LIMA (Reuters) – Peru’s indigenous leaders have been lobbying lawmakers to pass a bill to declare swathes of virgin Amazon rainforest off limits to outsiders, but they fear opposition by the oil industry may scupper a rare opportunity to secure a vote this week.
With concerns growing that the coronavirus pandemic could devastate remote communities, Congress is considering whether to fast track a bill to better protect a string of indigenous territories near the border with Ecuador and Brazil.
“Until now, high risk extractive activities have been allowed in these territories,” Jorge Pérez, president of the Regional Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon, told Reuters in a statement.
“This reform will guarantee the lives and human rights of the Uncontacted Peoples,” Perez said, referring to an estimated 7,000 people in some 20 groups in the Peruvian Amazon who have very little or no interaction with the outside world.
Preserving indigenous territories in Peru and Ecuador is seen as critical to the wider Amazon ecosystem, which scientists warn is approaching catastrophic tipping points due to climate change and accelerating deforestation in Brazil.
While President Martin Vizcarra’s centrist government opposes to the proposed law, political analysts and legislators say Peru’s fragmented Congress has a populist hue after January elections and could pass the bill.
Indigenous leaders met with Vizcarra on Friday in anticipation that Congress could vote as early as this Thursday.
But Lesly Lazo, president of the Congressional justice commission, cast doubt on whether the bill would pass this week since her commission may decide to subject it to further review.
“I do not think there is a rush,” said Lazo, who belongs to the centrist Popular Action party.
Indigenous leaders fear the momentum to pass the bill quickly may fade as the country emerges from the most acute phase of the pandemic.
Peru’s oil industry – including state-owned firm Perupetrol – has warned lawmakers against passing the amendment, which aims to close loopholes in a framework adopted in 2006 to protect indigenous peoples threatened by mining, logging and fossil fuel extraction.
Felipe Cantuarias, president of the Peruvian Hydrocarbon Society industry lobby group, said the bill would disrupt production and throw exploration contracts into doubt.
“We are asking Congress to please debate the issue and understand that this is not solved by withdrawing private investment, because then we all lose: the country loses, the regions lose,” Cantuarias told Reuters.
Writing by Matthew Green; editing by Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio