By Mitra Taj
LIMA (Reuters) - Perenco said on Thursday it will start producing oil next year in block 67 of Peru's jungle after the government approved its environmental study for the project, which activists say will endanger isolated tribes.
President Ollanta Humala has reinforced policies that seek to turn Peru into a net oil exporter and expand its natural gas sector, upsetting indigenous rights groups.
"The Block 67 project is of national importance. It will shift the balance of Peru's hydrocarbon landscape with production of 60,000 barrels per day in six years time," an official of the Anglo-French firm said in a statement.
Peru's energy ministry signed off on the company's environmental impact assessment on August 3, a year and a half after the company submitted it.
Indigenous rights advocates say the study refuses to acknowledge the presence of tribes who choose to live in isolation in the jungle and who lack immunity to common viruses that can be fatal for entire communities.
"We've collected the testimony of locals, loggers, and even military officers, who gave information about the presence of isolated peoples in the area" said Israel Aquise, an anthropologist with AIDESEP, an indigenous rights group.
"But the government and the company haven't taken that into consideration," he said.
For its part, Perenco said: "corporate social responsibility is an integral part of the project. We are working very closely with the communities living near the block."
A law passed in 2006 says so-called uncontacted tribes have the right to remain in voluntary isolation without outside disturbance, but makes an exception for extractive activities of "public necessity for the state."
The 630-square-mile (1,020-square-kilometer) block of more than 300 million barrels has been declared of national interest to Peru by legal decree.
"This project will transform Peru into a net exporter of oil, as well as provide better options for the domestic market," the 2009 statute passed during the administration of former President Alan Garcia says.
Perenco says it is complying with all of Peru's laws and regulations and, in its impact study, said the state hasn't officially recognized isolated tribes in the area. At the same time, Perenco drew up a contingency plan in case encounters with uncontacted peoples are made.
Peru's Indian affairs agency INDEPA has declared five protected reserves for isolated tribes so far, but the area in block 67 is not currently one of them, Aquise said.
He said at least two isolated tribes live between the Napo and Tigre rivers where Perenco will operate.
"If there is contact with a company employee, the most likely outcome is they get sick and disappear as a people," Aquise said. "Another possibility is they move into another tribe's territory and it ends in violent conflict."
Perenco said Petrovietnam Exploration and Production Corporation (PVEP) has signed an agreement to acquire a 50 percent indirect interest in block 67, but that Perenco will still operate the project, which will ship the oil by river and then pipe it some thousand kilometers (620 miles) to Peru's Pacific coast.
Last year, Perenco got permission to build a 270-km (128.6-mile) pipeline as part of the project, 30.2 km (18.8 miles) of which extend into the Pucacuro environmental reserve.
In Peru, the energy and mining ministry - not the recently created environment ministry - approves environmental impact studies.
Many of the world's remaining uncontacted tribes live in the Amazon jungle that stretches across numerous South American countries.
"Tribes like these were wiped off the map in North America 150 years ago, but we have different standards of human rights than existed back then," said Scott Wallace, author of the book 'The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes.'"
(Reporting By Mitra Taj; Editing by Terry Wade and David Gregorio)