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Oil threat to survival of Amazon tribe

 INSP 01 July 2019

An Amazonian tribe has sent an urgent appeal to shareholders of oil giant Pacific Rubiales to protect the lives of uncontacted Indians in Peru, whose survival is threatened by the company’s work on their land. The Matsés and Survival International have sent the message to hundreds of shareholders – including Citigroup, JP Morgan, General Electric, Blackrock, HSBC, Allianz, Santander and Legal and General – urging them to divest from Pacific Rubiales. The unique ways of life of both the Matsés and uncontacted Indians are now endangered due to a $36 million dollar oil exploration project. Amy MacKinnon reports for INSP. (1423 Words) - By Amy MacKinnon

INSP_Oil threat to survival of Amazon tribe

Uncontacted peoples live close to the Matsés in both Peru and Brazil. During the 1990s, loggers flooded into Matsés territory, forcing uncontacted Indians to flee; today, according to the Matsés, they are slowly returning.Photo: Rebecca Spooner/Survival

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A river runs through it: approximately 2,200 Matsés tribal people (called ‘Mayoruna’ in Brazil) live on the banks of the Yaquerana river, which marks the international border between Brazil and Peru.Photo: Christopher Pillitz

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The Matsés are skilled hunters, and specialists in the use of bows and arrows: arrow shafts are made from cane and decorated with cotton string and a golden grass.Photo: Christopher Pillitz

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The Matsés also cultivate a wide variety of crops in their gardens, including staple crops such as plantain and manioc.Photo: Rebecca Spooner/Survival

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The Matsés are natural guardians of their lands. By alternating their hunting and fishing sites, they avoid exhausting the soil and animal or fish populations.Photo: Alison Wright/

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Plantain is an essential part of the Matsés diet, and is grown in every garden. Matsés women are responsible for making chapo, a sweet plantain drink.Photo: Rebecca Spooner/Survival International

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Matsés men and women often use frog poison before hunting trips to produce a feeling of clarity, vision and strength that can last for several days.Photo: James Vybiral/Survival International

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Nënë – or tobacco snuff – is blown up a Matsés man’s nose, to improve his strength and energy.Photo: James Vybiral/Survival International

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Like many tribal peoples, the Matsés have a deep understanding of how forest plants can be used to cure disease.Photo: Survival International

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However, since first contact, many Matsés have died from diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition and hepatitis.Photo: Rebecca Spooner/Survival

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Canadian oil company Pacific Rubiales’ $36 million project will see hundreds of seismic lines cut through 700km2 of forest, and wells drilled in search of oil.Photo: Alison Wright/

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Though the Matsés have repeatedly opposed the company’s work on their land, their protests have, to date, been ignored.Photo: Rebecca Spooner/Survival

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People who come here from the outside cannot dictate the Matsés. `we make our own decisions. You cannot coerce us. Antonina Duni, Matsés woman.Photo: Rebecca Spooner/Survival

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Map of oil exploration areas.Map: CTI

It's difficult for us to imagine in this age of rapid international travel, satellite imaging and Google maps, that deep in the Peruvian rain forest live tribes of Indians who have had no contact ever with the outside world.  With none of the trappings of modern life, these indigenous people live the way they always have done, off of the land; hunting, gathering and growing all they need. Little is known about these mysterious people - satellite imaging and accounts from other tribes in the forest provide only sporadic clues. There are thought to be 15 uncontacted tribes in Peru, including the Cacataibo, Nanti and Yora.

It's both magical and somehow reassuring, to think there are small pockets of peoples in the world whose way of life and traditions remain entirely unadulterated by outside influences.

But this is all about to change. They might not know it yet, but the uncontacted Indians are soon to be contacted, not by intrepid explorers and curious authors but by the machinery and staff of Canadian oil giant, Pacific Rubiales, who are conducting oil exploration in 'block 135', which lies directly over an area proposed as an uncontacted tribes reserve.

Members of a neighbouring tribe, the Matsés, also known as the 'Jaguar People' for their distinctive facial decorations and tattoos, have issued an urgent plea in an attempt to halt oil exploration in the area:

"Our uncontacted brothers live in the forest; we have heard them many times so we know they exist… Tell the world that the Matsés are firm in our position against the oil company. We do not want it on our land."

The Matsés themselves were untouched by the world until 1969 when they were they were contacted by members of US missionary group, the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Salomon Dunu, a member of the Matsés tribe recalls what life was like prior to the arrival of the missionaries:

"Life before contact was incredible. We lived on the river, and we would travel to the other side to make our gardens. When it was time, we would abandon those gardens to the forest and make new ones in another place. That was how we lived before contact."

Contact with the outside world introduced a variety of illnesses to which they had no immunity, diseases their plant-based medicines could not cure.  Today, there are an estimated 2,200 Matsés living in the Amazon rainforest, along the border between Peru and Brazil. Whilst some of their traditional practices have been abandoned since contact with modernity, they have still managed to preserve much of their unique way of life.

They continue to live off the land, growing crops of staples such as plantains and manioc. The communities live close to the banks of the river where they fish daily as well as hunting for animals such as tapir and paca - a large rodent - in the forest using bows, arrows, traps and shotguns.

Before embarking on a hunt, the Matsés fortify themselves with a substance known as 'acate' which is secreted from a specific species of green tree frog. Men collect the fluid by rubbing the frog's skin with a stick. It is then applied onto small holes burnt into the receiver's skin. The potent elixir causes dizziness and nausea which soon make way to feelings of clarity and strength that can last for several days. Matsés men also blow tobacco, or 'nënë' snuff up each other's noses to give them strength and energy.

The Matsés are, however, increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of other uncontacted tribes living in and around the area of 'Block 135'

"Our uncontacted brothers still live in the forest. We know they're out there. My own son has seen them. They live like we did before. They move from place to place and when they see a white person they flee. When they hear someone coming, they quickly hide their tracks with leaves and sticks."

The unique ways of life of both the Matsés and uncontacted Indians are now endangered due to a $36 million dollar oil exploration project by Canadian Pacific Rubiales, which began in 2012, and will see hundreds of seismic lines cut through the rainforest used by the Indians to hunt and gather. Seismic testing and the construction of wells threaten to pollute the headwaters of several rivers on which the tribes depend.

In a rare interview with Survival International, a Matsés woman remarked:

"Oil will destroy the place where our rivers are born. What will happen to the fish? What will the animals drink?"

Contact with the oil workers could bring illnesses and viruses against which the tribe has no immunity. Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an international charity that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal and uncontacted people, has gone so far as to say that contact could 'decimate' the tribe: "Contact between oil workers and the uncontacted Indians is highly likely to kill the tribes people. In fact, the chances are, the tribe will be decimated."

It's quite a claim, but Corry's statement is backed up by tragic precedent. As the Peruvian rain forest is rich in natural resources such as oil, rubber and mahogany, this is not the first time that industry has encroached on their land. The isolated Nahua tribe were contacted in the 1980s during oil exploration by Shell and the results for the tribes people were fatal: within a few years, 50% of them had died. Similarly in 1996, illegal loggers made contact with the Murunahua Indians, and in the years that followed over 50% of them died, mainly from colds, flu and other respiratory infections which they had no immunity against.

In a bid to halt the oil exploration, the Matsés and Survival International have sent messages to hundreds of Pacific Rubiales' shareholders, including JP Morgan, General Electric, Blackrock, HSBC, Allianz, Santander and Legal and General.

The letter, signed by Corry states:

"I am writing to pass on a message from the Matsés Indians of northern Peru. Members of the tribe have informed Survival International that helicopters and oil company workers are operating in territory inhabited by the tribe and their uncontacted neighbours…"

The letter continues:

"Please uphold international laws protecting tribal peoples' rights to their land and lives; we urge your company to divest from Pacific Rubiales."

At time of writing, a spokesperson for Survival International said they had received a number of responses to their letter, but that none of the shareholders had indicated they would withdraw their investment in the company.  The shareholders mentioned here have been contacted for comment in relation to this article but at time of writing, only HSBC had replied. A spokesman for HSBC said: "It is a matter of public record that HSBC has a very small holding in Pacific Rubiales, predominantly within our passive and quantitative funds. While we do not currently have a record of being contacted by the tribe or Survival International, we will look into the matter."

The international law which Corry makes reference to in the letter is the International Labour Organization Convention 169, regarding the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. The 1989 convention enshrines indigenous and tribal peoples' rights to non-discrimination, recognition of their cultures and customs and calls for special measures to be adopted which safeguard their way of life. Crucially for the Matsés and the uncontacted Indians, the law recognises:

"The rights of ownership and possession of the peoples concerned over the lands which they traditionally occupy".

Although Peru is a signatory of the convention, more than 70% of the Peruvian Amazon has been leased by the government to oil companies, including swathes of land inhabited by uncontacted tribes. The Peruvian government described its policy towards oil companies as "open doors" and actively encourages new companies to explore areas inhabited by uncontacted tribes including the Mashco-Piro and Isconahua.

Survival International Director Corry claims that exploration in the tribal area by Pacific Rubiales is in contravention of this law:

"It [Pacific Rubiales] also knows it is in breach of international law when it ploughs on with its dangerous project without the say-so of the people to whom the land belongs."

Pacific Rubiales were contacted for comment in relation to the claims made by Survival International but at time of writing had failed to respond.

Oil exploration began in block 135 in 2012. A licence for a second block, known as '137' has also been secured by the company. Just north of 135, block 137 falls directly on Matsés land.

With instruments of industry riding roughshod over their land, it remains to be seen what will become of the Matsés and the uncontacted Indians. If action is not taken, their unique way of life may be threatened and the rich diversity of mankind will be diminished forevermore. It's a high price to pay.

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