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Peru Land Dispute Mobilizes Indigenous Effort

BY newsdesk  August 21, 2009 at 4:05 PM EST

Man walking with spears from a blockade in Peru in June; Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP/Getty Images

A dispute over oil and logging development in the Peruvian Amazon, which at times has erupted into violent protests, has also spurred an organization of indigenous Amazonian communities not previously seen in Peruvian politics.

Last year, President Alan Garcia issued a series of decrees, many of which amended the Forest and Wildlife Law in an effort to promote “an orderly and sustainable development of our natural resources for the benefit of all Peruvians,” the government said. The decrees allowed the sale of tribal lands by majority vote in a community assembly with the intention of easing foreign investment in the area’s mineral, oil and gas, and timber resources.

But many of the 400,000 indigenous Amazonians who live in the area said they had not been consulted and were concerned about the exploitation of their land.

Their protests culminated on June 5 in a highway blockade in the Amazonian town of Bagua, about 870 miles north of the capital Lima. The Peruvian government dispatched members of the national police to the blockade, touching off 10 days of rioting and clashes at the scene and surrounding areas that left 33 people dead, including 23 police officers, the Associated Press reported. Another 200 people were reported to have been wounded, many from gunfire.

The protesters burned public buildings and took control of a major natural gas field and an oil pipeline. The media broadcast images throughout the country of wounded Amazonians, protesters armed with bows and arrows, and the police in camouflage clashing with them.

About two weeks after the start of the riots, Peru’s Congress revoked two of the most controversial decrees in a vote witnessed by indigenous activists in traditional clothing. President Garcia said in a speech that his government had made a crucial mistake by not involving the native groups in talks about the law, according to the New York Times.

“Today is a historic day for all indigenous people and for the nation of Peru,” said Daysi Zapata, a leader of the Peruvian Jungle Inter-Ethnic Development Association, which represents more than 300,000 of Peru’s indigenous population, the Times reported.

Because several more controversial decrees remain in place, more protests are expected, but the events of June 5 marked a shift in Peruvian politics and a change in the perception of the government. A poll published in the newspaper El Comercio on July 26 indicated that 49 percent of those surveyed thought the government’s handling of the protests was the biggest mistake it had made this year, more than corruption or the persistence of widespread poverty.

“In Peru, there is before the events of Bagua and after,” said Irma del Aguila, who directs the School for International Training’s Peruvian-based program on Indigenous Communities and Globalization. “I don’t think it’s possible to see things the same way again. The indigenous communities of the Amazon have achieved a new, visible, political presence in the country’s history: they have made an initiative and entered the national agenda.”

The Amazonian communities also used radio and the Internet in unprecedented ways to communicate and organize. “You can find an Internet cafe in a very small town, at the mouth of a river, or at a launch site along the Amazon or its tributaries — common transit sites,” noted del Aguila.

With the advent of a new economic era in Peru — one of free-trade agreements and renewed interest in developing resources for not only a national, but a global market — conditions had become ripe for a showdown between native populations and the government.

As Peru’s economy grows, so too does the gulf between an emerging middle class and the estimated 39 percent who live in poverty, many of them in rural provinces, analysts say. The economic market in Lima, where half of the country lives, is vastly different than the subsistence agriculture and small, local markets of the Andes and the Amazon.

Garcia, whose popularity rating rebounded in July, has said that the wealth of resources in the Amazon belong to all 28 million Peruvians, not simply a few hundred thousand who live in the basin.

Such plans are not incompatible with the interests of native Amazonians, whose communities are the poorest and the most isolated in the nation, said Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a syndicated columnist and senior fellow of the Center on Global Prosperity at the Independent Institute based in Washington, D.C.

“What you had was a clash between a government that didn’t really understand some of these local sensibilities, that didn’t take into account this complex background and had done a poor job of informing the population of what it wanted to do,” he explained.

Del Aguila, however, argued that policies on development that put profits over cultural differences will continue to meet resistance.

But perhaps more importantly, she continued, there are stark differences between the government’s notions of who is Peruvian — and what they deserve from the land as a result — and the sentiments and concerns of indigenous communities.

“I think we have to renegotiate and rethink the Peruvian state, and what it means to be Peruvians,” she said. “It is an enormous task, but one we have to take on. The only viable bet for native Amazonians is to demonstrate the importance of defending indigenous territories, for all Peruvians, indigenous or not.”

And adding to the complexity of the situation in agricultural communities was the legal distinction between ownership of the topsoil, which can be privately owned, and ownership of the subsoil, which belongs to the government.

“If the government had been more willing to negotiate with [indigenous communities] and recognize their rights over land including the subsoil, I don’t think there would be any incompatibility between their cultural customs and the need for development,” Vargas Llosa said.

The media were also partly to blame, he added, for largely ignoring indigenous issues until this year’s violent protests.

“The media has suddenly discovered that there are people in the Amazon jungle who are human beings, who have aspirations, who have suffered, who have been living in the same conditions for a very long time,” he said. “If the media had done a better job communicating their issues and their stories to the rest of the world, then maybe this absence of dialogue would not have taken place.”