Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Terror in Peru

Blood at the Blockade: Peru's Indigenous Uprising

By Gerardo Renique

Created Jun 8 2009

NACLA (North American Congress on Latin America)


Beginning with a series of protests last year, Peru's
Amazonian indigenous groups are now leading a
full-fledged rebellion against the pro-business
policies of President Alan Garcia. The government has
responded with brutal violence to the protests, which
are demanding that a series of decrees to promote
extractive industries in the jungle be overturned among
other things. Amazonian groups, who are being joined by
an ever-widening swath of society, are now calling for
Garcia's resignation.

On June 6, near a stretch of highway known as the
Devil's Curve in the northern Peruvian Amazon, police
began firing live rounds into a multitude of indigenous
protestors - many wearing feathered crowns and carrying
spears. In the nearby towns of Bagua Grande, Bagua
Chica, and Utcubamba, shots also came from police
snipers on rooftops, and from a helicopter that hovered
above the mass of people. Both natives and mestizos
took to the streets protesting the bloody repression.

From his office in Bagua, a representative of Save the
Children, the child anti-poverty organization, reported
that children as young as four-years-old were wounded
by the indiscriminate police shooting. President Alan
Garcia had hinted the government would respond
forcefully to "restore order" in the insurgent
Amazonian provinces, where he had declared a state of
siege on May 9 suspending most constitutional
liberties. The repression was swift and fierce.

By the end of the day, a number of buildings belonging
to the government and to Garcia's APRA party had been
destroyed. Nine policemen and at least 40 protestors
were killed (estimates vary). Overwhelmed by the number
of wounded, small local hospitals were forced to
shutter their doors. A Church official denounced that
many of the civilian wounded and killed at the Devil's
Curve were forcefully taken to the military barracks of
El Milagro. From Bagua, a local journalist told a radio
station that policemen had dumped bagged bodies into
the Utcubamba River.

Indigenous leaders have accused Garcia of "genocide"
and have called for an international campaign of
solidarity with their struggle. Indigenous unrest in
the Peruvian Amazon began late last year. After an ebb
of a few months, the uprising regained force again on
April 9. Since then, Amazonian indigenous groups have
sustained intensifying protests, including shutdowns of
oil and gas pumping stations as well as blockades of
road and river traffic.

The Devil's Curve massacre is not the only instance of
repression. Garcia recently sent in the Navy to
violently break through indigenous blockades on the
Napo River, also in northern Peru. But few expected
such a violent reaction from the government. Garcia
says the response was appropriate and blamed the
indigenous for thinking they could decide what happens
in their territories: "These people don't have crowns.
They aren't first-class citizens who can say... 'You [the
government] don't have the right to be here.' No way."
The president called the protestors

Indigenous representative Alberto Pizango called
Devil's Curve the "worst slaughter of our people in 20
years." And added, "Our protest has been peaceful.
We're 5,000 natives [in the blockade] that just want
respect for our territory and the environment."

Protestors' top demand is the repeal of a series of
decrees, known collectively as the "Law of the Jungle,"
signed by Garcia last year. The President decreed the
legislative package using extraordinary powers granted
to him by Peru's Congress to enact legislation required
by the 2006 U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement. Indigenous
groups are also demanding the creation of a permanent
commission with indigenous representation to discuss
solutions to their territorial, developmental, health
and educational problems.

One of the most controversial aspects of the decrees is
that they allow private interests to buy up indigenous
lands and resources. Following a colonial logic of
"progress," Garcia's decrees foster the commodification
of indigenous territories, ecological reserves,
communal and public lands, water, and biogenetic
resources to the benefit of powerful transnational
interests. What's more, the "Law of the Jungle"
implicitly conceives of indigenous Amazonia as an open,
empty, bountiful, and underdeveloped frontier and its
inhabitants as obstacles to neoliberal modernization
and investment schemes.

History of Plunder and Resistance

Neoliberal elites are apparently oblivious to
indigenous historical agency and political activism in
Peru, where there is a long-standing trajectory of
Amazonian insurgency. Since the eighteenth century,
indigenous groups in the rainforest have successfully
rolled back the incursions of colonial missionaries,
rubber barons, gold miners, lumber contractors, Sendero
Luminoso guerrillas and others whose expansion
represented a direct and serious threat to their
cultural autonomy and territorial integrity.

Garcia and his predecessors have tried to give
transnational companies - logging, oil, mining, and
pharmaceutical etc. - unfettered access to the Amazon's
riches. The potential plunder not only poses a threat
to the very existence of indigenous peoples, but also
presents a serious danger to the region's diverse and
fragile ecosystems.

Protests have occurred in the past, but this time is
different: The scope of the ongoing mobilizations,
which cover almost the totality of Peru's Amazonian
territories, is historically unprecedented, as is the
government's violent reaction. Coordinating the
mobilization effort is the Inter-Ethnic Development
Association of the Peruvian Amazon (Aidesep), an
umbrella group of indigenous organizations. Established
almost three decades ago through the incorporation of
more than 80 federations and regional organizations,
Aidesep's reach and strength rests on its 1,350
affiliated communities representing 65 different
Amazonian peoples.

Under mounting pressure from the protests, the
government finally agreed to a closed-door meeting held
the morning of May 27 in Lima with indigenous
representatives. (Aidesep had demanded such a meeting
for years.) Prime Minister Yehude Simon - himself a
former leftist and political prisoner - and Aidesep
representative Alberto Pizango held a brief press
conference after the sitdown announcing the start of
formal negotiations.

Following weeks of a racist and dirty government
campaign against indigenous leaders, a subdued Simon
acknowledged both the Garcia administration's "bad
communications" and - more importantly - "the lack of a
state policy towards Amazon communities for over a
century." He also emphasized government willingness to
revise and modify Garcia's decrees.

Meanwhile, a defiant Pizango maintained that Aidesep's
campaign of civil disobedience would only be lifted
with the total repeal of Garcia's "Law of the Jungle."
Pizango also announced a platform of issues that
indigenous representatives planned to bring to the
table, including points on indigenous territorial
rights, self-determination, health and education,
development, and cultural integrity.

Failed Talks, Failed Government

The last time the government agreed to negotiations in
August 2008 - again, under pressure from an indigenous
uprising - the talks collapsed due to government
unwillingness to engage indigenous representatives in a
respectful and honest manner. Aidesep withdrew from the
talks when the government tried to undermine the
group's position by inviting (unannounced) groups of
indigenous leaders and academics aligned both with the
government's discredited Development Institute for
Andean, Indigenous, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples
(INDEPA) and the Confederation of Amazonian
Nationalities (CONAPA), which groups together a small
number of opportunistic Indigenous leaders.

Using INDEPA and CONAPA, the government has initiated
"cooperation agreements" between friendly indigenous
communities and foreign oil and gas companies. Outraged
by their presence at the negotiating table Aidesep
denounced the move as a "smoke screen" covering up the
government's spurious collusion with the gas and oil

Meanwhile, Aidesep kept open negotiations with members
of Congress, where its demands received support from
the left-of-center opposition and even some members of
Garcia's ruling party. With the start of formal
negotiations (Mesa de Dialogo), Aidesep honored the
compromise and halted protests on August 20, ending the
11-day uprising. With growing popular sympathy with
indigenous demands and support from the political
opposition in late September, congress passed a law
that canceled two of the most odious presidential
decrees that sought to diminish indigenous territorial
rights and political autonomy.

Aidesep's direct action campaign marked the emergence
of Amazonian indigenous peoples as an influential and
autonomous force in Peru's current political landscape.
The mobilization also sparked a public realization that
the defense of Amazonian resources is an issue of
national importance and not only a regional or
indigenous problem. The indigenous uprising has also
increased public awareness of the predatory nature of
free trade, the prevalence of public good over private
interests, and the meaning and importance of citizen
participation in the formulation of a sustainable and
democratic future. All of this constitutes a healthy
questioning of the toxic neoliberal paradigm based on
the commodification of life and resources as the only
possible alternative to "progress" and "modernization."

In October 2008, video recordings surfaced of
conversations between high-ranking officials from the
Garcia administration and a lobbyist for transnational
gas and oil companies. The recordings show the men
negotiating the fraudulent concession of oil rights in
natural reserves and indigenous territories. The video
not only starkly revealed the real intentions behind
the "Law of the Jungle" and Peru's handful of recently
negotiated free trade agreements, but also further
boosted Aidesep's legitimacy and the moral authority of
its struggle. The scandal also helped catalyze the
current Amazonian insurgency, coalescing an emerging
popular and autonomous anti-systemic bloc and further
diminished Garcia's popularity, which has been
abysmally low. (Approval ratings have hovered at 30
percent in the city of Lima and are even lower in rural
areas, especially the Amazon.)

Amazon 'Insurgency' Declared

By late March, triggered by renewed incursions into
their territories, abusive labor conditions in the gas
and oil industry, high levels of contamination and
government reluctance to address their demands,
indigenous peoples in various Amazonian localities
staged a number of marches, demonstrations, blockades,
and hunger strikes. Incensed by the government's
repressive response to their demands and its threat to
declare a state of emergency in the most combative
Amazonian provinces, Aidesep renewed mobilizations,
blocking ground and river traffic, and occupying
hydrocarbon installations.

In an April 9 declaration, Aidesep demanded that
Congress rescind the "Law of the Jungle," establish a
genuine Mesa de Dialogo, and promote the creation of
new branches of government charged with implementing
"intercultural" solutions to indigenous health and
education problems. The document also calls for the
recognition of indigenous collective property rights,
guarantees for special territorial reserves of
communities in voluntary isolation, and the suspension
of land concessions to oil, gas, mining, lumber, and
tourism industries. Indigenous organizations are also
demanding a new constitution that incorporates the
United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples and the International Labor Organization's
Convention 169, both of which guarantee indigenous
rights to territorial and cultural autonomy. Finally,
the April declaration also calls for the suspension of
the government's free trade agreements with the United
States, the European Union, Chile, and China, all of
which endanger indigenous territorial rights and
Amazonian biodiversity.

As indigenous groups escalated their direct action
campaign, the government declared a state of siege on
May 9 in four of the most militant provinces of
Amazonia. Despite the crackdown, Aidesep has gained
sympathy and solidarity from broad sectors of Peruvian
society. Unions, popular organizations, and highland
peasant and indigenous groups have staged "civic
strikes" and other protest actions. Elected municipal
and regional authorities across the country have also
expressed their support. While Catholic bishops across
the Amazon region have called on the faithful to
support indigenous demands, stating the "rich cultural
and biological diversity" of the region represents a
"source of life and hope for humanity."

On May 27, Peru was rocked by a national day of protest
called by the country's largest trade union federation
and other social movement umbrella groups. Thousands
took to the street protesting Garcia's neoliberal
policies and to express their solidarity with Aidesep's
struggle. In Lima a massive march arrived to the steps
of Congress, demanding that the Law of the Jungle be
declared unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the
just-concluded Fourth Continental Indigenous People's
Summit of Abya-Yala, which was held in southern Peru,
called for an international day of action in solidarity
with the Amazonian uprising. The Communitarian Front in
Defense of Life and Sovereignty established by Aidesep
together with labor, Andean indigenous, campesino and
popular organizations have called for a day of protest
and mobilization on June 11.

The Law of the Jungle

A report from the government's Ombudsman Office not
only declared the unconstitutionality of Garcia's
decrees, but also noted the legitimacy of indigenous
people's campaign of civil disobedience. In Congress,
the Constitutional Committee declared two of the
presidential decrees unconstitutional. But under
pressure from the executive, Garcia's APRA party, with
support from followers of jailed former President
Fujimori and other right-wing political parties, has
blocked discussion of the Constitutional Committee's

At the beginning of June, the situation deteriorated.
Aidesep walked away from the incipient talks with the
government, citing the executive's refusal to
acknowledge broadening public rejection of the decrees.
The government responded with increased repression that
culminated - so far - with the Devil's Curve massacre.
Garcia also lashed out against Radio de la Selva, an
Amazonian radio station that has been critical of the
government. The attorney general is considering
charging the station with inciting public unrest. When
the military violently broke up the river blockade on
the Napo River, spontaneous protests erupted against
the Navy.

The declaration of martial law in the provinces of
Bagua and Utcubamba, where the bloodiest repression
took place, and the trumped-up charges of rioting have
forced many of Aidesep leaders underground. But the
repression drove many non-indigenous sectors into the
fold of the Aidesep-led resistance. A newspaper report
interviewed a teacher who described how many
non-indigenous locals joined the June 6 protests after
the Army blocked villagers from attending to the
wounded and bringing water to the natives at Devil's
Curve. The indiscriminate shootings only fueled further
hostility toward the government. The growing unrest
among a broad range of popular forces has coalesced
into the Communitarian Front in Defense of Life and
Sovereignty, formed on June 4. Among other actions, the
new coalition has called for a national general strike
if the Law of the Jungle is not repealed by June 11.

Catholic clergy have rejected the repression and
reiterated their support for indigenous demands. In a
joint-letter the Ombudsman's Office and high-ranking
clergy called on the government to privilege peace and
negotiation over repression and violence in resolving
the conflict. In a previous statement the priests
expressed their discontent with the "attitude taken by
the government, foreign and national businessmen and a
large sector of the media" against "the just demands of
Amazonian indigenous peoples." (These conservative
sectors have ridiculously dismissed the protests as the
work of presidents Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.)

La Lucha Sigue

The outcome of this current crisis is highly uncertain.
Indigenous are calling for Garcia to resign, while a
chorus of groups (newspapers, unions, opposition
figures) are at least demanding that Garcia sack
cabinet members, particularly Prime Minister Simon and
the Minister of the Interior. The police union issued a
statement lamenting the death of both the officers and
their "Indian brothers," while placing the blame for
these deaths squarely on Garcia.

One thing, however, is certain: The recent repression
laid bare Garcia's naked slavishness to foreign capital
investment and his double-talk of feigning negotiation
and dialogue, while implementing an evidently
well-planned counter-insurgency operation. Much of the
national media has obediently obliged with a
fear-mongering campaign. Under the government's current
plan, oil and gas concession blocs alone would cover 72
percent of Peru's Amazon, according to a recent study
by Duke University.

Will energy, agribusiness, lumber, and mining
corporations gain exclusive benefit to one of the
largest repositories of fresh water, biodiversity, and
other resources? Will the indigenous succeed in
protecting their lands - a final frontier - from the
rule of global capital? The answers to these questions
will depend on many things, including indigenous
people's ability to sustain protests and their growing
allegiances with other sectors as well as the
government's willingness to use brute force.

Indigenous peoples in Peru have reconfigured - perhaps
irreversibly - popular anti-systemic forces in the
country from their weakness and dispersion of recent
years. In the immediate future, however, the next weeks
will be crucial for determining the outcome of the
crisis. International solidarity with the Aidesep
struggle will be central in deterring the predatory
advance of the government and capital. The defense of
Amazonia, as Peruvian clergy pointed out, "is not of
the exclusive concern of Peruvian citizens but of all

Gerardo Renique teaches history at City College, New
York. He edited "The Uprising in Oaxaca," a special
section in Socialism and Democracy 44, July 2007 (vol.
22, no. 2).


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