Peru: Indigenous rebellion in the Amazon


Peruvian President Alan Garcia suffered a major political setback on August 22 after Congress voted 66-29 in favour of repealing controversial presidential decrees that would have facilitated the privatisation of communal indigenous lands.

Only days before, Garcia, who is becoming increasingly unpopular, had warned the repeal would be "a very serious, historic mistake".

The defeat for Garcia occurred in the context of 11 days of mass mobilisations.

Thousands of Peruvians, from 65 indigenous tribes in the Amazon region, blockaded roads and a river, shut down oil pipelines and took control of major gas fields in southern Peru in protest at the decrees.

In response to a 30-day state of emergency declared by the government on August 18, which saw 1500 military personnel mobilised in three states, Alberto Pizango, president of the Peruvian Jungle Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP), told the British Independent on August 21, "Indigenous people are defending themselves against government aggression".

"The Indians have told us they are not afraid ... they prefer to die there and show that this government violates human rights."

Reports surfaced of police firing bullets and tear gas, wounding at least 15 people in two separate clashes.

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 last year.

However, congress ruled that Garcia had exceeded the mandate given to him and that the laws were unconstitutional as they did not respect indigenous groups' right to be consulted prior to any project on their land, as established by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 — signed by Peru.

The decrees would have allowed for the sale of indigenous lands by a simple majority vote in a community assembly. Currently a two-thirds majority is required.

During the parliamentary debate Roger Najar, head of the Congressional Commission on Andean and Amazonian Peoples, insisted that a two-thirds majority is indispensable in order to prevent unscrupulous mining companies from buying communal land simply by offering bribes to the inhabitants who live in "zones of extreme poverty", El Comercio reported on August 24.

Javier Jahnecke, a lawyer for the Ecumenical Foundation for Development and Peace, explained to IPS on May 29 that "The common practice of many companies has been to foment the creation of communal organisations parallel to the official ones, and to co-opt some of the local leaders, which has enabled them in many cases to destroy the social fabric and impose their own decisions".

Over the past year, mining companies have penetrated deep into supposedly protected areas — leading to clashes with some of the most remote tribal peoples left in the world.

Relations between the indigenous groups and Garcia have become increasingly hostile as the government has sought to exploit an estimated US$3.5 billion worth of timber, mineral and oil resources located in a 92,000-square kilometre area of indigenous-owned land in the Amazon.

Tensions look set to continue.

Garcia has until September 6 to sign the repeal of the decrees or to amend them and send them back to congress, which can override his vote. However, cabinet chief Jorge del Castillo declared on August 25 that the Garcia administration will not ratify the law passed by congress.

Congressperson Jose Vargas, a member of Garcia's APRA party, indicated on August 26 that the administration is considering a modified proposal that would maintain the two-thirds majority requirement for selling land, but would allow for a simple majority in the case of leasing or joint-venture projects, according to La Republica.

However, Pizango told the August 26 La Primera that the government is "playing with fire" and said indigenous communities will reinitiate their protests if the government fails to ratify the complete repeal of the laws.

Garcia has passed a total of 92 decrees, many of which have caused wide discontent, in particular norms that erode rights and working conditions in the education and agricultural sectors.

The government has also launched an investigation into AIDESEP and the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP), which called a general strike on July 9, alleging that their activities are part of a "plot" to destabilise the country.

Representatives of AIDESEP have denounced the investigations as political persecution and an attempt to divert attention from the government's neoliberal policies.

CGTP general secretary Mario Huaman laughed off allegations by the cabinet chief that the union federation's activities are "subversive".

"Frankly what Del Castillo said makes me laugh ... it's necessary to point out that APRA calls all those who struggle for social justice 'terrorists' or 'subversives'", Huaman told La Primera on August 24.

The CGTP has called for mass mobilisations against a pending visit of US President George Bush, as well as the formation of a national "people's assembly" on November 4 to unite opposition to the Garcia government.

Left nationalist leader Ollanta Humala, who was narrowly defeated by Garcia in the 2006 presidential elections, has also responded to government claims that his Peruvian Nationalist Party (PNP) was behind the indigenous protests and part of a "destabilization plan", stating that the PNP "is not behind, but rather a part of" the protests, Prensa Latina reported on August 19.

Humala, who is of indigenous background, pointed out that the government is happy to consult with employers and bankers, but dictates policies that affect the lives of the indigenous communities without even asking their opinion.

Humala stated that the PNP will continue to advocate for an "alternative to the neoliberal model".

Support for a call by Humala for Garcia to submit himself to a recall referendum has begun to grow among other left parties and trade unions.

With food and fuel prices skyrocketing and with 20% support, Garcia is the most unpopular president in Latin America.