March 26, 2010
Imagine you're in one of the remotest parts of the Amazon rainforest and suddenly you come across members of an uncontacted tribe. What should you do? The experts say, "Turn around. At all costs, make no attempt at contact."
Repsol YPF, exploring for oil in northern Peru, has taken a different approach. Despite the extreme vulnerability of the tribes to any form of contact, the company suggests that its workers talk to them in certain instances, and even provides specific phrases to use and conversation topics to address.
Some of these are farcical. If violence looks likely, Repsol recommends: "Use a megaphone to inform the natives in the local languages why we are there and that it is not the company's intention to interfere with their activities."
Another: "Explain to them the reason for Repsol's presence in the region and the work they're carrying out... Explain to them their vulnerability to Western diseases and the risk they run of getting ill and infecting others in their group which could kill them."
And if violence does happen? Reach for the megaphone again. "If peaceful contact and understanding can't be reached and the attack continues, try to establish communication using a megaphone," Repsol says.
Other suggestions are equally farcical, if not downright rude. "Try to persuade the person or group to return to their settlements. If it is known they are on their seasonal migration, you should persuade them to continue on their way."
Another: "In any situation, it is important to indicate to the uncontacted person or group that they should return to their settlements until Repsol's work in that particular area has finished. This is in order to avoid accidents."
Repsol seems to be forgetting that the uncontacted tribes are the owners of this land, and that their ownership rights are recognized by both the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights and the International Labour Organization's Convention 169.
The company also seems not to realize that uncontacted tribes will have no idea what oil exploration is or why unknown diseases might kill them, no matter how carefully it thinks it can explain it to them – megaphone or no megaphone.
All these phrases come from a "contingency plan" presented by Repsol to Peru's Energy Ministry in 2007. The company is now waiting on a decision from the Ministry to hear if it can do more exploration in the region, which could be made any day, and is preparing a new plan.
Is shouting at people through a megaphone what Repsol means by "free, prior and informed consent obtained in good faith", which it claims is part of its "community relations" strategy when working with indigenous peoples? It would seem so.
Survival's recommendation to Repsol is this: scrap the plan and abort exploration in the region altogether. Not doing so violates international law and threatens two of the world's last uncontacted tribes – some of the world's most vulnerable people – with extinction.