The coronavirus pandemic is now spreading throughout the Peruvian Amazon. The virus threatens the most vulnerable of the vulnerable: indigenous people in voluntary isolation and initial contact. As increasingly desperate calls for assistance flood in from indigenous leaders and local authorities, the government finally is beginning to implement its programme to address the pandemic in the region. But legislation to strengthen the protection of these people is stalled in Congress.

On 6 June, two indigenous from the Santa Rosa de Serjali community in a situation of initial contact, were confirmed as cases of coronavirus in the town of Sepahua. This is on the banks of the Lower Urubamba River and is the access point to the Kugapakori, Nahua and Nanti Territorial Reserve and the Alto Purus National Park. The two were placed in isolation but the incident has raised the alarm concerning the threat to peoples in isolation and the very real dangers that contact with outsiders represents.

Subsequently, 38 Nahua indigenous were placed in isolation in Sepahua and the Ministry of Culture claims to be reinforcing controls in access points to areas inhabited by isolated peoples. Nevertheless, by 17 June, the number of cases in Sepahua had increased to 109, of whom 80% were Yine and the others Matsigenka and Amahuaca.

There are estimated to be more than 20 peoples in voluntary isolation in the Peruvian Amazon, a population of some 7,000 people. Five reserves have been created for indigenous in isolation but the creation of another five has been stalled in the Peruvian bureaucracy for over twenty years. Moreover, legislation passed in 2006 to protect peoples in isolation included a clause that allowed the granting of concessions for resource extraction in the reserves. This has opened the way for timber, oil and gas extraction on some of these reserves, significantly weakening any protection.

To strengthen the legal protection of isolated peoples, a bill was presented to Congress in 2018 but it was never debated. After the coronavirus pandemic hit Peru in March, the Indigenous Peoples Working Group of the National Human Rights Coordinator asked the congressional commission dealing with indigenous peoples and the environment to take up the proposal again. With support from the commission president, Congressman Lenin Bazán, the proposal was approved unanimously in late May and submitted for debate in the full Congress.

Since then the bill has stalled in Congress. The Peruvian Hydrocarbons Society, which represents the oil and gas industry, has opposed the legislation, claiming that it could paralyse operations in five oil and gas concessions and generate a national energy crisis. In response to such claims, environmental lawyer Silvana Baldovino has pointed out that the proposed legislation is not retroactive and would not affect existing rights, such as the Camisea Consortium’s right to extract gas from Block 88 in the Kugapakori, Nahua and Nanti Territorial Reserves. Furthermore, the four remaining oil concessions which overlap with indigenous reserves have not been developed. Thus, the proposed law does not appear to represent a potential violation of the rights of the private sector.

Indigenous leaders have continued to urge Congress to debate and approve the proposed legislation, but so far to no avail. Meanwhile a Matsigenka worker for a contractor for the Camisea gas pipeline has proved positive and the Ticumpinia-Chokoriari community placed in quarantine, once again underlining the risks associated with extractive activities on indigenous territories. COMARU, the regional indigenous organisation, has also denounced corruption in the distribution of food support by the recently created Megantoni municipality.

These events illustrate the risks associated with the continuation and resumption of extractive industries in and near indigenous territories as the economy re-opens; the need to strengthen protection for local communities, especially those most vulnerable; the opposition of the oil and gas industry to any restrictions to its activities; and the political influence of its lobbyists in Congress.