The Global Significance Of The Amazon Protest


Peru’s Amazon region has been locked down, after the death of perhaps 40 indigenous protesters and 20 police during an attempt to break up a blockade last Friday. Some reports have put the death toll as high as 250, with more than 100 unaccounted for in the worst violence that the Amazon region has seen since the height of the Shining Path insurgency in the 1980s.

 

But while deaths are mounting, and the Amazon is being militarized, resistance is growing across Peru to a series of laws designed to open up the jungle to energy investment and to break up indigenous land-holdings.

 

On 6 June, a peaceful blockade was allegedly fired upon by helicopters from the nation’s army. Most of the dead were indigenous protesters, part of a contingent at the blockade in Bagua province which numbered thousands – all of them seeking to resist the expansion of energy exploration and logging into Peru’s Amazon region. And many of them appear to have been not just peaceful, but asleep.

 

As the NGO Amazon Watch reported, "At approximately 5 am…the Peruvian military police staged a violent raid" during which "several thousand Awajun and Wambis indigenous peoples were forcibly dispersed by tear gas and real bullets." In a brutal attack, helicopters dropped tear gas bombs from on high while police moved in on the protesters – shooting some in the process. The NGO also reports that "as the unarmed demonstrators were killed and injured some wrestled the Police and took away their guns and fought back in self-defense resulting in deaths of several Police officers."

 

Doctors in Bagua allege that the evacuation of casualties was obstructed. As Dr Jose Sequen Reyes told El Mundo, "During great part in the morning…the police did not allow the passage of the ambulances for the evacuation." El Mundo’s correspondent Beatrice Jimenez also reported that "the bodies of the dead [were] being “disappeared” by those paid by the police Special Operations Directorate" – allegations that are backed up by Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights, who has blogged about reports that his organization has received of corpse-burning by the authorities.

 

This has been reported by Amazon Watch, which reported on 8 June that "numerous eyewitnesses are reporting that the Special Forces of the Peruvian Police have been disposing of the bodies of indigenous protesters who were killed" in what Amazon Watch spokesperson Gregor McClennan calls "an apparent attempt by the Government to underreport the number of indigenous people killed by police."

 

Over one hundred protesters remain in detention while, according to McClennan, "Eye-witness reports also confirm that police forcibly removed some of the wounded indigenous protesters from hospitals, taking them to unknown destinations." Fears grow that other blockades, such as one ongoing outside the town of Yurimaguas, could be due to face similar repression, as an atmosphere of fear and intimidation spreads across Amazonian Peru.

 

As a statement released by the indigenous umbrella group CAOI on 5 June put it, "The government of Alan Garci’a Perez has unleashed a bloody repression in the Peruvian Amazonia at dawn today." For CAOI, the deaths at Bagua are "[a] dictatorial answer [to] 56 days of indigenous peaceful struggle and supposed dialogue and negotiations, that always finishes in bullets [and] a continuation of more than 500 years of oppression."

 

Indigenous leader Walter Kategari expressed similar sentiments, telling the Mexican newspaper El Universal that "They began to shoot against our people. And the government knows that the natives are pacific, but when there is an action against us they will always find a reaction. And they made us react." Kategari echoes the words of Alberto Pizango, one of the major organizers of the indigenous movement in Peru, who has said that police shot down indigenous "brothers" like nothing more than animals.

 

The government, meanwhile, has responded by verbally attacking the protesters. President Alan Garcia said of protest leader Alberto Pizango that he was guilty of "falling to a criminal level: assaulting a police post, grabbing arms from police, killing police who are fulfilling their duty." (The government maintains that 24 policemen died in the clashes, and just 9 protesters – numbers that are challenged by eyewitness accounts.)

 

According to Peru’s La Republica newspaper, "Garcia reproached that some native ones have been deceived with inexact information on the norms that have caused to the controversy between the State and the natives" saying that "I hope that this finishes there. And also of the side of the native ones that has been taken in by such deceit to pronounce itself, without having read the decrees" adding that "We hope that there are not more victims."

 

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas has said that the protests are merely politically motivated – the product of Garcia’s opponents – and hence ripe for repression. Garcia himself has said the same. As La Republica puts it, the president has "inferred that behind the protests international interests of competition exist to prevent the development of the extractive industry in the forest."

 

On a different tack, Peru’s Labor Minister has attacked the leaders of the indigenous movement, counseling Peruvians to remember the fallen police as well as the indigenous victims, and arguing that "Pizango with his intolerance to taken to this situation to the country."

 

Yet for his part, Pizango told the press that he "[held] the government of President Alan Garcia responsible for ordering this genocide" – and for his trouble has been smeared on national radio, with station CNR saying that he "might ask for asylum from Bolivia, Venezuela or Ecuador in the next few hours." In the event, Pizango sought sanctuary in the embassy of Nicaragua, following threats against his life.

 

The war of words, gas bombs, helicopters and bullets puts us on the brink of a precipice. Facing a grave threat to his investment centered economic program in the form of an indigenous movement of unprecedented vitality and organization, Garcia is responding with violence. But how have we come to this pass?

 

Opening up the Amazon

 

The pace of indigenous mobilization and resistance in Peru has quickened over the past three years since Alan Garcia took power for the second time as president of Peru. Garcia embarked upon a twin-track economic strategy which has alienated large sections of Peruvian society, but none more so than the country’s 14 million indigenous people.

 

On the one hand, Garcia has pushed through a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, passing numerous "decrees" in order to remodel the economy to suit the terms of the deal. On the other, he has aggressively pursued the opening up of the Amazon to energy exploration and development, a strategy which poses an immediate threat to indigenous ways of life and native ecologies.

 

As one study published in 2008 reported, Garcia has allotted over 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon to oil firms such as Argentina’s Pluspetrol, France’s and France’s Perenco. Such deals have also been secured without consultation with indigenous communities that they will affect. In fact, Alan Garcia has overridden concerns about indigenous rights, saying that "We have to understand when there are resources like oil, gas and timber, they don’t belong only to the people who had the fortune to be born there."

 

The decrees which Garcia passed in order to ready Peru for integration with the U.S. economy stand to make the expropriation of indigenous lands much easier.

 

Decree 1064, for instance, sought to outflank local communities, allowing companies with concessions to arrange changes to zoning permits in the Amazon with Peru’s central government, potentially bypassing any form of local consultation. Amazon Watch notes that this puts Peru in contravention of ILO regulation 169, which requires governments "to consult with indigenous people prior to signing contracts and establishing any development projects that will affect them" – something which "has never happened, but there has always been a requirement for companies to at least negotiate a financial settlement with a community prior to moving in."

 

Article 7 of Decree 1064 also sought to "[reclassify] communal land rights as subordinate to individual and private ownership" while "sub-clauses of article 7 give favor in any conflict to individuals and companies, and to settlers who have invaded indigenous territory." This was supposed to work in conjunction with decree 1089, which expanded the role of Peru’s urban land titling service, COFPRI, whose policy "has been to promote individual land titles, offering credit to individuals who rescind their communal land for individual titles." Decrees 1015 and 1073, in addition, would make it easier to break up indigenous landholdings by requiring a simple majority amongst communities, rather than two thirds as was previously the case.

 

Perhaps most controversially of all, Decree 1090 sought to drastically reduce the amount of the Amazon covered by Peru’s Forestry Heritage protection system, "freeing" some 45 million hectares for the purposes of economic development (comprising some 60 percent of Peru’s jungles).

 

This single mindedness has brought resistance. Indigenous peoples have long struggled against energy firms. The Achuar, for example, have taken the American giant Occidental Petroleum to court in Los Angeles over the pollution of their land. Yet this resistance has never been unified.

 

As Latin American expert John Crabtree of Oxford University told me "Peru, unlike Bolivia and Ecuador, lacks a powerful indigenous movement that brings together pro-indigenous groups in the highlands and in the Amazon jungle." Groups in the Amazon have often been divided and have "always tended to focus on their own reality rather than enter into alliances with others" but this may be changing due to Garcia’s "Law of the Jungle" (decree 1090).

 

The past two years have seen a deepening of cooperation between disparate peoples in Peru’s Amazon. In August 2008, with indigenous grouping AIDESEP in the lead, protesters blockaded some of Peru’s most important waterways and transport arteries. A bridge in Bagua was occupied, severing Amazonian Peru from the coast, sparking clashes in which over 800 protesters battled with police with tens of injuries. In the south of the country, protesters surrounded and blockaded the Camisea natural gas facility, as well as other drilling platforms and a hydroelectric dam project taking the fight against Garcia’s reforms nationwide.

 

Spokespeople demanded the recision of over 30 of the decrees, and for substantive consultation on specific projects. As AIDESEP spokesman Alberto Pizango put it, the protesters were "[mobilizing] themselves for the right to life, the right to keep their territory and to defend the environment – the Amazon rainforest which is the lungs of the world."

 

At one point, the government sought to bring AIDESEP leaders into a "dialogue" on development issues, but protests continued when the government made their cessation a precondition for talks. Voices in the media began to make absurd comparisons between the indigenous protesters and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) – a brutal Maoist group active in the 1980s and early 90s.

 

The situation escalated, with indigenous activists unwilling to step down. The government had failed to either co-opt their representatives, or to launch an effective response against protests which had been almost completely non-violent and carried support across Peru. So when Garcia declared a state of emergency on 19 August, instead of being able to mop up the protests through police actions, the activists became emboldened.

 

One AIDESEP leader, Alberto Pizango, called the declaration "a declaration of open war." But indigenous Peruvians would not surrender. Far from it, in fact. As journalist Sandra Cuffe related, "The occupations, blockades and protests continued; in fact, others joined in solidarity. A provincial Committee of Struggle in La Convención (Cusco) including a Farmworkers’ Federation announced indefinite actions in support of the communities in the Amazon, including blockades of roads and inter-provincial transportation."

 

On 20 August, AIDESEP met with the president of Peru’s Congress, Javier Velásquez Quesquén, who agreed to convene an extraordinary plenary session which would discuss the contentious decrees. By the 22 August, Congress had passed legislative decree 2440, which revoked Garcia’s decrees 1073 and 1015. Pressure from indigenous movements had shot down two of the most controversial decrees – those which dealt with changes to landholding – but many still remained.

 

Nevertheless, as Alberto Pizango put it, "The people of Peru, indigenous or not, have demonstrated once more that it is possible to reclaim our rights to life, to dignity, and to a lasting sustainable development. This is a new dawn for the Indigenous Peoples of the country.”

 

Trading away the jungle

 

New dawn or not, many of the decrees remained in force and continued to pose a grave threat to indigenous communities. Moreover, in January 2009, the Free Trade Agreement between Washington and Lima came into force after receiving the signature of George W. Bush, and it was clear that the FTA would further increase pressure on the Amazon region.

 

In the opinion of Council on Hemispheric Affairs analyst Will Petrik, the consequences will be far reaching. "As small and middle-scale Peruvian farmers are forced to compete with U.S. subsidized agricultural imports,” he wrote in January, “it is estimated that countless farmers will be forced off their land, exacerbating problems, such as urban poverty, the drug trade, and forced migration."

 

The integration of Peru’s economy into the wider free trade area will have profound implications for the Amazon. In fact, as Farid Matuk, former Director of the Peruvian National Institute of Statistics and Informatics, told me, while "The whole idea of the FTA is to expand the agricultural frontier of the US economy" it will have the effect of driving food production from the coast into Peru’s Amazon region. While "Coastal areas will switch to growing food for export but food production" he told me, "less land available for food for domestic consumption may lead to demand for land in the jungles [and] you will need to cut more forests down to produce more food for domestic consumption."

 

As Petrik added, "As the new FTA ensures investor protections for multi-national corporations, more of these corporations and their industrial model, which marginalizes labor rights and the environment as mere externalities, are likely to negate any obstacles to expanding trade at any cost."

 

So the FTA carries with it an implicit pincer movement focused on Amazonian lands. On the one hand, there is an increasing pressure on Peruvian land to grow food for domestic consumpion. On the other there is the opening up of the region to corporate investment and the hollowing out of regulatory safeguards.

 

The road to Bagua

 

On 8 April 2009, AIDESEP emerged once again with a call-out to indigenous communities across Peru, mobilizing 1,350 of them to launch another campaign against Garcia’s decrees and the FTA. Blockading the Napo and Corrientes rivers, AIDESEP demanded the repeal of remaining decrees, taking 30,000 or more people out onto the streets and onto the barricades, while leaving over 40 vessels owned by energy firms becalmed and unable to get to market.

 

By 28 April, as Intercontinental Cry reported, "protests and other blockades [had] also taken place along the Cenepa and Santiago Rivers, on a set of train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, and in several other commercially-important areas in the departments of Amazonas, Loreto, Ucayali, Madre de Dios, Cuzco and Junin."

 

Tensions remained relatively low, despite continuous blockades and protests, yet by 8 May, the government had declared a state of emergency – with protesters beginning to challenge massive investments. Deals like French firm Perenco’s $2 billion investment in oil exploration were being challenged by thousands of protesters demanding "development from our perspective," as Alberto Pizango put it.

 

After talks with the government broke down one week later, Pizango emerged, telling reporters that indigenous protesters "refuse to recognize the authority" of the government. Instead, they will obey their ancestral laws and view any government security forces on their lands as an "external aggression" while "The government "wants to take our lands and hand them over to giant multinationals for the oil, lumber, gold and other riches there that are coveted by the world’s rich."

 

Yet Pizango also uttered the "I" word in responding to government intransigence, calling the indigenous campaign an "insurgency" – a label that the government seized upon. President Garcia made a rare television address, calling the indigenous communities selfish for locking away resources beneath their lands which should by rights be enjoyed by all Peruvians. "We have to understand" he said, that "when there are resources like oil, gas and timber, they don’t belong only to the people who had the fortune to be born there because that would mean more than half of Peru’s territory belongs to a few thousand people."

 

Garcia coupled this appeal to nationalism with an escalation of force, sending Peru’s military into the Amazon region for 30 days to quell protests at strategic locations while Pizango and AIDESEP continued to call for dialogue. As Irene Claux of Upside Down World reported, "Pizango stresse[d] that "the government should lift the state of emergency that has been established since May 9 in five Amazonian regions, the Congress must repeal the controversial decrees, and there should be a sit-down discussion concerning a different path to development in the Amazon."

 

Meanwhile, "Garcia’s party declined to back a motion that would open debate on the presidential decrees, a move that his main political opponent, the center-left nationalist Ollanta Humala has called a "gross error." Garcia had, in other words, chosen confrontation as his strategy.

 

Despite his unwillingness to engage in honest talks with AIDESEP or to debate the matter in Congress, Garcia has since then became more desperate to end the indigenous blockades, which are taking a direct toll on energy production and transportation. Although protesters have failed to hold the pipeline leading from the Camisea natural gas project in Peru’s south after almost two weeks of occupation, other pipelines still remain blocked. Yet even before that occupation, as the Financial Times reports, "The demonstrations…[had]prompted warnings of fuel rationing within a fortnight" while in Block 1A, run by Argentine firm Pluspetrol, operations have been suspended.

 

Garcia has also been plummeting in opinion polls in recent weeks, providing a further spur to action. One poll carried out by Ipsos, Apoyo and  Opinión y Mercado put his approval rating at just 30 percent  - hardly a mandate to force through decrees that would remould a nation.

 

It was against this backdrop – dismal poll numbers and threatened investments – that Garcia launched the assault on sleeping protesters in Bagua.

 

Defenders of the earth

 

In choosing to militarize the conflict with indigenous protesters, Garcia is not just attacking the physical bodies of indigenous Peruvians. His government has set out to challenge, and potentially dismantle, a constellation of diverse – yet related – cultures, all of which see "development" and the "environment" in ways strikingly alien to corporate strategists and neoliberal politicians.

 

As Ricardo Carrere, international coordinator of the World Rainforest Movement puts it, "if you want to do something about climate change, then you must stop oil extraction and the reality shows that the only people in the world who are actually doing something to protect the world versus climate change are the indigenous peoples saying "no more oil."

 

In Carrere’s opinion, indigenous peoples are standing up against forces that are antithetical to environmental sustainability and social justice. They are opposing an "economic logic which means we need to destroy" and offering a different model of development, one which "needs to be decentralised, bringing people from the cities back to the land where they can have a better way of life" and demands "a very profound change is needed in every single country."

 

If, as Carrere points out, "we are becoming poorer with every barrel of oil we export" then we are becoming richer with every indigenous person who stands up for their lands and their rights against energy firms. They are not simply local instances of resistance, but are actions with global importance.

 

They are also the continuation of centuries of anti-colonial resistance. As Survival International’s Stephen Corry says, "protests signal that the colonial era has finally drawn to a close. No longer are Amazon Indians prepared to put up with the illegal and brutal treatment which has been routine. That’s finished."

 

The protests in Peru therefore have a global significance – both in terms of resistance against neo-colonial investment laws and in terms of environmental sustainability. The massacre at Bagua speaks to all of us. As Yanomami Indian spokesman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami eloquently expresses:

 

"We must listen to the cry of the earth which is asking for help. The earth has no price. It can’t be bought, or sold or exchanged. It is very important that white people, black people and indigenous peoples fight together to save the life of the forest and the earth. If we don’t fight together what will our future be? Your children need land and nature alive and standing. We Indians want respect for our rights. You can learn with us and with our shamans. That is important not only for the Yanomami but for the future of the whole world."

 

And standing up is the only effective remedy. Amidst the bloodshed in Bagua, Peru’s Congress moved this week to suspend two of Garcia’s decrees – those that stand to open up Peru’s Amazon region to energy and mining firms. The suspension is temporary, (arcia has fifteen days to sign them before they are sent back to Congress, which may or may not decide to face him down) but resistance is growing.

 

Today, 20,000 or more students, trade unionists and human rights campaigners joined indigenous protesters on the streets of Lima chanting “the jungle’s not for sale” and demanding an inquiry into the events in Bagua. An unprecedented movement is linking the peoples of Peru’s jungle with the jungles of its cities, yet it remains to be seen whether Alan Garcia will back down.

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