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SOUTH AMERICA: Calls for Justice for Peru’s Native Peoples

Franz Chávez*

LA PAZ, Jun 12 2009 (IPS) - Social organisations in South America are backing the struggle against opening up Peru’s Amazon jungle to mining and oil companies, which resulted in clashes in which at least nine indigenous people and 25 police officers died.

The recent violence near the town of Bagua, in the northern Peruvian province of Amazonas, is seen by indigenous organisations in Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador as an attack on people who are defending life, nature, human rights and the rational use of natural resources.

Native communities in the Peruvian rainforest are demanding the repeal of a series of decrees issued by the García administration to promote foreign investment on indigenous lands, in the framework of the free trade agreement signed with the United States.

A two-month protest by indigenous people outside the northern Peruvian town of Bagua ended in bloodshed on Jun. 5, when the police violently broke up a roadblock there.

A multi-party parliamentary committee declared in December that the decrees in question are unconstitutional, as the native groups argue.

In an open letter to the region’s presidents, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) called on them to defend native peoples and confirm their commitment to peace and justice in South America.


A congress of the Indigenous Confederation of Indigenous People of Bolivia (CIDOB) urged the United Nations and the Organisation of American States to send a team of investigators to Bagua to verify what happened there on Jun. 5.

While official accounts say that nine indigenous people and 25 members of the police were killed, eyewitnesses who have spoken to the press say the bodies of indigenous protesters were thrown into the river from a helicopter.

“We consider this violent action by the Peruvian government to be a massacre and a flagrant violation of the life, integrity and fundamental rights of indigenous communities,” said the Colombian National Authority of Indigenous Government (ONIC) in a letter to President García.

“We join our voices to the Amazonian indigenous communities who are demanding an end to the violation of their rights and the repeal of the free trade agreement decrees that open the doors to the invasion and plundering of their territories.

“We condemn the violent actions of the Peruvian government against our peoples,” says the letter, which also calls for medical attention for the injured and policies to prevent a repeat of the incident.

García’s response to the violence was to allege that “foreign meddling” was behind the protests in the Amazon. He later specifically mentioned Bolivia’s left-wing president, the first indigenous leader of that country.

In the midst of the political crisis triggered by the violent incident, García accused Morales of inciting the protests by means of an “inflammatory” letter sent to the Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples, held May 29 in the Peruvian city of Puno, on the border with Bolivia.

Although he was the most important guest invited to the summit, Morales merely sent a letter by the hand of Senator Leonilda Zurita of his governing Movement to Socialism (MAS), who is an activist for women’s rights and political and trade union freedoms.

The meeting, held on Peruvian soil but only 200 km west of La Paz, brought together native leaders of the Americas, called Abya Yala in precolonial times.

“That meeting discussed uprisings and insurgency,” García maintained. “A president of a neighbouring country sent messages about our countries being governed by indigenous peoples, who are victims of exploitation and utterly neglected, which is not true, because the statistics on employment and welfare have improved in the jungle areas.”

In La Paz, Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera, a recognised champion of indigenous rights, said in reply that “letters do not kill,” referring to the violence unleashed in the Peruvian Amazon.

“We confirm the contents (of the letter) and we are proud of every word and every letter in it,” said the deputy minister for coordination with social movements, Sacha Llorenti, one of Morales’ closest associates.

“From resistance we have gone on to rebellion, and then to revolution. This is the second independence,” said Llorenti, in support of Morales’ policy of nationalising Bolivia’s abundant natural gas reserves, which were handed over by previous governments to foreign companies.

“It is difficult to rebuild what has been destroyed over 25 years of neoliberal, free market policies,” Llorenti said.

Morales’ letter to the indigenous leaders’ summit also says “free trade agreements break up harmonious human relationships with nature; they commodify natural resources and national cultures; they privatise basic services; they try to patent life itself.”

“Some people think globalisation means they have a right to interfere in the politics of neighbouring countries, “said García. “That is regrettable. If they wish, I can interfere too (in Bolivian affairs) and I know how to do so. I don’t think it’s democratic or legal or positive for international relations.”

Sociologist Carlos Laruta, the head of the Centre for Research and Advancement of Peasant Farmers (CIPCA) in the impoverished city of El Alto, Bolivia, said that it is up to Morales to explain the intention of his letter, because he is the representative of a state and therefore subject to the rule of international law.

“A president cannot do things that run counter to international law,” Laruta said.

Anthropologist Martín von Hildebrand, winner of the 1999 Alternative Nobel Prize, said the root problem is that the rights of Peruvian indigenous peoples to their ancestral territories have not been recognised in practice, as they have in other countries that share the Amazon basin: Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador.

“When you look at a big map of the Amazon basin, you can see that Brazil has given indigenous peoples a territory as large as Colombia itself (1.1 million square kilometres),” he said, while Colombia has given them 27 million hectares, and Bolivia and Ecuador have also made progress.

“If you look at a government map of Peru, marking potential lumber, oil, gas and mineral extraction, the country’s Amazon area is completely covered with marks,” said von Hildebrand, who is also head of the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, which works to strengthen indigenous culture and autonomy as a strategy for preserving the rainforest.

* With additional reporting by Constanza Vieira (Bogotá) and Ángel Páez (Lima).

 
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