Civil Society, Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PERU: Indigenous People, Ignored Even by the Statistics

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Oct 10 2006 (IPS) - Peruvian President Alan García has promised support for indigenous family farms and microenterprises. But a new report points to a bigger challenge that has not been addressed by the government: millions of indigenous people in the country are increasingly feeling the impact of the mining and oil industries and the lack of basic services that respect their identity.

“In Peru, the poorest of the poor, the people who do not even have identity documents, the most neglected and abandoned, are indigenous people,” the head of the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee’s working group on indigenous people, Wilfredo Ardito, in charge of drafting the report, told IPS.

The document is an alternative report on compliance with Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, adopted in 1989 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and in effect since 1991.

The Convention establishes a system of special protections for indigenous groups and mechanisms of consultation with indigenous people on laws, productive projects and policies that affect them and the areas where they live.

Of the 17 countries that have ratified the Convention, 13 are in Latin America.

Although Peru ratified the Convention in 1994, it has never made public the periodic reports that it submits to the ILO on progress with regard to compliance.


Because of that lack of transparency, nearly 20 human rights organisations and indigenous communities drafted the alternative document, which was submitted to the ILO on Sep. 29 and was officially presented on Tuesday.

The conclusions are anything but upbeat. The report, to which IPS had access before it was presented, states that not even the latest national census, carried out in 2005, reflected the country’s real ethnic and multicultural makeup, to update the statistics on indigenous people and their problems, even though the law states that such information must be incorporated in the census.

This omission must be corrected, because the lack of precise statistics makes it difficult to adopt public policies in favour of indigenous peoples, states the report, which seeks to contrast the government’s version of reality with that of civil society before the ILO issues its recommendations.

The most recent statistics on Peru’s indigenous population date back to a 1993 census, according to which the country was home to just under nine million indigenous people, nearly all of whom lived in the highlands. The great majority of native people in Peru are Quechua, while around seven percent are Aymara and two percent belong to Amazon jungle groups.

But more recent estimates put the proportion at 45 percent, with most of the rest of the population of 28 million being of mixed-race (mestizo) heritage, and around 15 percent of European descent.

The alternative report states that the government has favoured mining and oil extraction by private companies over the conservation of a healthy environment for indigenous communities and respect for their ancestral territories.

One illustrative case is that of the Achuar people on the Corrientes River in the country’s northern jungle region of Loreto, where the oil industry has been causing damages to the water, flora and fauna for over 30 years.

The California-based Occidental Petroleum has been operating in that area since the 1970s, and Pluspetrol Norte, a local subsidiary of Argentine-based Pluspetrol, is also currently active there.

According to the report, over 50 percent of the 8,000 indigenous people who live in that region have been affected by the activities of oil companies. It cites a Health Ministry study published in May that confirms that cadmium and lead above acceptable limits were found in the bloodstreams of local residents, especially children.

Petroleum residues in the waste water dumped into the rivers can lead to the destruction of algae and microorganisms that serve as food for fish, states the alternative report.

In addition, the local people who bathe in the water suffer rashes and other skin problems, says the report, which also mentions cases in which indigenous people have had no choice but to consume water contaminated by chemicals dumped by the oil companies..

But the damages do not only involve Achuar Indians and oil companies. According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, there are 850 mines around the country, most of them located in indigenous territories, that have caused environmental damages.

Mining sector authorities say the damages were caused prior to 1993, when the country still lacked adequate legislation on the environment.

But the alternative report says the country’s current legislation still fails to guarantee that companies respect the environment, because the requirements fall short of international standards, and local communities are not informed and consulted prior to the granting of concessions and approval of projects on their land, as stipulated by law.

“The state has the obligation to respect indigenous peoples, their cultural identity, world view and right to their ancestral territory. The government cannot take unilateral decisions,” the chairman of the legislative commission on the Amazon region and indigenous affairs, Carlos Cánepa, told IPS.

A congressional committee made up of Cánepa and three of his colleagues traveled Friday to the Corrientes River, one of the areas where Pluspetrol Norte operates, to verify the damages.

On his return to Lima Monday, he said the congressional mission confirmed that “there is pollution in the area, and that the Achuar are in a state of utter neglect, with no protection from the state.” He said he would draw up a report on the findings, to be submitted to Congress.

Cánepa also said he would revive the debate on the draft General Law on Indigenous Peoples, with the aim of unifying legislation on the rights of native communities, which are only recognised in a piecemeal and sometimes contradictory fashion in different laws. He added that he would push for the inclusion of Convention 169 provisions in the bill.

Another case that reveals the lack of respect for the right of indigenous communities to their territories is a legal struggle that has dragged on for more than 27 years in Puno, in the country’s southern Andean highlands region, where the Uro Indians are fighting for recognition of and sovereignty over their land and the natural resources in the Lake Titicaca National Reserve.

A law passed in August 2005 without prior consultation with the indigenous communities stripped them of their right to the land in question.

Communities of indigenous people and small farmers occupy 55 percent of farmland in Peru, which partly explains the land disputes that continuously crop up as companies keen on exploiting the natural resources in rural areas expand their activities.

The alternative report also states that indigenous people must have access to health care that respects their cultural identity and traditions.

In April, several women from the indigenous community of Pueblo Nuevo, in the eastern Amazon region of Ucayali, reported that they had been sterilised in a local health centre, without having been previously informed of the nature of the operation and the risks it entailed.

As a result, four women suffered serious infections, because they returned to their normal activities without any information on the postoperative care and rest they needed.

Their testimony was gathered by the non-governmental Peace and Hope Association, which was in charge of the preliminary draft of the report produced by the National Human Rights Coordinating Committee, an umbrella group.

“The problems faced by indigenous people exist in all areas and must be tackled in an integral manner, due to their complexity. Continuous oversight and monitoring are needed, to report cases of violations of these rights,” one of the authors, lawyer Wuillie Ruiz of the Peace and Hope Association, told IPS.

On the education front, according to the 1993 census, only 2.5 percent of indigenous people over the age of 15 had had access to tertiary education. And of this small proportion, 67.5 percent did not complete their studies.

Besides the problems of educational coverage, the report says very little progress has been made towards the implementation of bilingual and intercultural teaching, and towards guaranteeing that it is of good quality.

Indigenous people in Peru were also hit hard by the armed conflict that plagued the country from 1980 to 2000. Many communities lost access to education when they were forced to leave their territories or were captured by the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas.

Between 1989 and 1993, 15,000 Ashaninka and Nomatsiguenga Indians were forced to flee their land in the south-central region of Junín, while 5,000 were captured by Sendero and held in conditions of slavery to provide forced labour. In addition, many children from these two indigenous groups were forcibly recruited into the ranks of the insurgents.

Although Sendero was basically destroyed by the turn of the century, a June 2004 study on forced displacement by the Norwegian Refugee Council showed that the problem has not entirely disappeared.

The study said Sendero cells were still killing and recruiting indigenous people in the Amazon valleys of Alto Huallaga in the central region of Huánuco, in Ene in Junín, and in Apurímac in the south.

And last year, leaders of the Ashaninka and Nomatsiguenga communities reported continued threats from Sendero in their territories.

In addition, the armed forces, in their “dirty war” against the insurgents, killed and “disappeared” more than 7,250 civilians who were not involved in the conflict, many of whom were indigenous people, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated the political violence.

“We want to help indigenous people through national agricultural projects like Sierra Exportadora and credits for microenterprise,” said the head of the National Institute of Development of Andean, Amazon and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA), Juan Manuel Figueroa.

“We are aware that we have a debt to the country’s southern jungle region,” he told IPS.

Sierra Exportadora is a government programme to be put into effect over the next five years on 150,000 hectares in 11 highlands regions, with the aim of producing more than 20 different farm products for export.

The small farmers who enroll in the programme will have access to the Agrobanco, a state-run bank, through which they will obtain loans and will have guaranteed purchasers for their products.

“This is a social productive project to attack poverty at its roots” in highland areas between 2,500 and 4,500 metres above sea level, where some eight million campesinos live, six million of them in extreme poverty, President García said before he took office in July.

Figueroa also said that he would propose, in the next meeting of the INDEPA board of directors, making the government’s reports to the ILO on Convention 169 public.

 
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