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Matsés indigenous resistance to oil exploration in Amazon, Peru&Brazil


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) 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)

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Matsés indigenous resistance to oil exploration in Amazon, Peru&Brazil
Location of conflict:Brazil's Javari Valley, Matsés Territory
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Shale gas fracking
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Biological resources
Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

concessions covering 1.5 million hectares for exploration, estimated 1 billion barrels of oil

Project area:1,500,000
Level of Investment for the conflictive project36,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:2,200-3,500
Start of the conflict:01/01/2007
Company names or state enterprises:Pacific Rubials Energy Corp from Canada
Perupetro from Peru - Peruvian government body that manages oil and gas exploration/production concessions
Relevant government actors:Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
Peruvian Government
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:UNIVAJA (federation representing indigenous groups in Brazil's Javari valley);
OGM (General Mayoruna Organization in Brazil);
Instituto Socioambiental (Brazil);
ORPIO (regional indigenous organization)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Matsés communities
Forms of mobilization:Official complaint letters and petitions
Threats to use arms
meetings with government bodies, requests for multi-state dialogue


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Other Environmental impacts
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsrisk of illness and death of voluntarily isolated indigenous peoples due to contact with outsiders
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Conflict outcome / response:Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Project temporarily suspended
Proposal and development of alternatives:The Matsés have called for an immediate termination of all exploration activities in their territory and reject all possible production from taking place.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:While for now Pacific Rubiales has ceased exploration activities, they still hold concessions to the land and it is unclear how they will proceed in the future.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Oil frontiers and indigenous resistance in the Peruvian Amazon, by Martí Orta-Martíneza, Matt Finerb

Ecological Economics

Volume 70, Issue 2, 15 December 2010, Pages 207–218

2. Article on the threat of oil exploration for Matsés indigenous people in Peru and the Brazilian Javari Valley

5. Fracking Frenzy: How the fracking industry is threatening the planet?

4. Article in Portuguese about the risk of fracking in Matsés territory

1. Article: Indigenous people of Amazon working together to stop Canadian oil giant

3. It's war: Peruvian and Brazilian Indigenous peoples pledge to fight Amazon oil exploration

Meta information

Contributor:Lena Weber, Lund University Human Ecology Department
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:1719



Matsés leader vows to fight oil companies wishing to enter territory (photo by David Hill) (3)

Matsés man, Alesandro Dunu Mayoruna, painted with achiote to receive visitors and talk about oil company Pacific Rubiales (Photo by David Hill) (2)