over the years a great deal of evidence has been collected - including sworn testimonies, eye-witness sightings or encounters, and physical proof such as spears and gardens.
The indigenous people living in 'voluntary isolation' (IPVI) in the region where Perenco is due to expand - between the Napo and Tigre rivers and adjacent to the border with Ecuador - live with no or almost no contact with other people.
As a result, they lack immunological defences, meaning that the transmission of germs, a common cold or flu following any kind of encounter can cause epidemics or be fatal.
An 'Indigenous Reserve' to protect the IPVI in the Napo-Tigre region was proposed 11 years ago by regional indigenous organization ORAI. But despite some administrative advances, the creation of a cross-sector government commission and some field research, the government has not established it.
Dramatic impacts likely
In 2010 a coalition of 50 local and international campaign groups called on the companies then involved - Perenco, Repsol and Conoco-Phillips - to quit the area to safeguard the area's inhabitants and the biodiversity of the rainforest.
"Operating in this area demonstrates an utter disregard for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, who may feel forced to defend their territory", said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.
"If the companies have any sense, they will leave the area to its rightful owners before lives, and reputations, are ruined."
Reports of substantial oil reserves in Perenco's new concession mean that the operations are likely to move rapidly beyond exploration into production.
And that would be certain to have dramatic impacts on the indigenous peoples living in the forest - from noise, pollution, the effects of any oil spills, the release of drilling muds and waste 'production water', and oil workers entering the area carying diseases.
Perenco acquires Repsol assets
Perenco's expansion follows six years of operation of a 101,000 hectare concession called Lot 67. It is now set to acquire a 745,000 hectare neighbouring concession called Lot 39, from the Spanish company Repsol.
Repsol has been investigated since 2008 by the Norwegian government's Council on Ethics because of its operations in this concession and the negative impacts they could have on the IPVI.
According to a Norwegian NGO, politician and TV station, the Council has recommended that Norway's Finance Ministry sell its shares in the company - but the Ministry hasn't done so.
Why no Reserve?
Support for the declaration of an Indigenous Reserve to protect the areas IPVI people was expressed last year by the Vice-Ministry of Inter-Culturality (VMI), the state institution responsible for indigenous peoples, in a memo, no. 190-2013.
This was sent to the president of the cross-sector commission along with 357 pages of supporting material. But Perupetro, the state oil and gas licencing agency, appealed to the Culture Ministry (MINCU), in which the VMI is situated, to "annul" it.
MINCU responded by conducting a legal analysis which argued that memo 190-2013 couldn't be "annulled" for legal reasons but suggested instead that the VMI "rescind" it because it wasn't "scientifically rigorous" enough and didn't include "reliable" proof of the IPVI.
The VMI duly "rescinded" memo 190-2013 on 25 November via another memo, no. 308-2013, which stated that the evidence provided in memo 190-2013 "must be confirmed by other evidence" and gave the green light for further fieldwork and analysis to be done.
The VMI took this decision despite the fact that over the years a great deal of evidence of IPVI in the Napo-Tigre region has been collected - including sworn testimonies, eye-witness sightings or encounters, and physical proof such as spears and gardens.
This evidence has mainly been collected by regional indigenous organization ORPIO and national indigenous organization AIDESEP, as well as, to a much lesser extent, Peru's Ombudsman, MINCU itself, anthropologists, and various journalists.
In addition, a very wide of range of Peruvian state institutions and Peruvian and international civil society organizations and individuals have accepted the IPVI's existence in the Napo-Tigre region.
These include the Energy Ministry, the Health Ministry, the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and AfroPeruvian Peoples (INDEPA), the now-defunct Natural Resources Institute (INRENA), the Ombudsman, the company that operated Lot 67 before Perenco, The Field Museum in the USA, and even Repsol itself.
Perenco: 'there is no evidence'
Despite this, since taking over Lot 67 in 2008, Perenco has refused to accept there is any evidence.
"There has been extensive human activity in the area of Block 67 [since 1995]. Despite this, there has been no evidence of non-contacted tribes within Block 67", its website claims.
Lot 39 is more than seven times larger than Lot 67 and almost entirely surrounds the latter, which is actually split into two distinct sub-lots. Asked if it would claim there is no evidence of IPVI in Lot 39 either, Perenco replied, via email, via the public relations firm Pelham Bell Pottinger:
"Perenco is making no 'claims' with regards Block 39. The facts are that the Ministry of Culture has said that there is no evidence of people in voluntary isolation. Furthermore, the Block has been extensively worked on by Perupetro and Repsol with no such people being encountered. This was also confirmed by the ethnologists present during the works."
Asked where the Culture Ministry has ever stated that "there is no evidence of people in voluntary isolation" in Lot 39, Perenco replied by sending 1) a letter from the Vice-Minister of Inter-Culturality informing Perupetro that it had "rescinded" memo 190-2013 and 2) the document itself, memo 308-2013, which "rescinded" it.
However, neither the VMI's letter, nor memo 308-2013, nor MINCU's legal analysis on which memo 308-2013 is based, states "there is no evidence of people in voluntary isolation" in Lot 39.
What memo 308-2013 states is, as already acknowledged, that the existing evidence "must be confirmed by other evidence."
Perenco's claim about Repsol never encountering IPVI in Lot 39 is also contradicted by a 2008 report by ORPIO. One sworn testimony by a named, former employee of a company called Global, sub-contracted by Repsol, describes seeing one person and footprints and abandoned settlements assumed to belong to IPVI.
The news that Repsol is selling its stake in Lot 39 to Perenco was initially declared in a report by Perupetro, and Perenco has now confirmed it.
"Subject to government approvals, Perenco is acquiring a 55% stake in Lot 39 and will become operator", states the company through Pelham Bell Pottinger.
Lot 39 - the biggest oil concession in Peru
When the oil deposits in Lot 67 were declared commercially-viable in 2006, the then president, Alan Garcia, described it as a "miracle". But according to the Energy Ministry the deposits in Lot 39 are even bigger - probably the biggest of any concession in the entire country.
Perenco did not respond to a request by The Ecologist for the names of the "ethnologists" it claims have confirmed that no evidence for IPVI has ever been found by Repsol.
David Hill is a freelance reporter based in South America. Read more of his Andes to the Amazon articles.
Twitter handle: @DavidHillTweets
Also in The Ecologist:
- Peru - gas expansion in Amazon 'indigenous reserve'
- Peru: Amazon tribes sacrificed to gas project
- Gas company: Amazon tribes vulnerable to 'massive deaths'