David Hill reports for The Guardian:
Fears for isolated Bolivian tribe met by Chinese oil firm in Amazon
Company operating near the border with Peru has reportedly had near encounters with indigenous people living in “isolation”
Teams from a Chinese oil and gas company exploring in the remote Bolivian Amazon have reportedly had near encounters with a group of indigenous people living in what the United Nations calls “isolation”, raising major concern for the group’s welfare.
The company doing the exploring, BGP Bolivia, is ultimately a subsidiary of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world. The near encounters are reported to have taken place in the north-west of the country, close to the border with Peru and just to the east of the world-famous Madidi National Park.
One near encounter has been confirmed in a BGP report dated 17 September. It includes hand-written statements by three eyewitnesses – all Bolivian nationals – as well as photographs of evidence provided by two BGP teams believed to confirm the isolated group’s existence.
“Personnel from the team called Topografia 10 reported the presence of possible members of originarios indigenous people shouting and calling out. . . initially about 100 metres away,” states the report, written by BGP’s Yu Fengbo and Alfredo Salvador and dated the same day as the encounter. “Afterwards, the three workers reported that they continued to hear shouts and calls, getting increasingly closer until they were about 80 metres away and it became clear they were men and women. . . Their immediate reaction was to stay calm in order not to be detected. Later, the shouting stopped and the team, with considerable caution, began its return to camp.”
One of BGP’s team, Freddy Mullisaca, reported hearing a “shout from an uncivilised man about 100 metres away on our right”, before feeling scared and later hearing further shouts about 80 metres away. Another, Jose Carlos Paredes Caiti, described how “we heard a shout up to about 80 to 100 metres away on our right. We kept calm and stayed together. We approached the stake [used for the team’s survey work] and the shouts could be heard like they were surrounding us. We were scared but [continued working], while I watched to check no one came near us. We finished. . . and then heard various shouts by men and women.”
BGP’s 17 September report effectively acknowledges that this wasn’t the first time evidence of indigenous people in “isolation” has been found during its operations, noting that on 12 September a member of Topografia 10 had said, via radio, that they had come across “paths and human footprints.” The report states that this raised the possibility that there were “people hunting in the area”, but it wasn’t “sufficient to indicate the presence of possible members of originarios indigenous peoples.” The third member of Topografia 10, Franklin Beltran Aguada, appears to refer to this evidence in his testimony about the 17 September encounter, saying he had found signs of “uncivilized people” prior to that.
A BGP report issued two days later, also written by Yu Fengbo and Alfredo Salvador, records another near encounter involving a different BGP team. According to the report, Topografia 3 “reported the presence of possible members of originarios indigenous peoples” sometime between 23:00 on 18 September and very early morning of 19 September near a fly camp and helicopter landing area, where some company belongings were attacked.
Yet further evidence of indigenous people in “isolation” has been reported as a result of BGP’s operations – although it isn’t included in either of the company’s 17 or 19 September reports. On 14 September, the Central de Comunidades Indigenas Tacana II Rio Madre de Dios (CITRMD), an organization representing indigenous Tacana people, wrote to Bolivia’s Vice-Ministry of Justice and Vice-Ministry of the Environment, among others, urgently requesting government intervention and expressing “serious concern” about the threats posed by the company.
According to the CITRMD, evidence for “uncontacted” indigenous people – “footprints and broken branches” – had been found by Cuadrilla 7, another BGP team, on 20 and 23 August. In addition, the CITRMD alleges further evidence was found by Topografia 10 on 13 September, although BGP’s 17 September report says that team found nothing on that day.
CITRMD’s letter to the Vice-Ministry of Justice includes part of a transcript of a radio conversation in which a member of BGP’s Topografia 8 reports that “signs and footprints of uncivilised people” had been located, although it isn’t clear if that refers to 12 or 13 September or another day. The response from the team’s colleague, Diego Rivas, is to continue working but withdraw if they see anyone.
The CITRMD also wrote to BGP, accusing it of failing to heed a 2013 Bolivian law specifically intended to protect indigenous peoples who are “uncontacted” or in “voluntary isolation”, “forced isolation”, “initial contact” and “danger of extinction.” BGP’s response, in its 17 September report, was that the law did not apply at that point because, although some evidence had been found on 12 September, it wasn’t enough to definitely indicate the existence of isolated indigenous people in the region. Despite that, BGP states that it began withdrawing its teams that day, and then took “more serious” action five days later after the 17 September encounter was reported.
The following day, 18 September, the CITRMD wrote to several indigenous organisations stating that Yacimientos Petroliferas Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), Bolivia’s state-owned oil and gas company which in May 2015 sub-contracted BGP to operate in this region, had been previously warned about the existence of “uncontacted” indigenous people. The company was urged, CITRMD claims, to respect “their wish not to be contacted” and to stop operating if they came across them.
The CITRMD’s letter claims that that advice was ignored – an allegation apparently supported by the radio conversation transcript and the eyewitness testimonies in BGP’s 17 September report. Concern about contact with the group is particularly high because indigenous peoples living in “isolation” in the Amazon do not have immunity to outsiders’ diseases, meaning they can be easily infected and epidemics can spread among them with devastating consequences.
The indigenous people in “isolation” in this region are known as the “Toromonas” – as acknowledged by BGP in its report and an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of its planned operations. The “Toromonas” are one of more than 100 groups of indigenous people in “isolation” in the Amazon – with the vast majority in Brazil and Peru.
Bolivia’s 2013 law commits to protecting the lives of indigenous people in “isolation” and requires “public and private institutions” “responsibly” exploiting natural resources to abide by the law’s protection measures – one of which is establishing “buffer zones” to avoid accidental contact with outsiders. However, the government institution created by that law and responsible for instituting such measures, the Dirección General de Protección a Naciones y Pueblos Indígena Originarios (DIGEPIO), does not exist.
Bolivia’s Constitution arguably provides better legal protection than the 2013 law, with Article 31 stating that indigenous peoples in “voluntary isolation” will be “protected and respected” and that they have the right to “the territory which they occupy and inhabit.” Bolivia is also a signatory to the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, an international law which recognises indigenous peoples’ ownership rights to their land and obliges the government to protect it.
Neither BGP nor YPFB responded to questions from the Guardian, but on 17 October Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos reported YPFB’s president, Guillermo Achá, “denying the existence of supposed uncontacted indigenous people in Bolivia’s Amazon” and saying oil and gas operations will continue as planned.
“We have no confirmation of any uncontacted people whatsoever,” Achá was quoted as saying. “I understand this [the recent reports of contact] has been a distortion of information and what we will be doing is looking to continue with all activities.”
Achá’s reported claims were made despite other YPFB personnel appearing to accept that evidence of indigenous people in “isolation” has been found by BGP. An internal 18 September YPFB report, titled “Presence of Originarios Indigenous People at High Risk”, draws heavily on BGP’s report from the day before and states that “as a result of the events described” and the 2013 law, YPFB had withdrawn all personnel from the critical area. The next day, YPFB’s Miguel Angel Rojas Castro informed the Vice-Minister of Justice about the 17 September near encounter and sent her BGP’s report. However, both YPFB documents appear to express some doubt: the internal 18 September report refers to the “possible indigenous peoples at high risk” who had been heard calling and shouting by a BGP team, and the letter to the Vice-Minister talks of “the presence of possible members of originario indigenous people.”
Georgina Jimenez, from Bolivian NGO CEDIB, calls the claims made by Achá “scary” and says they “respond more to business interests than the state’s responsibility” to Bolivian citizens.
“What should be done? All exploratory activity should be immediately stopped,” Jimenez told the Guardian. “According to the Constitution, people who are uncontacted or in isolation have the right to remain in that condition and to have the territory where they live legally recognised.”
The reports of the near encounters with BGP teams has led to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) becoming involved. According to Bolivia’s Defensoria del Pueblo, with which the UNHCHR is coordinating, a meeting will be held in Santa Cruz on 31 October to discuss how to prevent possible conflict in the region and ensure that the rights of indigenous peoples at “high risk” in Bolivia are respected.
BGP’s environmental permit to operate was granted in November 2015. According to the EIA, it will involve cutting 21 seismic lines running for over 1,000 kms and detonating underground 190,000 kgs of explosives in its search for oil and/or gas. BGP’s concession is called Nuevo Esperanza, an 800,000 hectare area.
A reserved zone was established for the “Toromonas” in 2006, although it is in the Madidi National Park and to the south-west of where BGP is currently operating. According to a 2013 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the “Toromonas” in the reserved zone were at that time threatened by narco-traffickers and an oil and gas concession – different to BGP’s.