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By Terry Wade
LIMA, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Tribes in Peru say they want U.S. energy company Hunt Oil to abandon an exploration project in a virgin corner of the Amazon rainforest, and they have filed legal challenges against the government and the company to force it out.
Representatives of the tribes said on Tuesday they would sit down for talks with officials representing Hunt. Earlier this week, the tribes threatened to forcibly remove oil workers from a camp near the town of Salvacion in the Madre de Dios region of southern Peru.
“There is going to be a dialogue. We have to wait for the result of this meeting before we know about the removal,” said Maria Gonzalez of the Fenamad indigenous rights group.
The tribes say a government concession to Hunt and Spain’s Repsol (REP.MC) to look for oil in Block 76 is unlawful because it overlaps the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve, protected ancestral lands that could hold billions of dollars of oil deposits.
As the complaints wind their through the courts, the government of President Alan Garcia contends that the tribes control only surface rights of the reserve, while the government can lease subsoil mineral rights to foreign companies.
Tribes, frustrated by the slow pace of court cases and the government’s stance, say Peru’s position ignores their rights to autonomy and self-determination under the U.N. charter on indigenous peoples.
Hunt Oil declined requests for an interview about the controversy. In the past, the company has said the exploration work is being undertaken with special care for the environment and that its contract complies with Peruvian law. Besides Block 76, Hunt is part of the Camisea consortium developing Peru’s natural gas fields.
Activists have said they wanted to avert violence after a clash between police and indigenous protesters in Peru’s northern Amazon in June killed 33 people.
Protesters in that clash — known as Bagua — had mobilized to force Garcia to repeal laws that would have made it easier for foreign mining and oil companies to invest in other areas of the rain forest.
Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist from Fenamad, says the government and Hunt have tried to undermine the legitimacy of her group by ignoring public meetings it held.
Huertas says the government is mainly interested in protecting the investments of foreign companies who want to work in areas of the Harakmbut, Yine and Machiguenga tribes.
“The government isn’t interested in indigenous rights,” she said. “It hasn’t learned a things since Bagua.”
Marco Pastor Rozas of Sernanp, the government agency that oversees protected lands, has said Hunt’s plan meets environmental guidelines and it enjoys the support of at least four of eight communities near the Amarakaeri reserve.
Leaders from two indigenous associations in the area, Fenamad and Coharyima, along with the Amarakaeri reserve, signed a letter this month saying they would “take actions to stop seismic work in the interior of the reserve and even put our lives on the line so that our rights are respected.”
Block 76 covers 3.5 million acres and is one of dozens of blocks auctioned in recent years in Peru, which has pushed exploration so that it can become a net petroleum exporter.
Fenamad says maps of Hunt’s seismic exploration plan includes putting explosives or other equipment that causes powerful vibrations all along a big circle that sits within the reserve so geologists can map oil and natural gas deposits.
They say the process will cause deforestation in a headwaters area of the Amazon basin. (Reporting by Terry Wade; Editing by David Gregorio)