By Barbara J. Fraser
A case in which Achuar indigenous people accuse a Canadian petroleum company of attempted genocide, currently under investigation by a court in Peru, could set a legal precedent if it is allowed to go ahead.
The case stems from an incident in May 2009, when members of two Achuar organizations traveled to a camp where Talisman Energy is exploring for oil in the northern Peruvian Amazon. They planned to ask company managers to withdraw from the site, according to lawyer Julio Dávila of the non-profit organization Racimos de Ungurahui, which is providing legal assistance to the Achuar.
When they arrived, they found other Achuar, from communities that supported the company, also at the camp. There was a tense confrontation between the two groups. According to Dávila, the Achuar who supported the oil exploration were carrying shotguns, while those who opposed the operations were carrying the spears they normally carry when traveling.
The case filed in the Peruvian court accuses Talisman of attempted genocide, claiming that the company facilitated the face-off with more heavily armed Achuar. The company denies the charge, saying it transported some unarmed supporters to the site by helicopter, but that others arrived on their own, on foot, carrying shotguns as they often do when traveling overland.
Company denies charges
“It is our belief that the proceedings lack any legal grounds and will be dismissed,” Talisman spokeswoman Phoebe Buckland said in a telephone interview. She said the company called in government authorities and an ombudsman and the incident was “peacefully resolved.”
Underlying the charge of attempted genocide, however, is a long-running battle against oil drilling that has split the Achuar communities living along tributaries of the Pastaza River, a remote area of the northern Peruvian Amazon. Two other US companies, Arco and Occidental Petroleum, pulled out of operations in that area in the past. Talisman has been operating there since 2004.
The petroleum concession, known as Block 64, overlaps Achuar communities along the Morona, Huitayacu and Huasaga rivers, although Talisman currently operates only in the Morona watershed, according to Achuar leaders. Communities in the area are divided about the operations, with communities closer to the Talisman camps generally supporting the drilling, while those along the other rivers generally oppose it.
“They know our position, but they are insisting,” Peas Peas Ayui, president of the Federation of Achuar Nationalities of Peru, said of Talisman. “We want to make them understand; we want them to respect us. The [Achuar] people are tired of demanding our collective rights.”
Even within communities, however, opinions are divided. Peas Ayui said the tensions sometimes lead to conflicts between neighbors or communities, and several Achuar organizations have split into factions because of views on petroleum development.
“The intention is to create conflicts to weaken” the organizations, he said. “As a leader, I am concerned, because people are suffering every day with this problem.”
Peas Ayui is one of three Achuar leaders who traveled to Canada in late April to visit Canadian First Nation communities affected by tar sands operations and to attend Talisman’s annual shareholders’ meeting on May 1.
“The purpose is to try and lift the Achuar voice and get Talisman to listen and respect their point of view,” said Gregor MacLennan, Peru program director for the non-profit indigenous advocacy organization Amazon Watch, who is accompanying the delegation in Canada.
The Achuar representatives spoke at the meeting and met with company executives. During their visit to Canada, they also met with members of Parliament, non-governmental organizations and members of Canadian First Nations affected by tar sands operations.
The company’s policy is to “engage early and in ongoing dialogue with communities in the area of impact” of its operations, Buckland said. “We feel we do have consent from the communities where we’re operating, and we’re continuing to engage with them.”
Talisman is currently exploring in Block 64 to determine the extent of a light crude deposit there. It is preparing an environmental impact statement and expects to make a decision by January 2013 about whether to go ahead with development and production, she said.
Although Buckland said the company had no plans to expand beyond its current area of operation, Peas Ayui said the situation in Block 64 is complicated because the lands to which the Achuar communities have title are not contiguous. That makes it easier for a company to expand into areas that do not officially belong to the Achuar.
Nevertheless, he said, those areas of tropical forests, hills and streams are ancestral lands where the Achuar have lived and hunted. One group of families living near the Talisman operations decided to return to a more remote area to get away from the drilling, he said — a decision Dávila said could be considered displacement.
Peas Ayui said the Achuar organizations’ goal is to win recognition for their entire ancestral territory, not just the titled communities.
“We want them to leave us our freedom. We want to live in peace,” he said. “There isn’t room to continue working, because the [Achuar] population is growing.”
A new consultation law passed last year — which came fully into force in early April after implementing regulations were approved — requires the Peruvian government to consult indigenous communities about any development plans or projects that would affect their territories.
In 2010, the Achuar communities along the Huitayacu and Huasaga rivers conducted its own internal consultation of men and women over age 14 — more than 1,500 people in all. The majority said they wanted to gain title to the entire territory inhabited by the Achuar, opposed petroleum or mining operations on their lands, and wanted Talisman to withdraw, Dávila said.
For the moment, the Achuar leaders are concentrating on gaining support in Canada. They have also invited company representatives to an Achuar assembly scheduled for late May in Peru, Peas Ayui said.
“With a polluted environment, we have no life,” Peas Ayui said. “Real development and quality of life means living in peace, without pollution.”