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A victory for the Matsés people. Pacific E&P stops oil extraction in the Amazon

The Canadian oil and gas company Pacific E&P has decided to halt its extractive activities in the Peruvian Amazon. A victory for the native Matsés people.

The Canadian oil company Pacific E&P, who had been granted the right to explore and extract oil in the Peruvian Amazon by the national government, has halted its exploration activities in block 135 of the rainforest (which is divided into “blocks” of oil and gas exploration). The company released a statement saying it “has made the decision to relinquish its exploration rights in Block 135…effective immediately…We wish to reiterate the company’s commitment to conduct its operations under the highest sustainability and human rights guidelines”.

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The pristine river and rainforest in Iquitos, Peru is under threat from infrastructure development © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

This is a great victory for the native Matsés people, who are uncontacted – i.e. “who have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society”, as defined by the NGO Survival International – whose land straddles the Peruvian-Brazilian border and is home to rich biodiversity. The decision by Pacific E&P was taken thanks to sustained pressure by Survival International, which campaigns to defend native people’s rights worldwide, and indigenous organisations such as AIDESEP.

Oil and gas exploration in the Amazon

This issue, however, is not a new one as the search for oil and other natural resources to feed global demand has often meant that peoples of the Amazon and other remote regions have been forced to confront resource companies face on. In Ecuador, for example, the Cofan people have faced problems from oil production on their lands and according to Luis Sanchez of the Tundayme region they’ve suffered numerous human rights violations at the hands of the extractive industry as well as the pollution of their rivers and land.

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Oil spills have polluted the Chiriaco and Morona al Marañón rivers, two of the principle Amazon tributaries in Peru

Resource companies respond

So far NGOs and even the Pope have argued that corporations need to consult indigenous groups before conducting activities on their ancestral lands: over time resource companies have been improving the way they interact with communities and the environment. For example major resource companies such as Repsol, Petrobras and Pemex have made some commitments to working with communities responsibly. However, organisations such as Survival International highlight that self-regulation in the resource sector isn’t sufficient. NGOs and other civil society groups are essential to making the industry accountable for its behaviour in relation to local communities and the environment.

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The Madre de Dios River in the Amazon lowlands, where the indigenous community of Palma Real resides in Peru © Mario Tama/Getty Images

Protecting uncontacted tribes

Though consultation with uncontacted tribal peoples can present problems such as an unwanted encroachment on their way of life, the result in Peru sets a good precedent for community and land protection and it will hopefully lead to further safeguarding of the region, which is home to the largest concentration of uncontacted tribal peoples in the world.

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