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Calling for heads to roll

It began a few weeks ago as a show of support for Peru’s Amazonian peoples: Peruvians across the country held marches, protests and strikes against their Government. But since then, the anti-government sentiment has evolved into a full-fledged civil uproar. People in my part of the country – southern Peru – talk of good, old fashioned rebellion and are are calling for Government heads to roll. 

Amazonian states have been holding strikes and roadblocks since last year to protest a series of Government decrees that would make it easier for foreign oil, mining and gas companies to purchase indigenous land. This 5 June the conflict escalated into brutal violence when the Government sent a special force of police commandos to break up a peaceful roadblock in Bagua, Peru’s northern Amazon. 

The official Government count maintains that 24 police officers and 10 civilians were killed, but indigenous leaders and human rights groups say that up to 100 civilians are missing. Rumours abound of a Government cover-up of the massacre, and local journalists reported bodies being dumped in rivers and mass graves.

Last week Amazonian leaders agreed to negotiations with Peru’s Government, and called on their followers to lift the blockades and other ‘measures of force’ while the talks take place. 

Although Peru’s northern jungle regions are currently experiencing a moment of tense calm, the blockades, strikes and marches continue in southern Peru, where I happen to live. There are so many different protests being held by diverse groups throughout the countryside, it’s difficult to figure out where one ends and another begins. Travel requires either a thorough knowledge of obscure roads and pathways, to avoid the main highways, or the courage and patience to abandon one’s bus, walk around the blockade, and seek out transport on the other side.

Farmers and unions in the Andean mountain province of Andahuaylas have blocked roads to protest environmental and social problems associated with foreign mining companies in the zone. One recent march brought an estimated 30,000 people to the streets of this provincial capital. Peru’s premier, Yehude Simon, is scheduled to meet with leaders on 23 June.

Another southern Andean province, Sicuani, has blocked the main highway leading to the tourism capital of Cuzco for the past 12 days. Protesters have a mixed bag of demands: they’re against privatization of a hydro-electric project, the teachers are up in arms about mandatory exams and everyone is worried that the new ‘Water Law’ will lead to privatization of water and higher costs. There have been acts of vandalism against government buildings, but farming leaders blame ‘infiltrators’ for the violence. Premier Simon is scheduled to meet with Sicuani’s leaders on Thursday, though it seems he will need super-human powers to travel from negotiations in Peru’s northern Amazon, to the turmoil in the southern Andean mountains. 

The Government is playing up the damage the southern protests have caused to Peru’s tourism trade, and announced that Cuzco has lost US$500,000 in cancelled trips and tour groups. This Wednesday (24 June), is Cuzco’s most important festival – Inti Rymi – in honour of the sun god, and always a major tourist draw. 

But farming communities have long complained that Cuzco’s booming tourist trade only benefits tour companies and middle-class urbanites. Nearly 40 per cent of Peru’s population lives in poverty, on less than US$2.00 a day, and despite the tourist trade, Cuzco remains one of the country’s most impoverished regions.

A study published this June by Peru’s Catholic University found that 86 per cent of the population living in southern Peru feels the distribution of wealth in Peru is unjust, and 58 per cent of all Peruvians disapprove the Government’s economic policy.

With the scent of revolution in the wind, Peru's Government has authorized the army to ‘aid police to maintain order’ in the states of Cuzco, Apurimac and Junin. It seems the Government hasn't learned from the recent massacre in Bagua that the use of force against peaceful civil protest only leads to bloodshed. Hopefully the army's presence won't add fire to an already explosive situation.

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