Peru: Indigenous protests force government negotiation

May 30, 2009

Mass protests by indigenous communities continue to spread throughout Peru. This is despite a violent crackdown by police and military forces following President Alan Garcia's declaration of a 60-day state of emergency in the Cusco, Ucayali, Loreto and Amazonas regions on May 9.

Since April 9, indigenous communities have shut down oil fields and gas pipelines, and blocked roads, rivers, airports and other installations. These actions are in protest at government decrees that open access to indigenous people's lands to facilitate oil, mining, logging and agricultural companies.

Garcia decreed the laws under special powers awarded to him by Congress to bring Peruvian law into line with a free trade agreement (FTA) signed with the United States in December 2007.

One of the most controversial decrees (Legislative Decree 1090) removes some 45 million hectares, or roughly 60%, of Peru's jungles from the country's Forestry Heritage protection system.

Another decree allows companies with concessions to obtain changes in zoning permits directly from the central government, bypassing indigenous consultation processes.

The Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), which groups 1385 indigenous communities, is calling for the full repeal of the decrees.

AIDESEP said the decrees were deemed unconstitutional, as they violated the right of indigenous peoples to be consulted prior to any project on their land. This is established by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, which has a constitutional character in Peruvian law.

Following mass protests by indigenous communities in August 2008, Peru's Congress repealed two of the decrees and established a Special Multiparty Commission to study the other decrees under dispute.

The commission's report, issued in December, recommended the repeal of a further nine decrees.
However, Congress sent the decrees back to a constitutional commission to reassess them, before putting them to a vote.

The commission has declared decree 1090 to be unconstitutional, but a congressional vote on this decree is still pending.

The response of Garcia has been alternately to ignore protester demands, or to use force to ram through his unpopular agenda.

On May 8, helicopters, warships, teargas and rubber bullets were deployed against Awajun and Huambis demonstrators armed with only bows and arrows near the town of Bagua, in the northern province of Amazonas.

Two indigenous protesters have been reported missing.

AIDESEP president Alberto Pizango has been charged with sedition, rebellion and conspiracy.

Peru's right-wing private media has also largely ignored the protests. Carlos Reyna, writing in the centre-left daily La Republica on May 25, said: "The basic reason [for the media silence] is the enormous legitimacy of their protest … and the credibility and respect they inspire in the rest of the country."

This elite strategy has backfired, with the massive and sustained nature of the indigenous protests placing the issue on the national agenda.

"This is why, in addition to the nationalists [Ollanta Humala's Nationalist Party], there are independent congress people, or some [former president Alberto Fujimori supporters and even some members of APRA [Garcia's party], who have taken up the demand for the repeal of the legislative decrees", Reyna said.

On May 27, Peru's two largest trade union federations, the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) and the Unitary Confederation of Workers (CUT), together with the Social and Political Coordinating Committee, held a national day of protest to "let the indigenous people of Peru know that they are not alone".

In Lima, thousands of workers marched on Congress demanding the annulment of the decrees. In the Amazonian city of Iquitos, 11 construction workers were injured by rubber bullets and 20 arrested in clashes with police.

Roadblocks, strikes, street protests and occupations of oil company installations occurred across the country.

The protests also called for a general increase in wages and pensions, arguing "the rich should pay for the economic crisis, not the people". They also demanded the repeal of anti-democratic measures introduced by the government that criminalise political protest.

In the face of this mass resistance, the government has been forced to negotiate. On May 27, Garcia's cabinet chief, Yehude Simon, promised to "kill off" the decrees affecting indigenous communities.

However, since the protests began in April, the Garcia administration has already auctioned off huge swaths of indigenous lands to mining and energy companies. Contracts for a further 15 oil concessions have been signed — the majority in the Amazon region.

In the last year, mining companies have penetrated deep into supposedly protected areas — leading to clashes with some of the most remote indigenous peoples in the world.

The British Guardian reported on May 28 that Survival International said Garcia had even claimed some of the indigenous tribes under threat don't exist.

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