Indigenous Activists in Peru Defend Collectively-Owned Lands

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“The government has declared open war on indigenous people and the demonstrators will stay there until the problem is solved. They prefer to die there, they aren’t afraid.”

By Milagros Salazar

Inter Press Service, August 19, 2008: Defending the state of emergency declared in three provinces in Peru to crack down on protests by indigenous communities against a law facilitating the sale of their community-owned lands, Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo said the government was safeguarding “the rights of the great majority of Peruvians.”

Since Aug. 9, indigenous demonstrators have been demanding the repeal of two decree laws that promote private investment in their territory, and the reestablishment of a clause from the 1979 constitution — which was replaced by the new constitution in 1993 — which stated that communally owned land in indigenous territory could not be sold or embargoed.

They are also demanding that the government and Peruvian legislation comply with International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 169 (which was ratified by Peru), that makes it obligatory to consult with indigenous communities prior to any project or works undertaken in their territory.

Over the past 10 days, protesters in several provinces have blocked roads and oil and gas installations and reportedly took police officers hostage.

The 30 day state of emergency declared Monday in parts of the northern Amazon jungle provinces of Amazonas and Loreto and in Cusco in the south bans public gatherings and suspends free transit. In addition, the army can be sent in to break up protests.

In a late Monday press conference, Prime Minister del Castillo responded to criticism of the decision to declare a state of emergency. “We are not provoking native communities but safeguarding areas that are of strategic importance for the country,” he said, referring to a gas pipeline in northern Peru and the Camisea gas project.

After talks between the administration of Alan García and protesters stalled on Friday, the government announced that it would not engage in dialogue again until the protests were called off. But native leaders said Monday that the demonstrations would continue.

“The government has declared open war on indigenous people and the demonstrators will stay there until the problem is solved. They prefer to die there, they aren’t afraid,” said the president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), Alberto Pizango, accompanied by several “apus”, or indigenous chiefs.

Environment Minister Antonio Brack alleged that the indigenous protesters were being manipulated by an “international movement” that he said is inciting Aguaruna Indians in Peru and Ecuador to try to form their own independent territory.

“They are being stage-managed by a group of lawyers who are deliberately misinforming them,” said Brack, who was sent to Loreto for talks with native leaders on Friday, but failed to secure results.

Pizango said his association is urging Congress to revoke the decree laws that were approved by the executive branch under special powers granted by the legislature for the implementation of the free trade agreement signed with the United States.

Under one of the decrees, a mechanism created in the 1990s, which allowed indigenous communities to sell or lease collectively-owned land to third parties if approved by two-thirds of the members of a community assembly, was modified to permit sales with the votes of just 50 percent plus one of the assembly members.

Roger Nájar, the new chairman of the parliamentary committee on Andean and Amazon peoples and the environment, told IPS that on Tuesday, in the first session of the new legislature, lawmakers would study two draft laws aimed at overruling the decrees in question.

“We want to provide a solution to the fair demands of these communities, because the government continues to act arrogantly, without any ability to dialogue,” said the legislator.

Nájar said he had received no response to two letters he sent to the Council of Ministers asking that the indigenous peoples’ demands be addressed.

Pizango, meanwhile, said that if Congress showed a willingness to take up the issue, the groups would study the possibility of calling off the protests.

On Sunday, an Aguaruna Indian and a police officer were seriously injured in clashes between protesters and the police at the Aramango Hydroelectric Plant in the province of Amazonas, according to the local La República correspondent. Other press reports mentioned 12 people injured — eight police officers and four demonstrators.

“The underlying problem is that the government is attempting to portray indigenous people as just another group of poor people, without admitting that they have a different way of life, a different cultural viewpoint,” anthropologist Oscar Espinosa at the Pontificia Catholic University of Peru told IPS.

“The authorities think they can calm the demands of indigenous people by building schools or medical clinics, but the pending debt to the indigenous population is much more complex than that,” he added.

“They should not be seen as inferior because of their attempt to block the influx of private investment into their territories,” said Espinosa. “The problem is that Peru has a hard time seeing cultural differences as something positive, as part of the country’s wealth. Peruvian society sees them instead as an obstacle.”

Vice President Luis Giampietri argued that “some non-governmental organisations that are active in these issues are inciting people to do these kinds of things, which in the end are subversive activities, because they are undermining the foundations of democracy.

“How have they achieved the miracle of being able to bring together, in one place at the same time, communities so widely dispersed as the jungle peoples? That will have to be investigated,” said Giampietri.

But the protests did not come out of nowhere. Indigenous communities have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the two decree laws.

And while the two decrees are the main irritant, indigenous associations have a list of 38 laws and provisions that they would like to see repealed on the argument that they undermine indigenous rights.

“Peru, which in past decades (in the 1970s) was in the vanguard with respect to indigenous issues, is now in last place on the list,” said Espinosa.

In the professor’s view, the country has been backsliding on the question of indigenous rights, to the point that there isn’t even a specific law on the issue, only one 1978 provision on native communities that should incorporate, for example, the latest international instruments safeguarding indigenous peoples’ rights.

Nor is there any strong state institution that represents them, he added.

The National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazon and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA), which would normally be in charge of indigenous affairs, has been partially dismantled and is still in the midst of a process of “reorganisation” by the government, two years into García’s term.

“These protests might end in dialogue, but the problem will continue, because there are no government policies that value and respect indigenous people,” said Espinosa.

The government ordered military overflights of the protest zones and deployed some 1,500 army troops to Bagua.

1 Comment

  • This is an important issue, as indigenous peoples in both Peru and Ecuador’s Amazon region are under pressure to sell or relinquish their traditional lands for oil and gas development. We need to make our difference here and not support the companies that are pushing for this.