Peru: Blood for rubber, blood for oil

June 28, 2009

At the turn of the twentieth century, global demand for rubber from the upper reaches of the Amazon (encompassing Peruvian, Colombian and Brazilian territory) was at its height.

Capitalising on this profitable opportunity, the agents of an international consortium known as the Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company enslaved virtually the entire local indigenous population to maximise output and reduce labour costs.

Over a decade, tens of thousands of indigenous men, women and children were worked to death. When eyewitness reports of the company's brutal methods reached the outside world, public opinion eventually forced the British government in 1910 to convene a formal inquiry in the Peruvian rubber port of Iquitos.

The investigation found that the company "forced the Indians to work day and night at the extraction of rubber, without the slightest remuneration; that they give them nothing to eat; ... that they rob them their crops; their women, and their children to satisfy their voracity, lasciviousness and the avarice of themselves and their employees, for they live on the Indians food, keep harems and concubines, and sell these people at wholesale and retail in Iquitos; that they flog them inhumanly, until their bones are visible; that they give them no medical treatment, but let them die, eaten by maggots, or to serve as food for the chiefs' dogs; that they castrate them, cut off their ears, fingers, arms and legs; that they torture them by means of fire, of water, and by tying them up, crucified, head down; that they burn and destroy their houses and crops; that they grasp children by the feet and dash their heads against walls and trees, until their brains fly out; that they have the old folks killed when they can work no longer; and finally, that to amuse themselves, to practice shooting…they discharge their weapons at men, women, and children, or in preference to this, they souse them with kerosene and set fire to them to enjoy their desperate agony."

Entire tribes were exterminated. The horror remains a collective memory in the upper Amazon.

Atrocities such as the Amazonian genocide were a product of rapidly expanding capitalism. The voracious appetite of the European and North American industrial powers for the natural resources of the global South led to the systematic displacement and massacre of expendable "surplus" populations in Asia, Australasia, Oceania, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.

The parallels between then and now are striking. In the present era, the forces of capitalist globalisation still hold the most vulnerable populations of the "developing" world in their exploitative grip.
This is nothing short of a global war of conquest, waged by capital against the dispossessed inhabitants of resource-rich regions in the global South.

The war has many fronts. One of them remains the upper Amazon, where the international hunger for hardwood timber and fossil fuel has led to another devastating boom.

Mindful of their history, the people of Utcubamba in northern Peru recently mounted a gallant stand against the international oil and gas companies who plan to desecrate their land and contaminate their rivers.

The government of President Alan Garcia passed a number of decrees opening up the Amazon to greater exploitation by oil and gas giants — sparking the uprising.

For millennia, the rainforest realm in Utcubamba has been safeguarded by the Aguaruna people and other tribal groups. The beauty of Utcubamba and the bond between the land and its people means nothing to the Garcia, elected in 2006 with the financial backing of the US.

Garcia returned the favour by enacting a US-Peru "free trade agreement" in 2007. The inhabitants of regions such as Utcubamba, long ear-marked for fossil fuel extraction, were denied a say in the "developmental" future of their lands.

As far as the government in Lima was concerned, the Amazon now belonged to the various international consortia to whom vast blocks of territory have been assigned. Unfortunately for these powerful interests, the indigenous people had other ideas.

The people of Utcubamba responded by blocking a section of highway near Bagua Grande (the capital of Utcumbamba) in an attempt to defend themselves and their land.

On June 5, the Peruvian police initiated a pitched battle in an attempt to end the blockade. At least 34 people were killed with many more disappeared. The total number of protesters killed remains unclear. Several police also died in the battle.

Using the June 5 clash as a pretext, the Garcia administration authorised a full-scale campaign of repression in Utcubamba to serve as a warning to other potential dissidents. Hundreds, at the least, are reported to have been summarily executed.

Despite the high toll, indigenous resistance achieved an important victory. A June 22 article by Laura Carlsen said: "Their movement to save the Amazon and their communities forced the Peruvian government to roll back implementing legislation for the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement that would have opened up the vast jungle to transnational oil and gas, mining and timber companies ...

"Peru's Congress, deep in a political crisis of national and international legitimacy, voted 82 to 12 to repeal Legislative Decree 1090, the Forestry and Wildlife Law and 1064, the reform to permit changes in agrarian land use without full prior consent."
In the upper Amazon, blood for rubber has given way to blood for oil. The region's indigenous people have shown they will not accept it.

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