Oil prospectors corner Peru's last indigenous people

Though celebrities around the world play at roughing it in the jungle, in Peru it's not just a game for those living isolated from the outside world. ( dpa )

There are small groups of the Cacataibo community living in the Cordillera Azul mountain range in Amazonia, near the Brazilian border.

Most of the Cacataibos have come into contact with Western culture, but those who remain totally untouched by the outside world are now being ever more cornered by oil prospectors and loggers.

"Our brothers are together in groups of some 20 families with some 20 members each. Their living space is in great danger given that there is oil and natural gas in the region," said Edith Bolivar of the Native Federation of Cacataibo Communities (FENACOCA).

Both the Peruvian state and Canadian oil firm Petrolifera Petroleum Limited, based in Calgary, are interested in these natural resources.

In their search for oil and gas, workers have since July 2007 entered the traditional territories of the Cacataibos, breaking paths in the rainforest.

Petrolifera Executive Chairman Richard Gusella does not find this problematic.

"We don't know if there are any isolated tribal members in the area. There have been reported sightings from time to time, as we understand it, but we don't know," he said.

However Gusella stressed that all workmen are "sensitized" to the issue, but left open the issue of how they have prepared for a possible meeting with the Cacataibos.

"We have a licence from the government, so we will keep prospecting," he added.

The non-governmental organization IBC in the Peruvian capital, Lima, published a study along with FENACOCA in 2002, that cited a total of 109 indications that there are Cacataibos living in isolation in the region.

"Of course we cannot make direct contact with them, because they run away as soon as they even hear us," Bolivar explained.

In mid-February, the NGO Survival International expressed its suspicion that Petrolifera workmen had found a site where isolated Cacataibos lived. But Gusella denied it.

"There was a sighting of some markings on a tree," the Canadian said.

Gusella added that the markings were evaluated and found to be "unrelated to any isolated members of any Cacataibo tribes."

Bolivar's interpretation differs. An expedition with representatives of FENACOCA, the National Institute for Indigenous Peoples and the Energy and Mining Ministry visited the alleged site.

"We found two trees in which X-shaped marks had been carved with an arrow. This means our brothers were there, because for us this sign stands for mountains, valleys and paths. We also use this form on our clothes and ceramics," Bolivar said on her return.

The isolated groups were apparently higher up in the mountains. They are nomadic and move depending on the season - in the summer of the southern hemisphere, when it rains a lot, they go up into the mountains; in winter they seek rivers in the valleys for fishing.

In order to preserve the tribe's space, NGOs like IBC turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in December. They asked the commission to request from the Peruvian government preventive measures to protect the Cacataibos.

"The Commission transferred the request to Lima, but we are still waiting for an answer," said Carlos Soria, of IBC.

The lawyer, however, is not overconfident about the chances.

"For the Peruvian government, indigenous peoples and NGOs are its rivals. They even accuse us of having made up the isolated Cacataibos in order to justify our work," Soria said.

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