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PERU: Indigenous Groups Win Major Battle in Congress

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Aug 22 2008 (IPS) - The Peruvian Congress voted Friday to repeal two decrees that opened up communally owned native lands to private investment and that triggered a wave of protests this month by indigenous people in Amazon jungle provinces.

The vote was a rare instance of cooperation between opposition lawmakers and legislators from parties that up to now have been allied with the government, who voted to overturn the decrees on the argument that they undermined the rights of native communities.

Sixty-six lawmakers voted to revoke the decrees and 29 members of the governing APRA party voted against the decision.

The decrees were adopted by the executive branch in an unconstitutional manner and without respecting indigenous groups’ right to be consulted prior to any project on their land, as established by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, which has been ratified by Peru.

A majority in Congress agreed that the government went beyond the special powers it was granted by parliament as part of the free trade agreement negotiated with the United States, when it vetoed the legislature’s original vote against the two laws.

Under 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.

“The executive branch ran roughshod over Congress, native communities and international conventions,” said Roger Nájar, the new chairman of the parliamentary committee on Andean and Amazon peoples and the environment.

In Nájar’s view, the government’s “arrogant attitude” fuelled the indigenous protests held in different parts of the country’s Amazon jungle region from Aug. 9-20, where they occupied energy industry installations and took police officers hostage.

The government declared a 30-day state of emergency on Monday, Aug. 18 in several provinces to crack down on the protests.

The indigenous groups did not call off their demonstrations until Wednesday, Aug. 20, after the president of Congress, Luis Velásquez Quesquen, promised that the legislature would debate the repeal of the two decrees.

“The right way of doing things would have been to hold talks, decentralised sessions (with native organisations before the decrees were approved). We definitely do not approve of the protests, but they were caused by the government,” said Congresswoman Gabriela Pérez del Solar, of the National Unity (UN) party.

But the APRA legislators argued that the decrees had been approved in order to give indigenous communities in the jungle and highlands regions the same tools that campesinos (peasant farmers) in the coastal region have, that allow them to rent or sell their land.

“This is special treatment for certain cultures. Are native people minors? What these decrees were aimed at is a revolutionary change to pull them out of poverty. The law has to be the same for everyone; that’s what the rule of law is all about,” argued Congressman Mauricio Mulder, the secretary-general of the governing party.

Using the same arguments, President Alan García said Wednesday that Congress was going to make “a huge mistake” if it overturned the decrees.

And on Friday morning, before the result of the vote in parliament was announced, the president of the National Confederation of Private Business Institutions (CONFIEP), Jaime Cáceres, called on the government to impose its authority.

The spokesman for the ruling party legislators, Aurelio Pastor, told the press that the government would veto Friday’s parliamentary vote.

“By doing that, the only thing the government is going to achieve is to generate ill-feeling in the country. It is just provoking the indigenous people; that’s called state terrorism,” Congressman Víctor Mayorga, who headed the working group that originally assessed the constitutionality of the decrees, told IPS.

Mayorga explained that he recommended on Jun. 9 that the two decrees be declared unconstitutional, but that the rest of the legislators in his working group did not review his proposal for a joint statement that could have been sent to the constitution committee and then to the floor of the legislature, where they could have been repealed without the risk of a government veto.

However, Mayorga explained to IPS that the legislature can overrule the government’s veto.

Legislator Gloria Ramos told IPS that “our country is multicultural. But the political programmes and policies are implemented as if it were homogeneous. We must promote a model of development that is based on who we really are. The cultural element must be taken into consideration as the basis of our development.”

“If the government vetoes the law, it will not be respecting democracy,” said Ramos. “The president has to consider that the kind of investment it is promoting, which is so far removed from our reality and our diversity, does not necessarily generate development.”

In the Amazon jungle region, hundreds of indigenous people celebrated the parliamentary decision.

“This is a demonstration that the people came together to make their voices heard. There are no losers or winners here; the Peruvian people as a whole have taken a huge step,” Alberto Pizango, the president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), which led this month’s protests, told the press.

Pizango urged the government to take indigenous peoples’ demands into account in its public policies because “we don’t want to be a social burden; we want to solve our pressing problems.”

The vice president of AIDESEP, Robert Guimaraes, added that the next step should be the creation of a multi-sectoral committee to address the rest of the demands of the country’s indigenous people, and the establishment of a team of experts to implement ILO Convention 169.

In July, the Peruvian ombudsman’s office had filed a legal challenge against the two decrees in the Constitutional Court.

In a legal analysis, the non-governmental Amazonian Centre for Anthropology and Practical Application warned that the two decrees were unconstitutional and contravened Convention 169 and article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

According to the report, the failure to previously consult indigenous communities prior to authorising or undertaking activities on native lands is one of the causes of social and environmental conflicts and unrest.

The government must also furnish the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazon and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA), created to represent these communities in the state, with real powers, says the report.

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