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Peru's rainforest: oil and gas run through it

Indigenous groups are threatened as Peru gears up for an energy boom.

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Raised in palm huts deep in the Peruvian Amazon, Gregorio Torres never imagined that below his home was something called natural gas.

Now his Machiguengua Indian settlement in this rain-forest river clearing has solar-powered radio gifted by an international oil company, corrugated tin roofs, T-shirts with company logos, and a shelf of Western medicine.

But this incipient natural-gas boom is bringing new worries, too.

"We want oil companies to leave the rivers and the forests like they found them," says Mr. Torres.

The Peruvian government is increasingly pushing an oil and gas boom through some of the world's most biodiverse rain forests. In 2006, 70 percent of the country's pristine Amazonian rainforest was zoned for oil and gas, up from just 13 percent in 2004, according to a study by groups including Environmental Defense and Oxfam. This year the country is tendering an additional 22.2 million acres – an area larger than the state of Maine – the report states.

And as ethnic Amazonian natives are increasingly lured by hydrocarbon development but threatened by contamination, disease, and culture shock, international supporters are working to press governments, companies, and banks to develop the rain-forest regions in low-impact, sustainable ways.

"There is now 75 to 80 percent of Peru's rain forest under concession for oil and gas, and there doesn't seem to be much planning on how to do that sustainably," says John Sohn, senior associate with World Resources Institute.

Lily de Torre, director of the indigenous rights group Racimos de Ungurahui, says semi-nomadic indigenous groups such as the Nahua, Nanti, and Kirineri are increasingly threatened by fatal illnesses caused by contact with oil workers.

In February, Ms. Torre and a delegation of Amazonian tribal leaders flew to an oil industry meeting in Houston where Peru's state oil company, Perúpetrol, was tendering rain-forest tracts.

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