The ‘Harakbut Face’ in the south-east Peruvian Amazon. Photo: Paul Redman
The recent “rediscovery” of the “Harakbut Face” in the Amazon raises fears about gas exploration.
By David Hill
May 9, 2015.- Do you see what that man in the photo above sees in the rock in front of him? That’s what some Harakbut indigenous people call the “Rostro Harakbut” - the “Harakbut Face” - located in a spectacular, super-remote part of the south-east Peruvian Amazon.
Is the “Rostro” natural - whatever that means really - or has it been sculpted, or does that even matter? Is it true it was effectively “rediscovered” by someone working for a firm contracted by US-based company Hunt Oil which was cutting seismic lines through the area and detonating 1000s of explosives underground? Just how important is the “Rostro” to the Harakbuts, and can its existence help them to protect their wonderful forests and rivers from gold-miners and gas exploration by Hunt?
In October last year a group of nine Harakbut men, accompanied by UK filmmaker Paul Redman, visited the “Rostro.” The film resulting from that expedition, “The Reunion”, was screened for the first time in Lima last November and focuses on two Harakbut leaders, Luis Tayori and Jaime Korisepa. It includes Tayori saying “Four years ago working with the Sapiteri [a Harakbut clan] we heard about, from the elders, the Rostro. [It] means a lot to us”, and Korisepa saying “The Rostro has always existed. The problem was we didn’t know how to get to it.” After they finally come face-to-face with it, Tayori says, “This is a reunion with our ancestors. I think this could strengthen our people... It was very emotional seeing the Rostro.”
“The very existence of the carved face has been the stuff of legend, passed down for generations among Harakmbut families,” stated a press release by Burness Communications announcing the Lima screening. “But few among their people had ever seen it.”
Tom Bewick, from the Rainforest Foundation US, also visited with Redman. He told the Guardian he thinks the “Rostro” was sculpted because:
There are no other rocks remotely similar in shape in that river valley... [It] is perched perfectly overlooking a valley, and presides over a waterfall and a basin that resembles an amphitheater... There are markings all over [it] that indicate it was hacked out with rudimentary tools... There are actually two Rostros - a Rostro within a Rostro - look below the nose... The boulders along the river are arranged in a way to channel the flow away from hitting the [Rostro’s] face directly, and in a way that would make it impossible for the face formation to have been caused by impact from even the heaviest of storms... The Harakbut don’t have a written history, but claim the Rostro has been in their oral history for generations and generations.
Fermin Chimatani, another Harakbut leader, told the Guardian in mid-2014 there are another two “Rostros.”
“According to our elders, the Rostro is like a God for the Harakbut people,” says Chimatani, who is the president of the local community-based team running the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve (ACR) where the “Rostro” is located.
Klaus Quicque, president of regional indigenous organisation FENAMAD, agrees with Chimatani on the importance of the “Rostro” and the existence of others.
“According to information from the elders, there are another two “Rostros”,” Quicque told the Guardian.
That is also asserted by Manuel Roque Prada who, in 2009, says he took the photo in the photo below while working for South American Exploration, which was contracted by Hunt to do the seismic explorations.
“There are two more [Rostros] and many more archaeological remains,” Roque Prada says.
A photo of a photo of the “Harakbut Face” which Manuel Roque Prada says he took in 2009 while employed by South American Exploration. Photo: Nicole Migliore
The visit by Tayori, Korisepa, Redman et al followed an earlier one made in 2012 by Diego Cortijo, from the Spanish Geographical Society (SGS), who went with other Harakbut men and a guard working for SERNANP, the Environment Ministry department co-running the reserve together with Chimatani’s team. In a report on the expedition Cortijo describes how he had heard, from various Harakbuts, about a “large stone with the aspect of an Inca face which seems to have been located... during exploration by Hunt Oil.”
What Cortijo’s expedition subsequently found was a “big rock formation” “not only similar to a human face but clearly similar to a profile of Andean roots”, “covered in moss”, about eight metres high, facing east, “towards Inti” [the Inca Sun God], standing in a “presidential” position over a waterfall that “marks it out from any other rock.” Cortijo told the Guardian that the “Rostro” had been located during Hunt’s explorations, but “the company didn’t want to give it any importance and wanted to play down its existence.”
“In my opinion it’s a natural rock that has been lightly worked on,” says Cortijo. “I say that because of the perfection of the image, together with the fact that it’s facing east, and that not far from there the presence of old tools have been reported. In addition, it presides over a pool which is almost an oasis in the middle of the jungle.”
Why, you might ask, does the “Rostro” matter? Here are just two reasons. One, aside from any debate over its origin, the fact is it is clearly of historical and spiritual significance to the Harakbuts, and therefore it acts as very tangible, striking, symbolic evidence that this particular part of the Peruvian Amazon is Harakbut territory. Two, the fact is that highlighting that this particular part of the Peruvian Amazon is Harakbut territory has arguably never been more important because of current operations by Hunt Oil, partnered by Repsol and Pluspetrol, to explore for what have been touted as the biggest gas deposits in the country.
Hunt signed a contract with Peru’s government to operate in this region in 2006 and has recently built its first drilling platform. According to FENAMAD, Hunt’s concession, “Lot 76”, overlaps almost 80% of the ACR, a supposedly “protected natural area” established to protect Harakbut territories, rivers and a “centre of great biological diversity.”
Over the last few years FENAMAD has taken numerous steps to stop the company - including two lawsuits - and accuses it of causing social division in Harakbut communities and trying to divide FENAMAD itself, spreading disinformation, and threatening a unique, very biodiverse area that is extremely important to the Harakbuts as well as a critical source of water for 1,000s of people downstream.
“The wells are scheduled to be located in the headwaters of the main rivers supplying Madre de Dios [a region inhabited by over 100,000 people],” Quicque told the Guardian. “It’s a very fragile zone.”
One further criticism is the potential impact of Hunt’s operations on archaeological remains which various Harakbuts say have not been taken into account either by the company in its “Environmental Impact Assessment” (EIA), or by the government in a “Master Plan” used to run the reserve and a “Certificate of the Inexistence of Archaeological Remains (CIRA), which was issued by the Culture Ministry. Such remains include the “Rostro” itself, other “Rostros”, tools and implements found near seismic lines cut by Hunt, and structures some Harakbuts believe date back to the Incas.
“We understand that one part of Harakbut territory was the scene of contact with the Incas,” says Quicque. “People living in Puerto Luz [a Harakbut community] are sure that there is an Inca ruin covered by vegetation.”
“There’s a story about [Hunt] wanting to drill a well near where there are Inca ruins,” Tayori asserts. “An immense construction. We’re talking about two cultures living in the same place.”
According to Tayori, the ACR’s “Master Plan” “invisibilized” archaeological remains in the reserve by only acknowledging two of them - one a cemetery. About the CIRA he says: “This is killing us. This is our culture. You can’t talk of no archaeological remains in this area.”
Indeed, it was the existence of archaeological remains - “the search for El Dorado” - that drew Cortijo and the SGS to the reserve: “immense stone sculptures”, “lost ruins” and possibly “a city [called] Paititi”, according to its website.
Rainforest Foundation’s Bewick says the Culture Ministry must now send someone to do a “comprehensive analysis” of the “Rostro” before further drilling takes place.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s manmade or not,” Bewick says. “Even if it’s completely natural, if it has historical cultural significance to the people, the potential impact of the drilling must be taken into account. What other valuable cultural sites are in the reserve?”
Tayori told Redman that one of his aims is to work with SERNANP and the Culture Ministry to declare this area within the reserve the “cultural patrimony of the Harakbut people and - why not? - the patrimony of humanity.”
“There’s a citadel in the headwaters of the reserve,” one man, who did not want to be identified, told the Guardian. “All of us who have worked in that area know that.”
Hunt Oil and the Culture Ministry did not respond for comment.