Friday, June 19, 2009

Peru revokes Amazon land laws after massive protests

Peru's Congress revoked two controversial land decrees yesterday to exploit virgin rainforest after protests that left dozens dead in the Amazon region. Congress voted 82-12 to revoke two decrees that indigenous groups said would encourage oil and gas exploitation on their ancestral lands. Native Indians had been in conflict with the government for two months and had paralysed the nation’s highways with roadblocks while thousands marched in support on the streets of Lima. Peruvian President Alan Garcia was forced to admit that indigenous communities were not consulted in the original decision to open up large areas of the Amazon basin to logging, dams and oil drilling.

The vice president of the Amazon Indian confederation immediately called off the protest after the Congress vote. Garcia had issued the original decrees in 2007 to give the state powers to regulate investment in the Amazon as part of a free trade deal with the US. Indigenous groups were outraged and said the decrees would affect their ancestral lands and threaten their way of life. According to Amnesty International, Peru breached their obligations under the International Labour Organisation Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in failing to consult.

In response, Indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, head of Asociacion Interetnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (Aidesep), called for a general strike. The government declared a curfew but tens of thousands marched in defiance in Lima. On 5 June the violence became deadly near the jungle town of Bagua, about 1,000km north of the capital when police tried to break up a road blockade manned by activists. 650 Peruvian National Police and Special Forces officers launched a pre-dawn raid on the blockade which was manned by Awajun and Wambis indigenous people. Some protesters had wooden spears but most were unarmed. Police attacked from both sides with automatic fire, teargas grenades and live rounds from helicopters.

Death figures are disputed. The government says 23 police and 10 civilians were killed, with another one police officer missing. The Huffington Post accused the police of ignoring civilian deaths while conflating their own dead with numbers from a separate incident elsewhere. According to Indian leaders at least 30 civilians died and there are varied reports that between 100 and 150 people died in the attack.

The dispute became international when Peru accused neighbouring Bolivia of being behind the riots. In return Bolivian president Evo Morales said the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was to blame for the violence. Morales said that the FTA promoted privatisation and handed the Amazons forests to transnational companies. The Bolivian leader said US FTA practices amounted to “genocide in Latin America” with the Indigenous worst affected.

Alberto Pizango accused the Peruvian government of genocide over the Bagua clashes. After talks with the government broke down, he called for an uprising. That was the cue for Peruvian authorities to charge Pizango with sedition. Nicaragua granted him political asylum and he arrived in Managua on Wednesday where he blamed Garcia’s administration for the Bagua massacre. “The results were disastrous, and even the government can't deny it any more,” he said.

Just 400,000 of Peru’s 28 million are Amazonian Indians. But the protests have united many of Peru's non Indigenous citizens behind their claims. According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, President Garcia is “no friend of the indigenous”. He colluded with multinational companies to tread on indigenous constitutionally protected rights. His position was weak with the global financial crisis as Peruvian economic growth stalled due to a decline in commodities prices. He also knows that in conceding defeat to the indigenous demands, international investors may take their complaints to a free trade dispute board. That outcome could yet be the Achilles heel of Garcia’s apparent agreement to revoke the laws.

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