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Peru native groups use new legal strategy to push back on oil, mining plans

Maria Cervantes

LIMA, June 27 (Reuters) - Indigenous groups in Peru are turning to the courts with a new legal strategy for keeping mining and oil projects off their land, racking up victories that could make it harder for companies to secure permits in the major minerals producer.

Native communities from the Peruvian Amazon and the Andes have filed at least eight lawsuits against the government since passage of the so-called "prior consultation" law in 2011, which gives them the right to weigh in on official decisions that could affect them, according to judicial documents.

The law, based on an international pact Peru signed in 1993, aimed to grant overdue rights to indigenous people and prevent deadly clashes over mining and energy projects.

But several native communities complained the government did not consult them, or did not consult them early enough, on plans for tapping oil or mineral reserves nearby.

So far, the courts have agreed with them. Judges sided with native communities in all six of the lawsuits that have been decided, pointing to international law to annul government green lights such as mining and oil concessions.

"Without a doubt, an important precedent is being set with these cases," said Jose de Echave, a director of the local environmental group Cooperaccion.

For mining and oil companies, that might mean an additional wait while the government discusses potential extractive activities with indigenous groups. While communities cannot unilaterally block a project under the prior consultation law, the government must try to reach an agreement with them.

The two pending lawsuits include requests to suspend Glencore's proposed $590 million expansion of its Antapaccay copper mine and Chile-based GeoPark's plans to drill for oil in the Amazon.

"We're the owners of this land. We've lived here before the state was formed," said Sumbinianch Mitiap, a representative of an indigenous Achuar community that is trying to keep GeoPark from drilling for oil on its land due to pollution concerns.

Glencore and GeoPark declined to comment on the lawsuits.

Peru's energy and mines ministry declined to comment.

The mining permits revoked so far - 200 concessions for exploration in the Amazon - were relatively minor, far from the big deposits in the Andes that have made Peru the world's No. 2 copper, zinc and silver producer.

But with 31,000 mining concessions issued in the past two decades, according to Cooperaccion, the legal precedents the cases set are potentially huge - exciting indigenous rights activists but alarming industry.

"We're watching the recent judicial rulings with deep worry," said Pablo de la Flor, the executive director of Peru's National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy.

(Reporting By Maria Cervantes, Writing By Mitra Taj, Editing by Chris Reese)