There are dates that will live in infamy. June 5, 2009, has become one for the people of the Amazon.
That morning, a group of about 2,500 indigenous Peruvians from the Awajún and Wambis tribes stood at Curva del Diablo on the Fernando Belaunde Terry highway outside Bagua, near Petroperu’s oil pipeline pumping station No. 6.
They were peacefully protesting, as they had been since April 9, against the opening of vast tracts of the Peruvian Amazon to oil drilling, logging and other forms of exploitation in order to fulfill a free trade agreement with America.
Some of it was land to which they held title under the Peruvian constitution, and they didn’t want it despoiled. At the very least, they wanted to be consulted before foreign firms ripped up the trees and the earth and poisoned the waters.
Nevertheless, Bagua’s police chief had been ordered on June 4 to open the road, so when morning came and the protesters were still there, 500 police, Special Forces and paramilitary opened fire with tear gas and live ammunition.
The government’s violent response and the widespread international protests that it sparked forced the resignation last week of Peruvian Prime Minister Yehude Simon, and on Saturday, President Alan Garcia dismissed seven more Cabinet ministers. The government repealed two of the land laws that had fueled the protests, but indigenous groups are demanding the repeal of seven more, plus the safe return of their leader, who fled the country.
At least 34 people were killed at Bagua, and more than 100 others missing. Witnesses suggest that some bodies may have been thrown in the river or burned.
AIDESEP, Peru’s leading indigenous organization, says the figures are in dispute because Peru’s ombudsman visited fewer than a quarter of the Awajún and Wampis communities from which most of the protesters came.
During the crackdown, AIDESEP’s director, Alberto Pizango, fled into the jungle and from there to the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima after a judge ordered his arrest for allegedly inciting violence. Four other AIDESEP leaders also face charges in Peru.
“We know that he (Pizango) made a public presentation in Nicaragua, but not in Peru, because the Peruvian government said that would be a violation of asylum rules. We are also aware that an extradition procedure may be on the way,” says Juan Arellano, a Peruvian activist and head of Global Voices Online.
Pizango had accused Garcia’s government of genocide to further land policies that were enacted to facilitate the U.S.-Peru free-trade agreement, which was approved by the U.S. Congress in 2007, signed by Garcia and former President George W. Bush, and went into effect this year.
Just before Congressional approval of that agreement, which in effect gave title to Peru’s Amazon to those corporations with the most money and influence, Garcia wrote an article in the Lima newspaper El Comercio describing the Amazon as a resource, and the refusal on the part of indigenous people to exploit it as foolish.
The Peruvian government has since passed no fewer than 99 laws that lie at the heart of the current conflict, where one side sees nature as merchandise, and the other sees it as a sacred trust.
Garcia’s response to Pizango’s charge of genocide was to note that 40,000 natives did not have the right to tell 28 million Peruvians not to come to their lands.
The lands Garcia speaks of are a cluster of 64 blocks that are under contract to multinational companies and that represent 72 percent of the Peruvian Amazon, according to a 2008 Duke University study. Of these 64 blocks, 58 impinge on lands whose title is held by various indigenous Peruvian tribes.
The Amazon is a continent-wide swath of dense, tropical rainforest running from French Guiana and Brazil in the east to Peru in the west, and dominated by the Amazon River and its tributaries. The vast rainforest locks up billions of tons of carbon dioxide, making the Amazon’s stability vital to controlling global warming. The western portion is the most biologically diverse and the most ecologically intact, inhabited by some indigenous tribes who have never seen a white man.
It is also a region rich in oil, gas and minerals where companies have a history of exploiting the land and leaving behind a legacy of toxic waste that contaminates water supplies.
AIDESEP opposes at least nine of Garcia’s decrees giving exploration of the land over to oil, gas, mining and logging interests.
The decrees have been ruled unconstitutional by both international law and a multi-party Peruvian congressional committee because they violate indigenous peoples’ right to be consulted about development on their lands. But it took the clash at Bagua putting an international spotlight on Peru’s treatment of the Amazon and its tribes to force change.
In the days after the crackdown, protesters gathered outside Peruvian embassies in major cities including Bonn, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Brussels, and there was some ridicule of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on May 31 had referred to the Peruvian free-trade agreement as “good environmental stewardship”.
On June 18th, Peru’s Congress voted to overturn the two decrees that had incited the most anger: LD 1090 and LD 1064. The first left about 64 percent of Peru’s forests unprotected and open to exploitation. The second allowed third parties to adjudicate land use, and infringed on the constitutional rights of the indigenous owners by excluding them from the consultation process.
The overturning of the two decrees was a step in the right direction, but Arellano has little faith in those repeals remaining intact.
“I really think that, when things calm down and public opinion changes, there will be an attempt to re-establish them. In fact, in the last few days the government has approved a massive oil project (Perenco) in the jungle,” he said.
The government also silenced Radio La Voz de Utcumamaba, the only radio station covering the violence live. Peru’s Ministry of Transports and Telecommunications revoked the station’s license on June 8, ostensibly because it had not sent documentation regarding licenses for some of its equipment.
“Radio ‘La voz de la Selva’ from Bagua remains closed,” Arellano says. “There is a lot of controversy about that because the station’s operators claim that they had all documentation approved, but the ministry in its closure resolution refers to an old report while ignoring a newer one where they granted the license. The owners have presented an administrative appeal, but it probably won’t be until year’s end that Radio La Voz broadcasts again.”
And the crackdown didn’t end with that curtailment of free speech.
On June 12, the Peruvian Congress, dominated by Garcia’s Peruvian Aprista Party (PAP), voted a 120-day suspension for seven indigenous Congressional members from the opposition party of Ollanta Humala, the Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP), for holding a demonstration in the legislative chamber in defense of the Baguan protesters.
Daysi Zapata, AIDSEP’s vice president, is calling for reinstatement of the suspended legislators, the safe return of Pizango and the repeal of seven more decrees that angered indigenous Peruvians.
She anticipates a struggle, as does Arellano:
“It seems that while Alan García is in power, native people’s rights will always be in danger. He has made some statements that reinforce that, namely: ‘That’s enough, these people don’t have a crown, they aren’t citizens of the first class who can tell us, 400,000 natives to 28 million Peruvians – you don’t have any right to come through here’.
"So, I think their (AIDESEP’s) only option is to persist in the repeal of the other related decrees, regardless of the consequences, and to alert the international community every time their rights are threatened.”
The government’s power over the people was evident last week when Peru’s largest labor union, the Peruvian Revolutionary Workers’ Center (Central de Trabajadores de la Revolución Peruana, or CTRP), called for a national protest, demanding an independent investigation into the June 5 violence and the repeal of decrees Garcia issued to implement the FTA.
To counteract the threat, on July 6 the government said the strikes were illegal and offered $7 to each union members who would go to work instead of joining the protest. Reports indicate that the streets of Lima remain quiet. Part of this may be due to soldiers patrolling the city.
Bagua, still under military control, is a powder keg of injured and unemployed, with very little information getting out and very little international relief getting in, Arellano says.
Some fear that if oil exploration is allowed to go forward in the area, the Awajun may be pushed to extinction, and indigenous leaders intend to present this exact scenario to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
(Photos: Amazon Watch/Marijke Deleu; Photo of signs from May 21 protest at Bagua: Amazon Watch/Thomas Quirynen)