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National parks must be for people, plants, pumas - not Big Oil

Photo of a jaguar in Peru’s Amazon, one of many species living in the Sierra del Divisor National Park. Photograph: David Hill

By David Hill

August 23, 2016.- The creation of the 1.3 million hectare Sierra del Divisor National Park in the western Amazon in November 2015 generated considerable elation and Peruvian and international media coverage. Logging, gold-mining, coca cultivation and narco-trafficking were highlighted by some media as ongoing threats to the new park, but why such failure to acknowledge what is possibly, in the long-term, the most serious threat of all?

The sorry, alarming fact is that approximately 40% of the park is superimposed by an oil and gas concession run by a Canadian-headquartered company, Pacific Exploration and Production. This is despite Peru’s 1997 Law of Protected Natural Areas stating “the extraction of natural resources is not permitted” in parks, while 2001 regulations on Protected Natural Areas state “the exploitation of natural resources is prohibited.” In addition, Peru’s 1993 Constitution “obliges” the government “to promote the conservation of biological diversity and protected natural areas.”

Map showing how Pacific’s concession, Lot 135, with its boundaries in black and purple, overlaps the Sierra del Divisor National Park, with boundaries in red and sky blue. Photograph: Screenshot from July 2016 Perupetro map. 

Peru’s government is currently preparing a “Plan Maestro” - “Master Plan” - for the park and deciding how different areas within it will be used. Proposals seen by the Guardian, in Environment Ministry (MINAM) and Culture Ministry (MINCU) documents, are deeply concerning. While it is encouraging that almost the entire south-east part of the park is being proposed as a “strictly protected zone” because it overlaps the Isconahua Reserve established in 1998 to protect indigenous peoples living in “isolation”, the whole north-east part of the park, which overlaps the proposed Yavari-Tapiche Reserve for other indigenous peoples in “isolation”, is not due to receive the same level of protection and instead is slated to be a “special use zone.”

Why? Compare a MINCU map of the proposed zonification with maps from Peru’s oil and gas sector and the reason is obvious: the proposed “special use zone” in the north-east corresponds to that part of the park overlapped by the oil and gas concession, Lot 135, where Pacific explored in late 2012 and 2013.

2009 Pacific map showing the company’s interest in operating in part of what is now the Sierra del Divisor National Park, marked in dark green. The light green lines and black and yellow circles are the “areas of influence” of seismic lines and exploratory drilling. Pacific operated in what is now the north of the park in 2012 and 2013. Photograph: Screenshot from a Pacific map. 

The north-east is not the only part of the park where oil and gas operations are effectively being prioritised. According to MINCU’s map, the very southern tip of the park - and therefore the very southern tip of the Isconahua Reserve - will also be a “special use zone”, rather than a “strictly protected zone.” Why? Again, the reason is obvious: that part of the park and reserve corresponds to an oil and gas concession, Lot 138, which was held by Pacific up until December 2014.

It is a similar story in the far west of the park where one - admittedly tiny - area is also proposed as a “special use zone.” Yet again, the reason is obvious: that part of the park corresponds to an oil and gas concession too, Lot 31-B, ultimately controlled by the US-based Maple Resources Corporation.

Indeed, the west and north-west of the park fall within what would be the Sierra del Divisor Occidental Reserve, effectively proposed in 2007 as another off-limits area for indigenous peoples in “isolation” but which, like Yavari-Tapiche, has never been established. Only a small part of that proposed reserve now inside the park is due to be a “strictly protected zone.”

This zonification is being proposed by SERNANP despite Peru’s 2001 regulations clearly stating that a newly-created “protected natural area” must respect the “property rights and other acquired rights” of indigenous peoples in “isolation.” In addition, the regulations state that it must “promote mechanisms to make the objectives and aims of Protected Natural Areas compatible with their ancestral uses.”

Responses to the proposed zonification by indigenous organisations in Peru have included accusing SERNANP, which sits within MINAM and runs Peru’s “protected natural areas”, of backtracking on promises made during the administrative process to establish the park and “misinforming” indigenous communities in the region. According to a declaration made in April this year by ORPIO, an indigenous federation representing more than 20 indigenous organisations in Peru’s northern Amazon:

“Along with [indigenous organisations] AIDESEP and ORAU we supported the creation of the Sierra del Divisor National Park on the condition that the rights and protection of the indigenous peoples living there would be guaranteed by SERNANP, as much as in the law establishing the park and regulations for its management as in practice. . . Contrary to its commitments to acknowledge the proposed Yavari Tapiche and Sierra del Divisor Occidental Reserves for indigenous peoples in isolation and give them the highest level of protection by classifying them as strictly protected zones, SERNANP has omitted all references to such peoples and reserves in the law creating the park as well as in the proposed zonification, and has even failed to acknowledge the proposed reserves in its maps”.

AIDESEP, an indigenous federation representing indigenous organisations across all Peru’s Amazon, has been extremely critical too. “SERNANP ignores existence of indigenous peoples in isolation in order to prioritise “economic rights”,” ran the title of an AIDESEP statement summarising ORPIO’s April declaration.

The very north of the park also overlaps an area considered by Matsés indigenous people to be part of their territory. A statement released in April by Matsés from both Peru and Brazil said they reject any kind of oil and gas operations and demand Lot 135 is annulled. It also said the Matsés confirm the presence of indigenous peoples in “isolation” in the Yavari-Tapiche Reserve and claim the Brazilian government’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) has evidence of them - and that as a result the two governments, Peru’s and Brazil’s, should coordinate.

“Considering that part of the Sierra del Divisor National Park is the ancestral territory of the Matsés and peoples in isolation, we urge that the park’s Plan Maestro and zonification respects the presence of such peoples in the area proposed for the Yavari-Tapiche Reserve, as well as respecting the right of the Matsés’s traditional use of this zone and prohibiting activities by third parties,” the Matsés statement read. “We urge that the future control posts in the park in the River Yaquerana basin are run exclusively by the Matsés.”

More recently, in July, ORPIO took legal action against MINCU, filing a case with the Superior Court of Justice in Lima. According to ORPIO, MINCU is violating 2007 regulations by moving too slowly to create the proposed Yavari-Tapiche Reserve and four others, and, in the meantime, failing to “implement the necessary mechanisms and measures” to protect the indigenous peoples in “isolation” living there.

Asked to respond to the indigenous organisations’ accusations, SERNANP’s Mariela Huachillo told the Guardian that they plan “to implement the necessary mechanisms and measures to guarantee the protection of indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact.” She says that national parks are intended to protect “cultural characteristics” “associated” with “intangible” eco-systems, that no “new rights” can be granted to exploit natural resources, and that the park will be monitored and protected from outsiders.

“However, SERNANP cannot impose restrictions, through the zonification, on other sectors for which it is not responsible,” Huachillo says.

According to Huachillo, SERNANP is developing the Plan Maestro “with the financial support” of CEDIA, a Peruvian NGO. CEDIA’s Lelis Rivera told the Guardian the funds have been provided by the US-based Rainforest Trust, and that, while his NGO has provided “technical and financial support”, the Plan Maestro is ultimately “the responsibility of SERNANP.” He says that the proposed zonification emerged from the administrative process establishing the park and can be traced back to 2012, that local indigenous communities agreed to the zonification, and that both AIDESEP and MINCU have been, from the start, part of the Ad Hoc Commission to develop the Plan Maestro and as a result the existence of the proposed reserves and the protection of the indigenous peoples in “isolation” “is being taken into account.”

“The zonification comes with conditions, rules and laws which justify each type of zone, what you can and can’t do where, and what are the special considerations for each space,” Rivera told the Guardian.

Just a few days after the park was created the US-based Andes Amazon Fund (AAF) announced it would provide $1 million, over five years, to help SERNANP to protect the park. AAF’s Enrique Ortiz told the Guardian the money, none of which has been disbursed yet, will not be spent “on the development of the Master Plan or zoning”, but that it will be spent on “protection activities” although they “are still working out exactly what those will be.”

“The zoning is a responsibility of SERNANP and we are not involved in it,” Ortiz says. “We would certainly believe that SERNANP should address those concerns of the indigenous organizations.”

But will SERNANP do so? Can the proposed zonification be improved? Can the Rainforest Trust, given that it is providing funds, wield any influence?

SERNANP’s Huachillo effectively dodged those first two questions, saying instead that the establishment of the park didn’t prohibit the Yavari-Tapiche and Sierra del Divisor Occidental Reserves from being created. CEDIA’s Rivera’s answer was more encouraging: “The law states that SERNANP can change the zonification at any moment, if reality requires it, for example, if an acquired right is annulled or a reserve for the indigenous people in isolation is established.”

Pacific told the Guardian it disagrees that the north-east of the park is not being proposed as a “strictly protected zone” because it is overlapped by its concession.

“Pacific does not accept that part of the park could eventually not be considered a protected zone simply because part of it is assigned to [our company] under block 135,” says Pacific’s Melissa Mackie. “We have sculpted our operations based on the existence of these environmental restrictions.”

Pacific signed the contract for Lot 135 in 2007 - for 30 years for oil or 40 years for gas. A map sent to the Guardian purportedly showing proposed exploration suggests the company wants to operate inside the park, although Mackie says, “Block 135 is in force majeure and we are currently not developing any activity there. There is no exploratory drilling planned for 2016.”

A map purportedly showing Pacific’s interest in exploring in the northern part of the Sierra del Divisor National Park, marked with green stripes. Photograph: Screenshot from a Pacific map. 

Recent public statements in Peru make it clear that the Sierra del Divisor National Park is far from the only national park that the government and oil and gas companies are eyeing. Newspapers El Comercio and Gestion reported that the government, under new president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, will “revise” the 1997 Law on Protected Natural Areas in order to promote oil and gas operations, while the president of Perupetro said in an interview with Gestion on 10 August that laws must be changed to permit operations in part of the Bahuaja Sonene National Park in particular and in “reserved areas” in general. Following that came a statement by the Peruvian Hydrocarbons Society calling for legal changes and claiming oil and gas operations are “compatible” with “protected natural areas”, and then an interview on Peru’s most popular radio station, RPP, with the new Environment Minister, Elza Galazar, also talking up the compatibility of hydrocarbon operations with “protected natural areas.”

The Sierra del Divisor National Park is considered a unique part of the Amazon basin and home to a tremendous range of flora and fauna, including jaguars and pumas.

Rainforest Trust did not respond to questions from the Guardian about the proposed zonification, but said instead that its work helps to protect “threatened tropical forests and endangered wildlife by partnering with local and community organizations in and around vulnerable areas.”

“Our unique, cost-effective conservation model for protecting endangered species has been implemented successfully for over 25 years,” says Rainforest Trust’s Marc Ford. “Our partners work closely with their national governments and local communities to formally establish reserves protecting the land.”

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