By Mitra Taj
LIMA Dec 12 Peru's main indigenous group said
on Wednesday it will ask the courts to halt an expansion of the
country's largest natural gas field over concerns that new
drilling will harm isolated tribes.
Aidesep, as the group is known, wants to overturn the
regulatory approval issued in April for a $70 million project by
the Camisea gas consortium in an oil block that overlaps an
It also wants to prevent other expansion plans in the
The filings, expected next month, could further delay
President Ollanta Humala's ambitious energy agenda and build on
a September ruling from Peru's constitutional court that upheld
the right of indigenous communities to defend their lands from
encroaching loggers or miners.
"It's not a binding precedent, but it was a hopeful sentence
for indigenous people and we think we can do something similar,"
said Aidesep lawyer Julio Ibanez. "We have the law on our side
and can win. We are tired of pressing our concerns with the
government without getting results."
Argentine energy firm Pluspetrol, which leads the Camisea
consortium that produces most of Peru's natural gas, declined to
comment on potential lawsuits, but said it has fully complied
with Peruvian law.
One of its concessions in Peru's southeastern jungle, known
as Block 88, overlaps the Kugapakori-Nahua and Nanti indigenous
reserve, established in 2003.
"Block 88 was created in the year 2000, before the reserve
prohibited the granting of new rights in the territory," the
company said in a statement. "It has been decreed that Camisea
is in the nation's interest and a necessity."
Peru's rules governing natural resource extraction projects
and tribal areas in the Amazon have, in some ways, evolved to
give indigenous groups more protections as the government tries
to balance competing priorities.
In a bid to defuse widespread social tensions over natural
resources, Humala persuaded Congress in 2011 to pass a
"consultation law" that requires the government and companies to
talk with indigenous communities about how their lands are used.
But the law doesn't grant tribes veto power, and experts
agree it would probably be impossible to apply it to benefit
Peru's proven and certified reserves in Camisea total 10.3
trillion cubic feet, of which 8 trillion are in Block 88. The
rest is in the adjacent Block 56.
Finding new gas deposits is a top goal of Humala, who took
office promising to make gas cheaply available for everything
from cars and power plants to petrochemical factories.
Humala's efforts to build new pipelines have at times been
hobbled by lenders wanting to see more proven gas reserves.
Many new gas-fired power plants, built to add electricity to
the fast-growing economy's grid, lack supply guarantees.
Ibanez, of Aidesep, said the 2003 law that established the
indigenous reserve forbade new exploration and drilling beyond
what was already under way.
The government says Ibanez's interpretation of the law goes
"Authorizations for the start of different activities are
made bit-by-bit," said Ivan Lanegra, the vice minister of
culture. "This does not amount to a new concession."
At the same time, he said the government was proceeding with
caution. "With the steps we are taking I think there are enough
guarantees to avoid problems" with inadvertent contact.
Potential delays in Camisea are not limited to tensions with
Humala has replaced at least three defense ministers since
taking office more than a year ago as the government struggles
to stamp out what remains of a leftist insurgency that traffics
in coca and cocaine near the gas fields.
In April the guerrillas took some three dozen Camisea
contract workers hostage. They were released unharmed.
Part of Humala's gas plans include strengthening the
state-run firm Petroperu in the style of Brazil's brawny
Petrobras and steering more gas to domestic use
instead of exporting it as a liquid.
"This is the future: Peruvian gas by Peruvians, for
Peruvians and for the development of Peru," Humala has said.
Daniel Rodriguez, an anthropologist with the indigenous
organization Fenamad in the Madre de Dios region, said he hopes
the courts can halt new drilling.
He says outsiders can expose tribes to common diseases and
that 60 percent of the population of the Nahua tribe was wiped
out by illness 30 years ago.
"This is not something we are making up, it is something
that has already happened," he said.