In a letter to NGO Survival International dated 4 June Peru’s state oil and gas company, Petroperu, revealed it had been liaising with other state institutions in order to exploit the so-called ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’, a swathe of the Amazon rainforest in the south-east of the country.
Official interest in the ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’ had already been made clear in an interview in the Peruvian press in April with the Energy Minister, Jorge Merino Tafur, in which he said there were ‘great possibilities for finding gas’ there. Merino Tafur has since followed that up in an interview in a magazine published in July by Peru’s National Mining, Oil and Energy Society, in which he described the ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’ as part of one of three stages in the Ministry’s current ‘flagship project.’
To some, this may seem extremely odd. Not because the areas in Peru where oil and gas can be exploited are usually numbered and/or lettered (e.g. ‘Lot 67’, ‘Lot Z-46’, ‘Lot XXV’), or because the ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’ is illegal under both international and domestic Peruvian law, as NGO Forest Peoples’ Programme has pointed out, or even because it appears it will include part of a national park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a reserve supposedly set aside for ‘isolated’ indigenous groups who have no regular contact with outsiders and could be decimated if they run into gas company workers, but because Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald was a brutal man who, in the late 19th century, attacked, enslaved and slaughtered 100s of indigenous people in a vicious pursuit of wild rubber and massive profits.
Not surprisingly, for someone operating in such a remote region and so long ago, there is some confusion about Fitzcarrald today. Things aren’t helped by a captivating but extremely misleading film inspired by his life, Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog, which portrays him as a kind of lovable rogue.
So who was Fitzcarrald really? This is what five experts on Peru, four of them anthropologists, one an ecologist, have had to say about him:
Beatriz Huertas Castillo on the impact of his operations: ‘Fitzcarrald (was) the biggest rubber baron. . . (T)he rubber companies’ presence and the new economic system brought in their wake illness, war, the instigation of bloody ways of recruiting indigenous labour, and sub-human working conditions.’
Alberto Chirif on a punitive expedition organized by him: ‘The battle. . . must have lasted a very short time given the large number of attackers and the fact they were armed with Winchesters and Remingtons. . . Later attacks weren’t intended to be punitive, just to clean out the area. They attacked indigenous settlements at night, while the people slept. They massacred them and made off with the children.’
Peter Gow on his methods of recruiting labour: ‘The headwaters of the Camisea, Mishahua and Manú rivers were not visited by non-indigenous people until the last decade of the nineteenth century, when this area was very dramatically and violently incorporated into the world capitalist system by Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. . . The mythology of the rubber industry tells us that Fitzcarrald and his followers were consistently violent towards indigenous people, but it is clear that Fitzcarrald's policy was to attempt to indebt indigenous people and make them into workers.’
Dan James Pantone on the same issue: ‘He was a brutal rubber baron who when he encountered indigenous people gave them the choice to work for him under cruel conditions or die. Yes, if they refused to work for him, they were executed!’
Glenn Shepard on modern-day parallels: ‘It is less useful to think about Fitzcarrald as an evil man, and more useful to think of him as an ambitious, efficient and successful businessman who, in the pursuit of these ambitions, committed atrocities with long-lasting consequences for indigenous peoples and the environment. Other ambitious, efficient and successful businessmen currently working in the same region of Peru today should think more carefully about the consequences of their own ambitions as well.’
Shepard isn’t just talking about the ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’ and the companies who may operate there, but Lot 88, immediately to the ‘Lote Fitzcarrald’s’ west, where Peru’s biggest gas fields are located. This is known as the ‘Camisea Project’, bang in the middle of the isolated peoples’ reserve. The gas there has been exploited for years, with disastrous impacts on the environment and the lives of many indigenous people, and now there are new concerns following an Energy Ministry decision on 13 April this year allowing the consortium running Camisea, which includes Pluspetrol, Hunt Oil and Repsol-YPF, to expand its operations.
But what hideous irony: naming a new gas project that could kill scores of indigenous people in the Amazon after someone who, wait for it,killed scores of indigenous people in the Amazon.
Why would anyone name anything after someone like that?
Doesn’t Peru’s energy sector understand what sort of man Fitzcarrald was, and what the consequences of the ‘lote’ named after him could be?
David Hill is a freelance journalist (www.hilldavid.com) specialising in indigenous peoples' rights and used to work as a researcher and campaigner at Survival International.