Hugo Blanco: Indigenous ‘struggle for nature’


"The world needs to understand the importance of the struggle in defence of nature", Hugo Blanco, legendary Peruvian peasant leader active in the indigenous peoples’ struggle against corporate exploitation in the Amazon, told Green Left Weekly in late September.

"That is the struggle that the indigenous people are waging today. The Amazonian indigenous people are fighting not just for themselves or Peru; they are fighting to defend the lungs of the planet.

"Those fighting in Borneo to defend the rainforest are also fighting for the planet, as are native Indians fighting against the uranium mine in the Grand Canyon."

Blanco said it was time "the people from the cities began to understand that they should follow the lead of these indigenous peoples in defense of nature, because today we can no longer just fight around social issues".

"Now", Blanco told GLW, "we are fighting so that humanity can continue to survive".

One such struggle occurred this year when Peru’s Amazonian indigenous peoples rose up against neoliberal laws that opened up vast swathes of indigenous peoples’ lands – including the Amazon rainforest – to exploitation by transnational oil, mining and logging companies.

The laws were decreed by President Alan Garcia under special powers granted him by Congress to bring Peruvian law into line with the requirements of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed with the United States in 2007.

In August 2008, the government was forced to repeal two of the decrees following 11 days of mass demonstrations. Indigenous protesters blockaded roads and a river, shut down oil pipelines and took control of major gas fields in southern Peru.

Then in April, after months of stalled negotiations over the remaining decrees, indigenous people began an uprising. Roads and rivers in the Amazon region were blockaded.

The government responded with a brutal crackdown, culminating in a massacre in Bagua on June 5. Dozens were killed and many more disappeared.

Once again mass mobilisations forced the government to back down, with another two of the most worst decrees repealed.

Since the Bagua massacre, the situation in Peru "continues to remain tense", Blanco said.

He said indigenous people continued to demand the remaining decrees be revoked.

They are also calling for an impartial international commission to investigate the Bagua massacre. During the uprising, the police opened fire on 5000 indigenous protesters in the Amazonian town.

Government officials claim only 34 people were killed; 23 police and nine indigenous protesters. However, the Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), which spearheaded the rebellion, said at least 40 indigenous people were killed.

Eyewitnesses said bodies were dumped in a nearby river and others incinerated at the local army barracks. More than 60 indigenous people are still.

"The United Nations and other international organisations have asked that an impartial investigation commission be established", Blanco said. However, "this has not occurred".

A senate commission, as well as a commission organised by the agriculture ministry, have been organised to deal with the issue, " but they lack all credibility because they are comprised solely of government representatives. There are no representatives from AIDESEP, which organised the strike."

In a positive development, Indian Country Today said on October 14 that a seven-person commission was agreed to by the government and AIDESEP. It will involve three representatives from AIDESEP, three from the executive branch, and one representative from Peru’s regional governments.

In Bagua, the situation is particularly tense, Blanco said. "The police stations are currently without police because the police are afraid to be seen there. Some of the police live in the area but they go around without their uniforms."

Other struggles are also being waged against transnational mining companies operating in Peru. "In parts of the mountainous regions, conflicts continue against the mining companies.

"Some indigenous people have declared that they will not allow mining companies in.

"Because these communities have received a large amount of solidarity, the government does not dare attack them. But the rivers continue to be patrolled by the navy, threatening local communities.

"There are also peasants in a jail located in the area who the government is attempting to transfer to Lima, something which is illegal."

The government is also persecuting indigenous leaders, with 41 AIDESEP leaders facing charges. Eight have already been detained.

AIDESEP leader Alberto Pizango, along with two other activists, is in exile, facing charges of sedition and rebellion against the state. Many others are in hiding.

The government has attempted to stage farcical negotiations with hand picked, unrepresentative indigenous leaders.

The Garcia government "has demonstrated itself to be a faithful servant of the multinational companies", Blanco said.

These companies "plunder the jungle and mountain regions, poisoning the rivers, destroying the soil and using agrochemicals".

"It is this commitment to defending imperialist companies that explains why the government has been waging this campaign of intimidation against the indigenous peoples."

Indigenous peoples "have responded with indignation".

Blanco said that while the recent upsurge became national in scope, struggles tend to be regionalised, with a local leadership.

"Some people belong to organisations, such as my group the Peasant Confederation of Peru, others to CONACAMI [National Coordinating Committee of Communities Affected by Mining], but in essence they are local leaders."

Unlike Bolivia, where the indigenous movement has been able to create a powerful united national force, Blanco said in Peru, "the movements and struggles are not led by any of the national organisations".

In this context, Lucha Indigena aims to be "one more voice for indigenous people", Blanco said it tries to unte "the mobilisations, the struggles that the people are waging".

With presidential elections scheduled for 2011, and with polls placing "anti-neoliberal" candidate Ollanta Humala among the top two preferred candidates, some on the left are arguing that an electoral victory for Humala could be an important breakthrough in Peruvian politics.

In the last presidential elections, Garcia narrowly won out against Humala, who heads the Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP).

However, Blanco, who is also director of the monthly Lucha Indigena newspaper, doesn’t believe "a government like that of Morales [in Bolivia] or Correa [in Ecuador]" will emerge from these elections.

"We have to remember that in those countries, they overthrew various presidents before electing such governments. We are only now overcoming 20 years of internal war and great repression, where some 70,000 Peruvians died – particularly indigenous and popular leaders."

Blanco said the reason Humala polled so well in the last elections was because he "appeared as the only serious opposition to neoliberalism. He talked about the issues that people felt strongly about. while the left was shifting to the centre.

"He maintained a radical discourse, but it was radical in words only."

For example, the Socialist Party and other organisations collected signatures to call a referendum on the issue of the US-Peru FTA.

"They collected the signatures and presented them. Humala did not move a single finger during that campaign.

"But paradoxically, in the election campaign, he talked about the FTA but the left parties didn’t.

"That is why the people voted for him."

Blanco also criticised Humala’s "top down" approach to naming leaders and candidates of the PNP.

"It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that he won a high vote in his campaign to become president, in the regional and municipal elections that occurred afterwards, the PNP vote was a failure because he imposed the candidates.

"They were not candidates that had support from the people or even the ranks of the party."

As well as the PNP, a new political formation has emerged, Peru Plurinational, which aims to build a political instrument of the indigenous peoples and social movements.

"The idea that the indigenous population should have a single political expression, that they are not trailing behind others, is a positive proposal", Blanco said.

"But this has been organised in a very apparatus-based manner and it also seems to not be moving forward."

Blanco said that the only important force really promoting Peru Plurinational was CONACAMI.

It was announced on October 12 that Pizango would stand as the PP candidate for president.
Blanco told GLW on October 15 that this was a positive development: "Pizango is [a representative of] the energetic and prolonged Amazonian struggle and his candidacy strengthens the indigenous and popular movements.

"The simple launching of the candidacy is a triumph of those movements, even if we do not win."

Blanco said victory would be difficult, "because we need a lot of money for the campaign and because Humala and [progressive priest and presidential candidate Father Marco] Arana will take votes away from him."

However, Blanco said Pizango’s campaign will help "bring together all those who believe that it is through struggles like those of the Amazonian peoples that we can confront big multinational capital".

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