30 September 2010 when soldiers entered the Quito Police Hospital [under siege by striking police officers] to ‘rescue’ Correa, stating that he had been kidnapped.

Correa’s double standards are quite clear: on the one hand he makes accusations against Chevron, on the other he gives them oil.

But the person who gave the order for that rescue was Correa himself, according to the report by the army. In the military operation that followed, five people – including policemen, soldiers and civilians – died. The public prosecutor rejected our request and, without researching the issue, called it malicious and baseless. It also brought a lawsuit against a congressman without removing his parliamentary immunity, which is a violation of the Constitution.

What is your response to these charges?

As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights indicated in issuing ‘precautionary measures’ [these can be requested from the State to prevent irreparable harm to people in connection with a pending petition or case], the sentence violated due process. In my particular case it went even further: it violated my right as a journalist to freedom of expression.

This is clearly a case of political persecution. The trial regarding the police uprising on 30 September is a tool to silence us and stop new condemnations being made public. It is also a response to the research I did for my book Ecuador: Made in China, which reveals that Ecuador loses two dollars on every barrel of oil it sells to China, which it does in return for the loans it receives from the China Development Bank. Moreover, I’ve revealed that the companies Taurus and Gunvor – both being investigated by the US justice system – re-sell Ecuador’s oil to refineries in the US, including Chevron-Texaco’s refinery in California. This makes Correa’s double standards quite clear: on the one hand he makes accusations against [multinational company] Chevron, on the other he gives them oil.

A little while ago you were living in Miami in the US. Why did you return to Ecuador?

Because I’m innocent. It was almost definite that I would be granted political asylum and that a humanitarian visa would be granted for my family, but once the Inter-American Commission issued ‘precautionary measures’ I decided to return to Ecuador, together with Cléver and Carlos, to face whatever destiny had in store for us. I couldn’t stay in the US as a free man while my colleagues went to prison or into hiding. I thought that Correa was going to respect the Inter-American human rights system but his dictatorial attitude has forced us to seek refuge with indigenous people in the Amazon.

Why Sarayaku?

Sarayaku is a national and international symbol. It’s a community that has provided lessons in resistance to the rest of the world. It’s the only community to have expelled two oil and gas companies from their territories – first Texaco and later CGC – and it won a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012. I’ve been tuned into, and supported, the aspirations of the Sarayaku people since 1992. They live in true harmony with the natural world, with their own government where decisions are made by the entire community. No one takes more than is necessary from the natural world, and they offer an example of a functioning democracy and respect for life. They show that civilization is to be found in the forest, not cement.

What’s it like living in Sarayaku?

Since 24 April when the 7th Sarayaku Congress – the entire community – decided to accept and protect us, the government launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the leaders, inhabitants and us. Since then, the community has been completely mobilized. Work tools, hunting rifles, spears, blow-guns, bows, machetes and knives have all been transformed into instruments to defend Sarayaku territory. For the Kichwa here, an attack against one person is considered an attack against everyone. If someone is threatening their ancestral territory – 135,000 hectares – it is considered an attack against their home. School has been suspended and the community’s own security force, called WIO, which means ‘ant’, keeps watch on the river and at strategic sites in the forests 24 hours a day. No one from outside can enter without permission from the Sarayaku Governing Council.

Sarayaku has provided lessons in resistance to the rest of the world

After Correa announced he would use all available resources to enter Sarayaku and capture us, police and military helicopters have landed at the mouth of the River Bobonaza. Since then the three of us requested the leaders pull us out of the community’s main centre to avoid any encounters which could have fatal consequences. Now we’re moving around between different settlements in the forest, and every now and again we have access to Sarayaku’s only internet point, like now.

Our lives have changed completely. Here we sleep in hammocks or makeshift tents, it rains constantly, and there are mosquitoes, snakes, and primary and secondary forests. Solar panels provide energy. The language spoken is Kichwa, but community members also speak and understand Spanish.

How do you hope this situation can be resolved?

We hope that the government heeds the ‘precautionary measures’ granted by the Inter-American Commission. These are binding, not optional. Ecuador has respected these measures several times before. If that doesn’t happen this time, we will approach other international bodies.

What can the international community do?

Pressure the Ecuadorian government to comply with the Inter-American Commission’s ruling. The people of Sarayaku have decided to protect us because they consider us persecuted for political reasons, but now a military and police assault is being prepared which could lead to clashes with terrible consequences. Those responsible for what happens now in Sarayaku – which has announced it will not permit any soldiers or police to cross into its land – are president Rafael Correa and those implementing the prison sentences which the Inter-Commission has requested to be suspended.

Indigenous organizations to sue Peru over Amazon gas project

Indigenous organizations say they will take legal action to halt the expansion of the Camisea gas project in the Peruvian Amazon.

They are seeking to prevent deeper penetration into the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve, which was established for indigenous peoples who have no regular contact with outsiders and live in ‘voluntary isolation’, as defined under Peruvian law.

The December announcement of plans to sue both the government and Argentinean firm Pluspetrol is the latest step in a new, international campaign by a coalition of indigenous organizations - AIDESEP, FENAMAD, ORAU and COMARU. The legal move follows formal complaints in the press and an appeal to the United Nations.

Jaime Corisepa, president of coalition partner FENAMAD, travelled to a hearing on ‘isolated’ peoples in Washington DC last November. ‘We’ve come a very long way to tell you about this,’ he told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. ‘Something can still be done to save these peoples’ territories, lives and culture - before they are exterminated.’

Extractive industries pose a huge danger to ‘isolated’ peoples, who lack immunity to outsiders’ diseases. Almost half the Nahua people were wiped out following first regular contact in the 1980s when their territories were invaded by Shell and loggers.

If allowed to continue, the Camisea expansion will bring seismic testing, the construction of new wells in a concession called ‘Lot 88’, and potentially create another concession, ‘Lot Fitzcarrald’.

British connection to Amazon atrocities

A fisherman on the bank of the River Putumayo. Photo: Enochmartin, under a CC License

Indigenous people from Brazil, Colombia and Peru recently gathered in the Colombian Amazon to mark the atrocities and abuses largely committed by a British-registered company 100 years ago, with the British Ambassador present and messages read out from the Pope and Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.

The gathering took place just over a week ago at La Chorrera, on the River Igaraparana, a tributary of the River Putumayo, which in the early 20th century became the centre of operations for a ‘rubber baron’ named Julio Cesar Arana.

Santos’ message was delivered by the director of a governmental ‘Indigenous Peoples Program’, Gabriel Muruy Jacanamejoy. The BBC published an article on the president’s ‘apology’, but in the article referred to Arana’s company as a ‘Peruvian firm [which] tapped rubber from 1912 to 1929 near La Chorrera’, whose abuses were ‘first documented by British diplomat Roger Casement in 1912.’

That is entirely misleading and suggests that the only British involvement was in heroically exposing what was going on. Let us be clear here. Arana was a Peruvian, yes, but as historian Jordan Goodman details in his 2009 book The Devil and Mr Casement, Arana came to London in 1907 to create the Peruvian Rubber Company, which bought up his JC Arana y Hermanos business, changed its name twice, and then floated it on the London Stock Exchange in December 1908. It had British shareholders and an ‘impressive board of British directors’, one of whom had been a groom-in-waiting to Edward VII that same year.

Indigenous people had their land stolen, Casement wrote, and countless atrocities committed against them ‘not by a government... but by an association of vagabonds, the scum of Peru and Colombia, who have been assembled here by Arana Bros and then formed into an English company with a body of stultified English gentlemen – fools, or worse – at their head.’ 

That wasn’t the only British, or English, involvement. Arana’s rubber was excellent for British business: it was transported in British ships to the UK, where it was worked on by British manufacturers. As Casement himself put it, the ‘whole of the rubber output of the region… is placed upon the English market, and is conveyed from Iquitos in British [hulls].’

Moreover, Goodman argues, the British government dragged its feet while the atrocities continued. Although news of them was first publicized in Britain in September 1909 in a magazine called Truth, the Foreign Office didn’t send Casement to investigate until July 1910 and then didn’t publish his findings until two years later in July 1912, when he estimated that the indigenous population of the Putumayo region had declined from 50,000 in 1906 to 8,000 in 1911 – the majority of those who died were Huitoto. The reason for such delay? Partly because in South America the British usually needed the support of the US, whose priorities at the time lay elsewhere. The atrocities Casement documented were gruesome: systematic slavery, murder, massacres, rape, torture, stocks and chains, starvation regimes and flogging.

Publicly, to those who had no way of knowing otherwise, Arana called this ‘progress’. ‘With part of its forests inhabited by cannibal natives, [the Putumayo] has for a long time resisted every attempt at civilization,’ he told a banquet in November 1913. ‘It was necessary to establish enterprises strong and powerful enough in capital and resources in order to achieve the domination over the tribes which were an obstacle to the march of progress.’

Progress? Civilization? Such dirty words these days. It’s people like Arana who give them a bad name.

Once contacted, never conquered: heroes of the Amazon

A journalist, an expedition and the Arrow People add up to a life-changing read for David Hill

It may come as a surprise to learn that in certain parts of the world there are people living with no, or almost no, contact with the rest of us.

If you’re in any doubt, read Scott Wallace’s The Unconquered: In search of the Amazon’s last Uncontacted Tribes. Gripping, hair-raising, and at times drily comic, this is the tale of US journalist Wallace’s 2002 expedition into one of the remotest regions of the Amazon rainforest with a Brazilian government research team led by legendary explorer Sydney Possuelo. The expedition’s aim? To gather evidence of an ‘uncontacted’ indigenous group known as the ‘Arrow People’, (flecheiros in Portuguese) and identify the boundaries of their territory in order to protect it from invasion by outsiders.

The aim was not, Possuelo makes clear in the book, to contact them, which could have been catastrophic because of the flecheiros’ lack of immunity to disease.

‘We’re not here to see them or to get to know them,’ he tells the expedition group. ‘We’re here to see if they use this land. We’re here to make sure loggers, fishermen and hunters don’t come in here. I’m here to register their location and to take that information back to Brasilia.’

It was quite a trip. They travelled way, way up one river in motorboats, and then down another in two giant canoes they built themselves. The month in between was spent trekking and hacking their way through the rainforest.

Snakes and spiders
There were snakes jumping out of trees, fire ants, sweat bees, enormous black spiders, rivers to ford, creeks to cross and hills to climb up and down. And of course there were the ‘Arrow People’ themselves, whose territory the expedition skirted. No prizes for guessing how they got their name.

As the days dragged on, morale disintegrated. There was dissent among the white members of the expedition (the majority of the 30-strong team were from the Kanamari, Marubo and Matis indigenous groups), and squabbling over the food rations and tobacco. Hunger set in and bodies started to fail: skin turned green and malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea struck.

‘The only sure things,’ Wallace writes, ‘were sweat and peril, filth and fatigue. We were beset not only by swarms of insects and physical decrepitude, but also by relentless boredom and scheming.’

But there were moments of beauty, wonder and humour too: blue macaws crossing a river, Possuelo pretending to be a jaguar, the Matis’ persistent good cheer and brilliance in the rainforest. Wallace is especially adept at evoking his relationships with other members of the expedition, especially the cooks, who slipped him biscuits and margarine when the rest weren’t looking, and Possuelo, the ‘brooding tyrant’, for whom Wallace developed a kind of love-hate relationship.

The star-turn, though, belonged to the flecheiros. No-one in the expedition ever met them, but evidence of their existence was found and documented and the conversation was often about them. As Wallace makes clear, they’re not, contrary to popular belief, ‘pristine’ people ‘hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world’ who have never had any contact with anyone else, but ‘refugees from the violence of the global economy’ who may have had contact in the past but today choose to live without it.

In other words, more ‘once-contacted’ than ‘uncontacted’.

All about bananas
Nothing illustrates this better than Wallace’s discovery that the flecheiros cultivate sugar-cane and bananas, two crops originating in South Asia and brought to the Americas by Europeans. How can this be?

‘The plants had been traded from tribe to tribe, it turned out, adopted as staples in remote areas never seen by outsiders,’ Wallace writes. ‘The Arrow People likewise could have acquired them from other groups, perhaps generations ago. Or they could have raided the gardens of settlers in more recent times. Either way, for Possuelo, the crops signalled the depth of their resourcefulness.’

The Unconquered reads like a great adventure story, but it’s much more than that. It’s a serious, change-your-life book. Wallace wasn’t there for his health or his family life or just to see his name on a dust-jacket: it’s a plea for the entire Amazon rainforest, for the people who live there, like the flecheiros, and for the future health of our planet.

‘Everything [the flecheiros] did suggested a deliberate decision, an act of self-determination, to shut themselves off from the rest of us,’ Wallace writes, summarizing Possuelo’s reasons for the expedition. ‘The point was to let them decide if they wanted contact, on their own terms, in their own time, not to force it down their throats… What [Possuelo] offered was at once nothing and everything, something so huge and intangible they’d never know he’d even given it to them – the chance to endure, to survive another day, to replicate their way of life, a way of life that had all but vanished from the rest of the planet.’

Photo (top): JorgeBRAZIL under a CC Licence

Photo (bottom): CIAT under a CC Licence

Doesn’t David Hockney see the irony?

The Spring 2012 edition of the National Trust’s magazine features an interview with artist David Hockney titled, ‘When it comes to things like the threat of development to our landscapes, we should speak out.’

The interview is mainly about Hockney’s avowed love of East Yorkshire, but it is also intended to draw attention to an exhibition of his landscape work, ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’, which is on at the Royal Academy of Arts (RAA) in London until 9 April.

’When it comes to things like the threat of development to our landscapes, we should speak out a bit more, stand up more,’ Hockney is quoted as saying at the end of the interview. ‘We’re a bit too polite at times. We should shout: “Hold it!” It’s a lovely country, ours.’

I couldn’t agree more, but then who do you think is sponsoring Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy? None other than BNP Paribas, a French bank and an investor in projects that are destroying landscapes, in the name of ‘development’, around the world.

’BNP Paribas is among the banks involved in the most dodgy deals,’ says Yann Louvel from BankTrack, a Netherlands-based NGO network monitoring financial sector investments. ‘Among those in which it is currently investing is the Canadian tar sands.’

According to BankTrack, these tar sands, recently the subject of a furious debate over European Commission legislation, contain a massive two trillion barrels of oil. Exploiting them, it says, will mean ‘destroying an area larger than the state of Florida.’

Indeed, one Greenpeace campaigner has called the exploitation of the Canadian tar sands ‘the biggest global warming crime ever’, while the UK Tar Sands Network describes it as ‘the world’s most destructive project.’

’The tar sands have obliterated vast swathes of the Boreal forest and contaminated the Athabasca water systems leaving behind a toxic moonscape,’ says Suzanne Dhaliwal, a UK Tar Sands Network spokesperson. ‘They are truly the filthiest form of fuel on the planet and need to be kept in the ground.’

Of course, the landscape isn’t just something to look at or paint, as Hockney likes to do, nor is the tar sands exploitation just an environmental problem. For the indigenous First Nations people who depend on it for their lives and livelihoods, it’s a matter of human rights and their future survival.

According to the Canada-based Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the tar sands have already made life hell for the First Nations. Their water has been poisoned, game and fish contaminated, and their landscape is now littered with huge ‘tailing ponds’ full of toxic waste from the exploitation process.

‘They should really be called “tailing lakes” or “tailing oceans”,’ says Clayton Thomas-Muller, the IEN’s tar sands campaign director, who says people have died from rare cancers as a result. ‘They’re a toxic soup at super-concentrated, extremely deadly levels.’

Sure, there are other banks investing in the Canadian tar sands, but BNP Paribas’ investment totals more than $6 billion. Doesn’t that make a mockery of its sponsorship of Hockney’s Royal Academy show? How can you promote the appreciation of landscape in one part of the world if you’re trashing it in another?

’An important link in fighting the tar sands and catastrophic climate change is to identify and shine a light on banks invested in this dirty energy project,’ says Thomas-Muller. ‘One such bank is BNP Paribas. It isn’t one of the biggest investors, but $6 billion is still a substantial amount.’

In the pay of Big Oil, so don’t trust the ‘evidence’

Peruvian Amazon

Photo by PearlyV under a CC Licence

Anglo-French oil company Perenco has recently been given permission by Peru’s government to build a 200-kilometre pipeline in the remote Peruvian Amazon. The company’s operations there have caused international outrage: it is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world and home to at least one ‘uncontacted’ indigenous group (in Spanish, the no contactados), who could be decimated if contact between them and company workers is made.

Perenco’s response? To say that there is no evidence that the no contactados even exist.

Perenco defends this claim by appealing to a report by an environmental consultancy, Daimi. This report, based on research by various teams of Daimi employees sent into the region, concludes: ‘There is no information that demonstrates or suggests the existence of isolated indigenous people.’

But that isn’t what Daimi’s researchers told me when I was in Peru earlier this year. Here are 10 facts that explode the claims made in its report and any based on it:

1 All three lead authors named in the report disagree with its conclusions and say that evidence for the no contactados was found.

One of the lead authors, anthropologist Teudolio Grandez, heard about a sighting of three no contactados by a man called Alejandro who was living in one of the villages nearest to Perenco’s operations. ‘We found evidence of their existence. There were signs. We never said there weren’t any,’ Grandez told me.

3 Another lead author, anthropologist Jose Moscoso Conde, found physical evidence of the no contactados and heard about a different sighting. ‘We didn’t see them ourselves, but we found signs. We heard about one sighting and saw broken arrows and cut branches,’ Moscoso told me. He described the sighting in some detail: one local man saw ’two people, naked, about 200-300 metres away, a long way away. They realized a mestizo was watching them and fled.’

4 The final lead author, anthropologist Rosa Aguilera Rios, didn’t travel into the region with the others but did read a ‘draft report’ based on their findings. What did it say? ‘That some signs of the no contactados’ existence were found,’ Aguilera told me.

5 One Daimi researcher, also listed in the report, informed me it was ‘dressed up and presented as if no evidence was found, in order not to cause any problems for the government.’ He said the following signs of the no contactados were found: ‘twisted leaves, tracks leading to the river, animal bones and feathers from birds hunted by them, small shacks recently built by them, footprints, fruits from wild trees recently eaten by them...’ What happened to all this evidence? ’It was all given to Daimi. The videos, photos, recordings... They have it all.’

6 Another Daimi researcher, anthropologist Virginia Montoya, found evidence for the no contactados but it was omitted from the report too. ‘There is no doubt in my mind that there are uncontacted groups there,’ Montoya was quoted in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, adding she had documented the evidence, including paths used by them. ‘But it was all edited out. I was really upset when I saw the final report.’

7 Despite her involvement in Daimi’s research, Montoya’s name was omitted from the report. Who else’s name was omitted and what might they know?

8 Perenco paid Daimi for the report. By building the pipeline, Perenco hopes to move an estimated 300 million barrels of oil, worth an estimated $35 billion at today’s prices, and knows that any admission of the no contactados’ existence could jeopardize those plans. Is it any wonder that an environmental consultancy like Daimi, which looks to a company like Perenco for its business, is telling it what it wants to hear? How else do you explain Daimi’s report claiming no evidence was found?

9 Even the head of INDEPA, the Peruvian government’s indigenous affairs department, publicly distanced himself from Daimi’s report, despite the fact that INDEPA has been under huge pressure to support Perenco’s operations. In response to Daimi’s claim that INDEPA played a key role in its research, Mayta Capac Alatrista Herrera, recently replaced as head, strongly rejected such claims and told a Peruvian magazine, Allpathay, that INDEPA ‘has not corroborated, confirmed nor validated the conclusions of Daimi’s report.’

10 Others listed in Daimi’s report said their research was inconclusive. ‘We only visited half of the places we were supposed to,’ linguist Rossana Arbaiza Gonzales informed me. ‘Given that, we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of isolated indigenous peoples in the areas we didn’t go to.’

Peru wipes 'uncontacted' tribes off the map

All the hullabaloo over Peru’s presidential election a fortnight ago rather obscured the significance of the date it was held: 5 June. Over the last four years, this day has become a flashpoint of conflict between the state and the Andean country's indigenous peoples. 

On 5 June 2009, Peruvian police opened fire on indigenous protesters at Bagua, in the north of the country, leaving more than 30 people dead and over 200 wounded.

Bagua, Peru, June 2009. Photo by Ben Powless under a CC licence.

One year earlier, government officials found themselves in the eye of an international press storm over uncontrolled illegal logging which affects ‘uncontacted’ tribes (no contactados or aislados) in the remote Peruvian Amazon.

The year before that, on 5 June 2007, the government’s indigenous affairs department, INDEPA, had first acknowledged the existence of aislados elsewhere in Peru, in the oil-rich region between the Napo and Tigre rivers. INDEPA wrote that two reports by Peru’s national indigenous peoples’ organization AIDESEP had ‘proven that aislados live in this zone.’

This step was significant. But since then, INDEPA, stung by criticism by international NGOs and indigenous organizations about oil companies operating in the Napo-Tigre region, has performed a canny U-turn and now claims there aren’t any aislados there after all.

At a recent public meeting about the aislados in Iquitos, the biggest town in Peru’s northern Amazon, a map was briefly displayed on an overhead projector showing all the areas in Peru where aislados live. No mention of the Napo-Tigre. That meeting was partly convened by INDEPA,  not that any INDEPA personnel bothered to show up.

In fact, INDEPA has even gone as far as dropping a proposal for a reserve for the aislados that was originally planned in the Napo-Tigre region. Survival International has only recently accused INDEPA of planning to shelve another reserve created over 10 years ago in south-east Peru, which once again threw INDEPA back into an unwelcome media spotlight.

Obviously, none of Peru’s aislados voted on 5 June this year, but the actions of victorious candidate Ollanta Humala will have a huge impact on their lives. Humala’s duty is clear: prohibit any oil company, loggers or mines from operating in the aislados’ territory, and recognize its residents as its true and legal owners - not deny their existence.

David Hill is a freelance journalist.

See more: Peru’s uncontacted tribes (Survival International), Safe from ConocoPhillips... but what about the missionaries? (New Internationalist).

Safe from ConocoPhillips... but what about the missionaries?

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

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.

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