The letter, signed by Susan Sarandon, Chevy Chase, Ruben Blades, Kevin Bacon, Jessica Lange and rock star Sting, among others, turns up the heat on a Peruvian energy project ahead of a key vote on a $75 million loan next week by the Inter-American Development Bank (IABD) at which the US position will be crucial.

The US Export-Import Bank last week turned down backing for a $214 million loan for the Camisea Gas Project, Peru's biggest energy scheme, over environmental concerns. If the IADB did the same, Camisea would be left short of cash and Peru would lack a key international seal of approval for the landmark project.

"We ... are writing to urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that our tax dollars not contribute to the wholesale destruction of one of the planet's most biodiverse and remote rainforests and to the demise of vulnerable indigenous populations," said the letter, released by environmental groups Amazon Watch and Friends of the Earth.

Uncontacted tribes

Peru is counting on the $1.6 billion Camisea project, which is being developed by an Argentine-led consortium, to boost growth by nearly one percentage point and create 40,000 jobs.

It plans to extract gas from an Amazon field 1200 km south of Lima, an area home to some of the last uncontacted tribes and untouched rainforests on earth.

Two 800 km pipelines, now 70% built, will cross the Andes to a plant on the fringes of the Paracas coastal nature reserve, a playground for sea lions and rare penguins and a major tourist attraction.

From there, one pipeline will run to Lima, supplying gas by August 2004, the government says.

Disaster in the making

Peru says it has done everything by the book to minimise Camisea's environmental impact, has held 18 public hearings and has studied 14 alternative sites for the Paracas plant.

"We have to hope that the voices of reason will be heard rather than the voices of ruthless oil and gas companies"

Bianca Jagger,
Rights campaigner

Economy Minister Jaime Quijandria said talks were continuing with the IADB and "we think things are going well."

But Bianca Jagger, rights campaigner and ex-wife of Rolling Stones star Mick Jagger, called Camisea "a disaster in the making" that would sully the IADB if it approved the loan.

"We have to hope that the voices of reason will be heard rather than the voices of ruthless oil and gas companies ... all they want is profit," she told Reuters. She has written to Peru's President Alejandro Toledo urging a Camisea rethink.

Destined for California

"We understand that much of the gas extracted from Camisea is destined for electricity markets in California," the letter said. "We feel sure that if the consumers in California knew about the high social and ecological costs of natural gas from the Peruvian Amazon, they would be highly opposed to it."

Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch, said that three of the four well sites were located inside the Nahua Kugapakori Indigenous Reserve, which was established by the government to protect the Nahua, Nanti and Kirineri tribes which live in voluntary isolation.

"70% of the Nahua died in the 1980s when the Nahua were contacted by Shell," Soltani said. The Anglo-Dutch company, Royal Dutch/Shell, discovered Camisea in the early 1980s. 

He claimed that some of the reserve's inhabitants had now contracted diseases to which they have no immunity.