Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trouble in Paradise

Have you ever been to Manu National Park, that amazing biodiversity hot spot and UNESCO World Heritage Site on the eastern slopes of the Andes? If you haven't, maybe you have heard about it. It is well known as one of the best places to see wildlife in the Amazon. This is due to its difficult access and sparse population. There are no towns, just a few indigenous communities living their more or less traditional lifestyles, and some eco-lodges, including one that is owned and run by one of the tribes. It has long been a dream destination among wildlife and wilderness enthusiasts, and every kind of naturalist. The National Park is the largest of three connecting protected areas which reach all the way to Bolivia and Brazil and thus form a biodiversity corridor which is crucial to ensure species survival.

But all this is due to change. The Peruvian government, which likes to portray its public face as ecologically sensitive, (especially as regards the tourism sector, where eco-travelers contribute the vast majority to the annual income) has quietly been selling off the Amazon in the form of concessions to oil companies. 75% of the Peruvian Rain forest has been parceled into such concessions and sold to international corporations, which are already well known for their disastrous operations in other ecologically sensitive areas, like the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador.

The area that is currently subject to seismic test drilling lies just outside the protected zone of Manu, in the so called 'cultural zone' and almost the entire area of the Communal Reserve Amarakaeri, an area that was designated by the government to protect the flora, fauna and indigenous people of the area. Apparently such protection does not include the right to live in a healthy environment.

In 2007 INRENA started to draw up a 'master plan' in conjunction with the indigenous guardians of the reserve that was supposed to outline clearly what type of development was and wasn't feasible in this zone. At this time the concession for Bloc 76 as it called, was already signed and sold - though nobody in the affected region knew anything about it. The master plan clearly stated that oil drilling in the southern part of the reserve , which is the origin of headwaters for important river systems would not be tolerable since this would adversely affect all life in the region. There were other stipulations which were meant to protect the interests of the indigenous people and wildlife of the area.

However, INRENA deceptively altered the document, which they called 'minor changes', but which effectively voided the intended meaning of the document. It was again presented to the indigenous leaders to be signed, but at a time between Christmas and New Year when hardly anybody was present and everybody had their minds on other things. At this point still there was no mention of immanent drilling to begin in March.

When trucks started to roll in native communities, tour operators and naturalist felt completely overrun and betrayed by the covert actions of the government, INRENA and the oil companies. There has been no valid impact study or consultation with interest groups or indigenous people. Test drilling started in April, with the base camp being set up on the shore of Cocha Machuhuasi, a lake that hitherto teemed with bird and wildlife and was a popular eco-tourist destination. There have been no sightings of wildlife since the summer when helicopters started to constantly fly over the area. The constant noise pollution has driven wildlife to seek refuge deeper in the forest. The work force consists mainly of underpaid mercenaries and violent crime and abuse that is targeting the indigenous communities has increased.

It is crucial that this madness should be stopped. No drilling in sector 76!