Matsés man Gerson Gomes Bina Mayuruna from Lobo village in Brazil. Photograph: David Hill/David Hill
- ‘Hoax’ article on the Amazon correctly identifies threats to Brazil-Peru border region.
By David Hill*
27 February, 2015.- In December the World News Daily Report (WNDR) published an article claiming that the “world’s oldest tree” had been cut down along the Brazil-Peru border in the Amazon. It stated that a “giant Samauma tree that is thought to be over 5,800 years old” in the “Matsés Indigenous Reserve” had been “accidentally” felled by illegal loggers, and quoted “local tribesman leader Tahuactep of the Matsés tribe” saying it had “brought darkness upon not only our people, but the whole world.”
Some media responded by reporting it as fact, others by calling it a hoax. The Independent described it as “one of the 11 weirdest hoaxes of 2014”, while the Washington Post asserted that the WNDR is a “hoax-news site whose stories — we repeat! — are always fake” and “the world’s oldest tree is actually “somewhere in eastern California” and “only 5,062 years old.”
I was in Matsés territory just before this article was published and can say several things in response. For starters, there’s no such thing as the “Matsés Indigenous Reserve”, and the Matsés’s leader, or rather, “president”, is really called Daniel Vela Collantes.
Indeed, Vela Collantes was in Peru’s capital, Lima, in December attending side events held during the United Nations’ climate change talks. “Walter?” he queried on his mobile, struggling either with poor reception or my pronunciation. “No. Tahuactep.” “A Matsés?” “Supposedly.” A pause. “No, David, we don’t know anyone called that. . .”
Nevertheless, certain details and claims about the “world’s oldest tree” aside, it’s important to take this opportunity to point out that the WNDR’s article rings fairly true. I mean that in two quite specific ways.
First, as the WNDR suggests, logging really is a serious concern in Matsés territory. In 2012, as is their right and is permitted under Peruvian law, the Matsés signed an agreement with a company, Lanc Forest SAC, to cut down in a sustainable manner 1000s of trees over the next few years in what is called the “Matsés Native Community”, a 490,000 hectare area to which they have had legal title since the early 1990s.
As has been documented, opening up indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon to loggers, even when appearing to be done according to the law, can have disastrous social and environmental consequences, including extortion, debt cycles, jail terms, social division, political instability, downright confusion and facilitating illegal logging operations. What might be the consequences of the Matses’s decision to allow loggers in?
Second, as the WNDR’s article also suggests and as I reported for the Guardian in November, an oil and gas company really is eyeing up Matsés territory. Canadian firm Pacific Rubiales Energy holds the licenses to operate two concessions in this region. One concession, Lot 137, overlaps 48.8% of the Matsés’s “native community” and 35.8% of the “Matsés National Reserve”, while the other concession, Lot 135, also overlaps the “community” and the “reserve” as well as a huge swathe of a proposed reserve for indigenous people living in “isolation” who could be decimated by any kind of contact with oil workers because of their lack of immunological defences to disease. While Pacific Rubiales has not yet operated in Lot 137, it has conducted seismic tests and exploratory drilling in Lot 135.
Many Matsés have been publicly opposed to both concessions for several years. Numerous Matsés men I met, in both Brazil and Peru, said they’re prepared to fight – with spears, bows and arrows – if oil company personnel enter their territory.
“Take our concern and make sure everyone reads it and knows what our position is,” one Matsés woman, Celina Pue, from Puerto Alegre village, told me. “The River Yaquerana is the source of life for us. What will happen to us if the river is contaminated? It will be the end. We want our land. We want to live in peace.”
Both Lot 137 and Lot 135 were established in 2007, by Peru’s oil and gas licensing body Perupetro, but many Matsés argue that that violated an international law stating that governments must consult indigenous people “whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly”, and that such consultations must have the “objective of achieving agreement or consent to the proposed measures.” This prompted them to announce in November, after a bi-national meeting between Matsés from both Brazil and Peru, that they will take international legal action in an attempt to stop Pacific Rubiales.
The company’s response to the Matsés’s claims? “Pacific doesn’t have the competence to answer your questions,” a spokesperson emailed, “therefore we don’t have any comments.”