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Peruvian Government, Amazonian Indigenous Groups Remain Deadlocked
By David Dudenhoefer

LIMA, Peru, June 15, 2009 (ENS) - After more than two months of protests by Peru's Amazonian indigenous groups and clashes that have left at least 34 people dead and 150 injured, the conflict over nine laws that facilitate development of the Amazon region is still deadlocked, though with small signs that it might be resolved.

During the past week, thousands of Amazonian Indians traveled from remote villages to new protest sites. Members of the Ashanika tribe have blockaded the Carretera Central - the central highway between Lima with the Amazon region - while other protesters have occupied a rural airport in Andahuaylas.

Since the indigenous uprising began on April 9, between 15,000 and 20,000 protesters have blockaded highways and Amazon tributaries and shut down rural airports and an oil pipeline, among other actions.
Alberto Pizango, president of AIDESEP (Photo by Powless)

Last week, Peruvian authorities charged indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, president of the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association, AIDESEP, with homicide, sedition and other crimes in response to the death of 24 police officers in clashes with protesters on June 5 and 6. After several days in hiding, Pizango took refuge in the embassy of Nicaragua, which has granted him asylum.

Peruvian authorities have charged several other AIDESEP officials with crimes against the state, but have not issued warrants for their arrest. AIDESEP vice president Daysi Zapata, who has replaced Pizango as the protesters' spokesperson, said in a press conference last week that they are willing to negotiate.

"We want to initiate a transparent dialogue so that the demands of the indigenous people can be heard," she said.

The administration of Peruvian President Alan Garcia has asked representatives of the Catholic Church and Peru's Ombudsman to mediate a dialogue with indigenous leaders, but has yet to set a date for the first meeting.

On June 14, Garcia's Chief of Staff, Yehude Simon, announced that he would ask the country's Congress to repeal two of the decrees that AIDESEP objects to, which the legislators had voted to suspend the week before.

AIDESEP's leaders rejected the suspension, noting that legislators could lift it at any time, and the following day, an estimated 20,000 people marched in Lima and cities in the Amazon Basin to demand the repeal of all nine decrees.

An oil pipeline leak is discovered near Wawas, Peru. June 13, 2009 (Photo by Powless)

Simon's announcement, which came on the eve of a visit by a United Nations special rapporteur for indigenous issues and amidst growing international pressure, was the first sign that the Garcia administration was willing to make concessions to AIDESEP.

The decrees in question were signed by President Garcia last year as part of a legislative package designed to get Peru into compliance with its Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Garcia and various ministers have said that repealing the decrees would endanger the trade agreement, though some observers refute that claim.

AIDESEP's leaders say the decrees violate the International Labor Organization's convention 169, which Peru has signed, since it requires the government to consult indigenous groups before passing laws that will impact them.

Richard Smith, executive director of the local NGO Instituto del Bien Comun, who has worked with Peru's Amazonian indigenous groups for 40 years, said the current protest is unprecedented in its scale and organization. He explained that indigenous communities have struggled for decades to get titles for their communal lands, yet much of their traditional territory still belongs to the government, which grants communities rights of use.

Smith said the decrees AIDESEP opposes will facilitate the privatization and deforestation of those government lands.

"There is a sense of desperation among indigenous people who, after decades of slow progress, feel that the Garcia administration is pushing them back," he said.

Smith said that indigenous groups also are concerned about Garcia's promotion of oil and gas development in the Peruvian Amazon, noting that whereas oil concessions covered about 15 percent of the region in 2004, they now cover more than 75 percent.

Indio Washuru at the Bagua blockade one week before the police attack. (Photo © David Dudenhoefer)

A week before a violent police operation that cleared an indigenous highway blockade in Bagua province, one of the protesters, an Awajun Indian named Indio Washuru, decried the government's policy of granting concessions in indigenous territory without consulting the communities that live there.

"We are fighting against laws by the Peruvian government that violate our rights to land and forests, our water and rivers. We are against laws that have been promulgated unconstitutionally by the government of Alan Garcia," Washuru said. "But rather than a solution, the government sends us repression."

One week later, on June 5, Peruvian police attacked some 3,000 protesters at the Bagua blockade, using helicopters and armored vehicles.

According to press reports, protesters wrested rifles from officers and began shooting the police. The Peruvian government reported that 14 police officers and 10 protesters were killed during clash, but indigenous leaders claim that more than 30 protesters died.

Witnesses have said that police removed bodies from the scene and that some were dumped into a nearby river, but subsequent investigations by the Ombudsman's Office and regional authorities have uncovered no proof of rumored mass graves, or bodies in rivers.

In televised interviews following that clash, President Garcia said the country had been demanding that he restore order. He claimed that indigenous protesters were being manipulated by leftists as part of an international conspiracy to destabilize Peru, which he implied Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is behind.

"These people are not first class citizens, if 400,000 natives can say to 28 million Peruvians 'you can't come here,'" Garcia said. "That is a very grave error and anyone who thinks that way wants to take us on an irrational and primitive retreat into the past."

Peruvian police break up the Bagua blockade with a helicopter and armored vehicles. June 5, 2009 (Photo © Thomas Quirynen courtesy CATAPA)

Among the more than 150 protesters wounded in Bagua was Santiago Manuin, an internationally recognized environmental activist. According to local media, police shot the 52-year-old Manuin eight times and left him for dead, but ambulance attendants later discovered that he was alive.

Segundo Valera, a cousin of Manuin, told a reporter from the Peruvian newspaper "La Republica" that he saw police in helicopters fire indiscriminately into the crowd of protesters, accidentally shooting police officers. Peruvian officials have said that the police only shot tear gas canisters from the helicopters.

In response to radio reports of the police repression, hundreds of Awajun Indians who had taken over a pumping station on the country's main oil pipeline, several hours to the north, overpowered 34 police officers stationed nearby, and tied their hands and feet with vines. The next day, as police and army troops attempted to rescue the hostages, protesters murdered 10 police officers before fleeing into the nearby rainforest.

Gil Inoach, an Awajun Indian and former president of AIDESEP who now works for WWF Peru, called the killings an act of revenge for what the protesters perceive as betrayal by the Peruvian government.

Inoach complains that water pollution from oil operations has affected the health of indigenous people and explained that the offending decrees facilitate the privatization of land and natural resources that indigenous communities have relied on for centuries.

"We indigenous people object to the way that the government is systematically taking our land away," Inoach said. "Without their land, indigenous people will lose their culture because the identity of indigenous people is linked to the land."

Politicians from opposition parties, including former President Alejandro Toledo, the country's first indigenous president, have blasted the Garcia administration's handling of the crisis.

However, legislators from the party of former President Alberto Fujimori and other conservative blocks have supported Garcia's APRA party in resisting AIDESEP's call to repeal the decrees.

After seven legislators from the Peruvian Nationalist Party staged a protest last week on the floor of Congress to demand that the decrees be repealed, rather than suspended, legislators from the majority parties voted to suspend them from the Congress for 120 days.

Another political casualty of the crisis was Minister Carmen Vildoso, who resigned as head of the Ministry of Women and Social Development, which oversees indigenous affairs, to protest Garcia's handling of the conflict.

In an interview published in the daily "La Republica," Vildoso said that the administration's approach to the protesters showed "a lack of any comprehension of the way the Amazonian people think and see the world."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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