New Internationalist

Battle lines drawn over the Amazon

Issue 423

Legitimate indigenous protests against Peru’s latest free trade agreements have led to bloodshed following the Government’s decision to send in the military. Ben Powless reports.

Photo by: Ben Powless
Thousands of Indigenous Peoples from across the Americas gather in Puno, Peru for the 4th Continental Indigenous Summit of Abya Yala (America). Photo by: Ben Powless

The rhetoric was sharp enough to cut down Amazonian hardwoods. On 7 June, after a number of ministers had been paraded out on the two days before, Peru’s el Señor Presidente, Alan Garcia, decided to make it personal. After a joint police-military operation aimed at stopping an Indigenous protest had gone awry, leaving many dead on both sides, Garcia declared the Indigenous elements to be standing in the way of progress, in the path of national development, wrenches in the gears of modernity, and part of an international conspiracy to keep Peru down. In a troubling statement on the resemblance of the Indigenous protesters to the infamous Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) armed insurrection, Garcia seemed to imply the ‘Natives’ were a band of terrorists as he stood in front of hundreds of military officers in a nationally televised speech. He continued to decry the Indian barbarity and savagery, and called for all police and military to stand against savagery.

Battle lines drawn

Clearly, the battle lines were being drawn. Garcia demonstrated he is not about to allow anything to get in the way of ‘our development’ of the oil and mineral resources the Amazon has to offer. Especially by a bunch of ‘confused savages’ (his words) who are pawns to the international market and to Indian elites and therefore have no real reason to be resisting. At this point, it was obvious he thought nothing of the Indigenous cause, and what they actually stood for. There is too much money to be extracted from oil, from minerals, from logging, and from possible agriculture in the Amazon region, the second largest stretch outside of Brazil. All on land with less than 200,000 Indigenous people. All now supposed to be open for business, as a result of a series of laws passed under the auspices of Free Trade Agreements signed with both Canada and the United States. Indigenous protesters confront the police on the highway outside Bagua.

Garcia declared the Indigenous elements to be standing in the way of progress, in the path of national development, wrenches in the gears of modernity, and part of an international conspiracy to keep Peru down

All those who lost their lives – certainly more than the 30 or so officially cited – have in the end given their lives for these free trade agreements and their domestic implementation. After wresting a concession from Congress – à la Bush – Garcia was able to push through 99 changes to the law of Peru. A number of these were ruled unconstitutional later, one dealing with property law standing out. Indigenous groups disputed from the beginning that these laws threatened the integrity of the Amazon, its cultural and biological diversity. Since the beginning, they were ignored. Living up to their Amazonian warrior mythology, they decided to take action.

Photo by: Ben Powless
Member of CONACAMI - the Mining-Impacted Communities Association, at a protest in Puno, Peru. Photo by: Ben Powless

Protests have lasted now over 50 days, only recently erupting into bloodshed when Garcia suspended civil liberties, declared a state of emergency, and decided to send in the military to end the dispute. This was all done in the name of Garcia’s idea of ‘democracy,’ which should be farcical to anyone who has the least idea what democracy means. Indigenous groups have maintained they want to be included in this so-called democracy, meaning they have a say over what happens in their lands, and that their rights be respected. This is clearly within international law now, after the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was approved two years ago.

The Declaration lays out provisions that clearly establish the rights to free, prior and informed consent over development projects in Indigenous territories, and the right to be involved in any decision making processes that would impact on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, resources or rights. Repeated demands have called for there to be dialogue with Indigenous groups. Garcia’s response? Yes, there has been dialogue – within the government, by elected officials. Obviously, this hasn’t done enough to safeguard the rights, the lives, and the livelihoods of Amazon peoples, and a number of the new laws have been shown to be unconstitutional. Indigenous leaders quickly condemned the tragic loss of lives as the fault of the Government, which was not committed to dialogue, but arms. Even the ex-president has placed the blame on Garcia for not seeking dialogue with Indigenous representatives.

Military attack

Lamentably, this whole situation could have easily been prevented, had the Government cared enough about its own citizens’ lives and effective dialogue more than getting its own way. Instead, on 5 June, police and military descended on an Indigenous encampment near the Amazonian towns of Bagua Chica and Bagua Grande. Reports from the ground contradict the Government version, in which security forces, reluctant to use force, were ambushed and had to defend themselves with bombs, helicopters, and machine guns. Other reports establish that a private meeting was held between the military, the Indigenous leadership, and a local bishop, among others, the night before the violence. Indigenous groups were reportedly given until 10am to make a decision to leave or stay, and were guaranteed that nothing would happen until then. In response, many decided to go home. But the Government apparently lied. The operation started around 6am.

Photo by: Thomas Quirynen
Protesters - including many non-Indigenous - attend to a protester who was shot. Photo by: Thomas Quirynen

Local sources instead claim they were sleeping, unarmed, when bullets were fired in their direction. When the police finally arrived to physically remove protesters, it was then that many police were disarmed, killed, or taken prisoner by the masses of protesters, probably numbering over 2,000 in days prior, now down to a few hundred. By now, the war had been declared, and wouldn’t stop until well into the night as police and military continued in a violent sweep, ending up going into the towns and reportedly searching house by house in vengeance. Police entered with weapons of war against civilians. Now the military has been reported to be wearing civilian clothing to carry out what seems more and more to resemble a civil war. Families decry that they haven’t been allowed to enter the areas to search for missing family, or enter jails to visit and feed prisoners. All this done in a declared state of emergency, with many liberties and human rights withdrawn for local citizens.

The outrage

Then came the outrage. But not by locals or Indigenous groups, though that was palpable. By the very same Government who initiated the action. Their reports came out throughout the next day – a dozen security forces murdered in cold blood, maybe three Indians hurt. Now 24 police and military cruelly assassinated, about nine Indians dead (no information how). The choice of words is translated from Government pronouncements, and reflects their dim view of Indigenous deaths, despite many being civilians, with a few children among those murdered.

Indigenous groups disputed from the beginning that these laws threatened the integrity of the Amazon, its cultural and biological diversity. Since the beginning, they were ignored. Living up to their Amazonian warrior mythology, they decided to take action

On the other side, Indigenous groups reported at least 30 civilians were killed, but also that Government officials had gone to great lengths to ‘disappear’ some of the bodies, a claim documented by Amazon Watch. Some AIDESEP members in the communities dispute that the number is much higher, closer to 100, including peasants and civilians. Video evidence clearly shows indigenous locals armed only with spears against a tactical unit in one confrontation, and photos show police firing live weapons from the roofs, reportedly into crowds gathered below. A national newspaper even reported that one could clearly find pictures online of more than a dozen Indians dead. No matter, the numbers had suddenly taken on a new importance.

Photo by: Thomas Quirynen
Police arrive with heavy reinforcements to forcefully remove demonstrators. Photo by: Thomas Quirynen

This had been the worst episode of violence since the 1990s, so one might think the Government might want to cut its losses and signal a shift towards more productive measures. Indeed, both sides could claim that they lost a number of lives, impetus to stop the bloodshed. Except that the war had already been declared, and may only be heating up. Hence the President’s fiery rhetoric, about ‘how dare the savage Indians hurt our humble police, who didn’t want to raise their weapons’. Their claim of nearly 30 deaths to the Indians’ nine pushed them to call it a massacre and seemed to pave the ethical and emotional road towards stronger retaliation, as all news channels were flooded with pictures of the soldiers’ bodies being flown out. The President of the ministers’ congress appeared before congress and on national television on 8 June to decry all the foreign news reports that fail to coincide with official numbers. Not only that, of course, these indigenous locals were getting in the way of our development, of our modernity, denying us our basic human rights. Many of these government claims are thin disguises to misrepresent the Indigenous movement and its positions.

Indigenous groups were reportedly given until 10am to make a decision to leave or stay, and were guaranteed that nothing would happen until then. In response, many decided to go home. But the government apparently lied. The operation started around 6am

Development

Take the issue of development. Indigenous communities have repeatedly said they aren’t against development, but it has to be a different kind of development, one more responsible. A reasonable claim, especially considering that the loss of the Amazon rainforest is one of the top drivers of climate change. On the issue of leadership and responsibility, the Government has maintained that this was a top-down movement led by Alberto Pizango, President of AIDESEP, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest, an Indigenous organization with representation from Amazon communities. This flies in the face of the history of the protest, which has literally involved thousands of communities, and shown itself to be led by local communities in their own decision making structures. The Government has instead tried to pin the blame on Pizango as the main instigator, as a political agent of other parties or perhaps other countries, and a criminal mastermind who has tricked his followers into rallying against perfectly good legislation. They have gone so far as to issue a warrant for his arrest now, with many news reports hinting he has fled to Bolivia, and the Indigenous leadership have lost contact with him.

The other easily disputed claim is that this is an Indigenous movement uniquely, the implication being that this does not apply to anyone non-Indigenous, and others should repudiate the movement. It is well known in and around the Amazonian towns, however, that there have consistently been Mestizos, those of mixed race who make a slim majority of Peruvians, as part of the movement. In recent days reportedly a number of disenfranchised army reservists also decided to join the Indigenous cause. Looking at the protests in and around Bagua, it can clearly be seen that as many as half the protesters were not Indigenous, but were there in support. Also in the past, it has been a number of labour unions and farmer groups that have participated in national strikes, concerned over the same free trade agreements as Amazon communities. The implications here are critical, though, and seem to seek a precedent in declaring the Indigenous movement to be a criminal, or even terrorist, movement and outlaw their activities, organizations, and politics.

Where hope rests

What comes next? On the Indigenous side, there have been calls for a national strike on Thursday 11 June. In this case, many labour groups have been involved from the beginning, so it remains to be seen whether this will go farther than strikes in the past, which have shut down vital transportation and oil infrastructure, as well as Machu Picchu, the main tourist destination of Peru. Indigenous leaders have said, however, their protest will continue until they are able to renegotiate the controversial laws. On the government side, we can only wait and hope for the best. If the inflamed words and rallying of the troops are any indication, however, they may be getting ready to try and strike down harder on the Indigenous movement sooner rather than later. Reports have come in that Special Forces have been seen in the area. All this may spell out more bloodshed in the name of democracy. However, they are also acutely aware they are under the international microscope right now, despite the lack of substantial media reporting about the situation here in Peru.

The free trade laws that open up the Amazon to logging, mining, oil and agro-industry must be suspended. Indigenous People’s rights – to self-determination, to their lands and resources, to their lives – must be protected and guaranteed

And that may be where hope rests. This is a critical moment, as the Government plans its next steps. There needs to be a strong international focus on Peru, to let them know they cannot get away with more human rights abuses. Already, protests are planned across the United States, with more in planning in Canada. Letters have been sent to the government and to representatives at embassies around the world. AIDESEP has called for a national inquiry into the events of Bagua and the deaths. They have also issued a request for an international observer committee to come and be witnesses to the situation. A national strike is planned for this Thursday, with participation from diverse groups, calling for resolution to the situation and the resignation of Alan Garcia. AIDESEP is also collecting funds to aid in its work and support observers to get into the region.

A curfew has been imposed. Amazonian towns have been militarized. AIDESEP officials are in communication with the communities that there are many missing, many presumed dead. The Government has begun persecuting and threatening jail for Indigenous leaders, while the leaders have said they are ready to go to jail to defend their rights. The fear is growing that the Government is trying to build support to further repress Indigenous groups. This is not a path to peace and reconciliation.

Act now

For now, the protests will continue. If we are serious about safeguarding the human rights of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, we need to act now. The violent repression of Indigenous protests and the loss of civil liberties must come to an end. If we want to protect and preserve the Amazon, and its bio-cultural diversity, especially in the face of climate change, there is no better protection than keeping it under the control of those who have maintained it forever. The free trade laws that open up the Amazon to logging, mining, oil and agro-industry must be suspended. Indigenous People’s rights – to self-determination, to their lands and resources, to their lives – must be protected and guaranteed. If we are to stop other atrocities and bloodshed, the battle line must be withdrawn, immediately, and there must be dialogue.

For up-to-date information and planned actions: http://peruanista.blogspot.com/ Reprinted with permission. This article originally appeared on www.rabble.ca on 8 June 2009

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