"We found that more of the Peruvian Amazon has recently been leased to oil and gas companies than at any other time on record," Matt Finer of Save America's Forests, US, told environmentalresearchweb. "In 2007, nearly half of the Peruvian Amazon was in the hands of trans-national energy companies, up from just 7% four years earlier. At this moment, there are 52 active hydrocarbon concessions, a great majority of which overlap titled indigenous peoples' lands and natural protected areas."

The area leased to oil and gas companies is on track to reach as high as 70% of the Peruvian Amazon in the near future, projections by Finer and colleague Martí Orta-Martínez of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain revealed. "We project that there will be a rapid spike of on-the-ground hydrocarbon activity over the next five years, levels of activity not seen since the region's first hydrocarbon boom in the early 1970s," added Finer.

Peru contains the second largest expanse of Amazon rainforest after Brazil. The Peruvian Amazon is one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth and is home to around 60 distinct groups of indigenous peoples, including 14 or 15 groups in voluntary isolation from the outside world. These people are particularly vulnerable to contact with outsiders because they have not built up immunity to many infectious diseases.

Hydrocarbon concessions now cover nearly one-fifth of protected areas and more than half of all titled indigenous lands in the Peruvian Amazon, as well as more than 60% of the area proposed as reserves for indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.

"Hydrocarbon-related environmental and social impacts could intensify in the coming years," said Finer. "The first hydrocarbon boom of the early 1970s brought with it severe negative environmental and social impacts and all indications are that this second boom will as well."

On the environmental side, the researchers are most worried that the bulk of the current activity is taking place in some of the last really intact and pristine tracts of rainforest left in the Amazon.

"And for the social impacts, our finding that over half of all titled indigenous lands are now covered by hydrocarbon concessions is an indication that social conflict could rise, due to the widespread opposition from Amazonian indigenous peoples to such activities," said Finer. "Indeed in 2009 there was a deadly conflict between indigenous protestors and government forces. Thus, we call for an immediate policy review to ensure that history is not repeated in terms of irreversible and negative environmental and social impacts."

The pair believe that Ecuador's Yasuni ITT initiative could provide a useful model for the Peruvian Amazon, particularly for Block 67, which lies just over the border from the Yasuni reserve. The Ecuadorian government has proposed that it will not drill the large oil fields located at the centre of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve in exchange for alternative sources of revenue generated by the international community. This money would then be spent on renewable-energy projects in the country.

The proposed oil exploitation in Block 67, which would be the first major new oil production project in the Peruvian Amazon in over 35 years, is highly controversial. The area lies within an extremely diverse and largely intact section of the rainforest and there is strong evidence that it has traditionally been used by uncontacted indigenous peoples. Indigenous groups have launched domestic lawsuits and a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to try and prevent development of Block 67.

Oil or gas

The researchers also found that oil production in the Peruvian Amazon peaked in the early 1980s; nearly one billion barrels of oil have been extracted from the region in the past 70 years. Natural gas production, in contrast, has steadily increased since its first commercial use in 1998.

"The rapidly falling annual oil production we document for the first time is a likely explanation behind why the Peruvian government has been so aggressive in leasing out vast swaths of the Amazon for hydrocarbon exploration," said Finer.

Finer and Orta-Martínez say they decided to piece together the full history of hydrocarbon activities in the Peruvian Amazon so that they could understand current trends in a historical context. It also seemed critical to make educated projections about future levels of hydrocarbon activity in order to better understand potential environmental and social impacts.

"Neither of these two things had ever been done before, and by the end we saw why – it was an incredible amount of work gathering and analysing all the historical data spanning the past 40 years and then synthesizing the data in order to look forward over the next five or so years," said Finer. "But in the end it was well worth it because we came up with some very interesting findings with major policy implications."

The researchers reported their work in ERL.