In March, 2013 hundreds of Matsés gathered together on the border between Brazil and Peru to call on the two state’s governments to halt any and all oil exploration in Matsés territory. Around 2,200 Matsés live along the Brazil-Peru border in the Brazilian Javari Valley Indigenous Territory and a legally titled 490,000-hectare area in Peru; a Brazilian NGO called Instituto Socioambiental claims there are 3,500 Matsés total, with 1,700 on the Peruvian side and almost 1,600 on the Brazilian side. Movement across the border within Matsés territory is reportedly very common. (1) (3)See more...
In 2012 Pacific Rubiales, a Canadian-based company, started oil exploration in the region. The project is worth $36 million, and will entail running miles of seismic testing lines through areas where uncontacted peoples live along with the drilling of exploratory wells. Perupetro, the Peruvian government body that issued the exploratory permits in 2007, allows for activities in around 1.5 million hectares of land estimated to hold almost one billion barrels of oil. There are concerns that the ecological impact would also be felt in Brazil’s Javari Valley due to headwater pollution resulting from the seismic testing and well construction. (1) (3) The Matsés claim they were not consulted by the Peruvian government prior to them granting the concessions, in violation of a legally binding agreement signed by Peru in 1994. Pacific Rubiales has stated that this right did not apply before 2012. (3)
The two concessions cover more than half of Matsés titled community land in Peru and protected natural areas. One of the concessions includes a large area of land that is currently a proposed reserve for indigenous people living in what Peruvian law terms ‘voluntary isolation’.
The Matsés have cited concerns relating to ecological destruction that could be caused by the exploration and extraction of oil and its impact on animal life (1), as well as concerns about low immunity to outside disease; outsiders first formally contacted the Matsés in the 1960s. Waki Mayoruna, the leader of a local village, stated in an interview that they “don’t want to die contaminated or from some illness transmitted [by a company]” and that if exploration continues, it could lead to conflict and death. (2) The president of General Mayoruna Organization (OGM) in Brazil, Raimundo Mean Mayoruna, has also spoken out against increased contact with outsiders associated with oil companies, claiming, “This isn’t just an environmental issue. It could bring illnesses”, and that though the Matsés do not desire conflict, it could be inevitable. A main concern of the Matsés centres on the risk oil exploration would pose to Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, and the almost certain decimation contact with outsiders would bring due to the spread of disease. (3) (2)
Indeed, Matsés members have said they are willing to fight with weapons if companies explore their territory, just as they have defended their territory against rubber-tappers, soldiers, loggers and road-builders. The former president of the Matsés in Peru, Ángel Uaqui Dunu Maya, explained in an interview that when oil operations took place in the 1970s, many people died from exposure to outside illness, and the fear of that pattern repeating as well as the known environment risks are what motivate the Matsés to fight now. (3)
The Matsés have issued a formal statement that ratifies their decision to reject oil exploration, with similar statements having been issued every year for the past 5 years after bi-national meetings. They have also sent delegations of Matsés along with Marubos, Matís and Kanamaris indigenous peoples to Brasilia to express their concerns to government representatives from Peru and Brazil’s foreign ministry. UNIVAJA, the federation that represents indigenous groups in Brazil’s Javari Valley has published an open letter outlining their rejection of the Peruvian government’s oil exploration and production in the area surrounding River Yaquerana and calling for the suspension of all oil activity near their reserve. Similarly, OGM is pushing for dialogue between Peru and Brazil to bring about a suspension of the Peruvian concessions and to mitigate the threats to natural resources and indigenous peoples on the Brazilian side of the border. Perupetro, however, rejected an invitation from Matsés representatives to visit their territory in order to discuss Matsés opposition to the concessions. As of late November, 2014, Pacific Rubiales had halted all exploration activities in the area saying that they respect the Matsés’ decision to not allow exploration in their territory, though they still hold the concessions. (2)
Another fear is that if exploration continues it will lead to unconventional extraction methods such as fracking (4). Brazil has a recently introduced regulatory framework to aid in governing fracking projects--though its effectiveness is unknown--and some local authorities have adopted anti-fracking stances. Though the concessions the Matsés are worried about in this case lie on the Peruvian side, dialogue with the Brazilian government will be very important, as the country is considering a five-year moratorium on all fracking activities due to negative ecological impacts. (5)