PERU: Talks Fall Flat; Indigenous Protests Rage On

LIMA, May 14 (IPS) - The Peruvian government resumed talks with indigenous groups after a violent crackdown on protests left 10 injured and around 20 under arrest. But the dialogue has not yet brought results, and the demonstrations against decrees that affect indigenous lands and the rainforest continue, while a state of emergency remains in place in several Amazon regions.

Alberto Pizango, president of the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP) - which groups 28 federations of indigenous peoples - who is spearheading the roadblocks and demonstrations by some 2,000 indigenous protesters, was circumspect with regard to the outcome of the meeting with representatives of the administration of Alan García.

But other native leaders who took part in the talks were impatient and angry.

Over the past month, indigenous protesters have blocked roads and riverways to protest decrees that open up their land to oil, mining and logging companies.

The specific demands that the protesters are pressing for in the talks are: fulfillment of the government's promise to set up a negotiating table to discuss their concerns; a lifting of the state of emergency declared May 9 in the northern provinces of Loreto and Amazonas, the eastern province of Ucayali, and Cuzco in the south; and the decentralisation of and granting of ministerial rank to the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazon and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA).

A number of non-indigenous social movements and eight Catholic bishops have expressed support for the protests.

Last weekend, hundreds of Awajun and Wampi Indians blocked the Corral Quemado bridge, the main route to Peru's northern jungle region, in the town of Bagua in the northern province of Amazonas.

Local leaders there said one indigenous protester had been killed in the crackdown by security forces, but the report has not been officially confirmed.

Protesters in Atalaya, in the Cuzco rainforest, are blocking the passage of Plus Petrol oil company boats.

"A lasting solution must be found, and we are moving in that direction and will reach good agreements in a short time," a still optimistic Pizango said Wednesday night, after meeting with Prime Minister Yehude Simon, three other cabinet members and governors representing the three northern and eastern Amazon provinces affected by the protests.

Simon also said it had been "a very positive day of work."

"We have not yet reached what we want, but it was a fruitful meeting, and hopefully we will have concrete results in the new few hours," said the official, who a few days earlier had stated that the government could "squash" the protests if it wanted to.

Pizango, the Shawi leader who took part in the meeting with the government accompanied by eight other "apus" – local leaders of Amazon indigenous communities – has not provided further details about the talks.

A few hours before resuming talks with the government, Pizango had told IPS that "the country should realise that indigenous people have been excluded for 150 years, that we are suffering human rights abuses, and that genocide is still being committed by the state when it grants oil-drilling concessions to indigenous territory without consulting us."

The last time he met with Simon was on Apr. 20, when the government promised to set up a negotiating table within two days.

Because that pledge has not yet been fulfilled, he said the protests "will not stop" until 10 government decrees issued as part of the implementation of the free trade agreement with the United States are revoked.

Among other things, the decrees make it easier to transfer communally-owned indigenous land to private companies and open the door to the privatisation of water.

"These decrees are unconstitutional, and run counter to international instruments that protect indigenous people like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169," which establishes that indigenous groups must be consulted prior to any economic activity on their land, said Pizango.

A multi-party congressional commission presided over by legislator Gloria Ramos issued a report in December recommending – as indigenous groups are demanding – the repeal of the 10 decrees in question, which form part of a package of 32 decrees approved under the special powers that the legislature granted the government to implement the free trade treaty with the U.S.

"We have insisted to the president of Congress, the various political parties, and the prime minister that these decrees should be overruled, but there has been no political will on the part of the ruling party lawmakers, and the executive branch has just now begun to react again under the pressure of the protests," Ramos told IPS.

The congressional commission was set up after the indigenous organisations signed an agreement in August 2008 in the wake of several weeks of unprecedented protests in the Amazon jungle regions, which led to the repeal of two of the decrees that opened up communally-owned native lands to private investment.

This time, Ramos is especially concerned about decree 1,064, which she said reclassifies the zoning of Amazon jungle areas from forestry use to agricultural use and opens these areas to extractive industries.

Four panels were established in Congress to study indigenous peoples' concerns since last year's protests, but their recommendations have not been taken into account by the government.

The García administration has mainly maintained conversations with the Confederation of Amazon Nationalities of Peru (CONAP), which, unlike AIDESEP, has signed agreements with oil companies and takes a more flexible position towards private investment.

"The government has adopted a strategy aimed at gaining time and wearing out the indigenous people," Graham Gordon, an expert on indigenous affairs with Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope), a local human rights group, told IPS.

"It has not been concerned about reaching realistic accords in the short-term, it has encouraged divisions among indigenous organisations, and it has continued to ignore this conflict, thus fuelling the protests," he said.

Eight Catholic bishops from Amazon jungle regions also called for the repeal of the controversial decrees and urged the government to listen to the concerns of indigenous peoples. They pointed out that 95 percent of the country's forests are in the Amazon jungle areas, which have major water and hydropower potential.

In their statement, the bishops "insist that, in interventions with respect to natural resources, the interests of groups that irrationally drag down sources of life to the detriment of entire nations and humanity itself must not prevail."

For its part, the APRODEH human rights association protested the declaration of a 60-day state of emergency, pointing out that it is a mechanism that can only be used in the face of threats to internal order, catastrophes or other serious life-threatening circumstances, according to the constitution.

APRODEH said the measure, which suspends certain basic constitutional rights like the freedom to hold meetings and travel, and allows home searches without warrants, cannot be justified by the government by "vaguely referring to the existence of unidentified people 'threatening' to use force."

"The government has to carry out an in-depth analysis of the problem, protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and create institutionalised spaces for consultation, in order for state decisions to be legitimate," said Gordon. (END/2009)

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