Tension Persists in Amazon Land Grab

BOGOTA – Six months ago, news of violence triggered by Indigenous uprisings in the Peruvian hinterland grabbed headlines around the world for several days, then just as quickly disappeared. But in Peru, the tension persists, and some observers fear that if the root causes of the protests aren't addressed soon, they could provoke future mass uprisings.

The violence began in April, when tens of thousands of Indians mobilized across the Peruvian Amazon in protest of laws that would open up huge tracts of their land to foreign investment.

Following years of condemnation over environmental damage and the lack of benefits to their communities from natural resource extraction, natives were irate that the government - without consulting them - had passed laws that would put control over Indigenous lands into the hands of oil, mining and logging companies. Peru's Amazon is home to 330,000 natives and covers almost 70 million hectares.

On June 5th, an estimated 400 riot police were sent to quell opposition of at least 2,500 protestors blockading the road to Bagua, according to press reports. Tear gas exploded and bullets flew. The alarming toll: ten civilians and 23 policemen were killed and 200 wounded.

The protestors got their message across. Weeks after what has become known as the 'Baguazo,' the government launched a series of four negotiations - with participation from Indigenous groups, regional governments and the executive branch - to investigate the deadly incidents of June 5, to modify controversial laws, to create mechanisms for consultation with Indigenous peoples and to create a plan for development of the Amazon.

But natives accuse the government of being insincere. They are troubled by what they say is the government's ongoing persecution, and they fear that a lack of political will may thwart real reforms. "If they are sitting and dialoguing right now, it's because we've obliged them to because of Bagua. It is not out of a real interest on their part," says Santiago Manuin, an Awajun leader who was shot several times allegedly by police.

Rooted in U.S. free trade agreement

It was the violence at Bagua that pressured the government to acknowledge the native concerns. But the discontent underlying the uprising had been brewing for nearly a year.

It all began in August 2008, when Indigenous people rose across the Amazon to demand the withdrawal of controversial legal decrees passed using special legislative powers granted by Congress to implement the U.S.- Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, a free trade pact signed in 2006.

Many of the decrees however, went far beyond the scope of what was required by the free trade agreement. The decrees stripped "forest patrimony" status from two-thirds of the Peruvian Amazon with the aim of privatizing forest lands, and eased the transfer of communally-owned Indian lands to private companies, according to a fact-finding report published by the International Federation for Human Rights. Parceling of native lands to oil and mining companies has increased since the start of President Alan Garcia's second administration in 2006. These concessions now cover about 72 percent of the Amazon, mostly overlapping Indigenous territory.

"The government took advantage of the free trade agreement to pass laws that had nothing to do with it," says Sandro Chavez, a biologist and environmental consultant assisting with the negotiations. Following the August 2008 protests, Peru's Congress repealed two decrees. But failure to withdraw the other contentious decrees triggered another wave of protests starting in April 2009.

The decrees were "the straw that broke the camel's back," says Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch in the U.S. About 30,000 natives occupied roads and waterways in jungle provinces, according to press reports.

How the events of June 5th unfolded remain murky. Indigenous leaders say demonstrators had been protesting peacefully, brandishing traditional spears, when they were fired upon by police. Then, some wrested control of weapons from police.

Days later, the Peruvian Congress suspended two more of the eleven controversial decrees.

Mistrust remains

Many Indigenous people say if the government had consulted them over the decrees, they would not have needed to protest.

Former Prime Minister Yehude Simon, who resigned following the Bagua uprising, acknowledges this point. "The government ignored a simple thing, which is to discuss with the owners of the house," he said in an interview with GlobalPost Passport.

Still, mistrust remains high. While officials have presented the current negotiations as an attempt to address the protestors' concerns, some Indigenous leaders say the government has other intentions.

"We can't really believe the government is interested in seeing results [through this process] because we are experiencing strong persecution from this government," says Bladimiro Tapayuri, a Kukama Kukamiria Indian playing a lead role in the roundtables. On Oct. 7, Tapayuri says the government informed him it was opening an investigation against him for his alleged role as an intellectual author of the uprisings.

So far, prosecutors have charged 64 Indians with a variety of crimes, including homicide and rebellion, according to Miguel Jugo, president of APRODEH, Peru's principal human rights group. They have also charged 17 police officers with homicide, AP reported.

"This is an unjust situation," says Manuin, a recipient of the Queen Sofia of Spain award for his work in defending human rights and the environment. He has been charged with inciting murder. "The intellectual authors are the government that made the decrees that mobilized everything and put us into a critical situation," said Manuin.

Manuin spent over three months in hospital recovering from a ruptured abdomen after being shot, allegedly by police. Officers hovered outside the building waiting to arrest him "as if he was a dangerous criminal who was going to escape," says his lawyer Norbel Mondragon. In September, the court decided to replace Manuin's arrest warrant with a summons.

Indigenous leaders question a government that has lodged what many claim are baseless and severe charges against them, at the same time that they are supposedly at the negotiating table. Ronald Ibarra, head of the Conflict Prevention Unit of the Presidential Council of Ministers, counters that the judicial branch's decisions have nothing to do with the executive branch participating in the dialogue.

But the Justice Ministry's aggressiveness has exceeded the need to account for any crimes committed during the Bagua uprising. In August, it demanded the dissolution of AIDESEP, Peru's largest Indigenous umbrella group and a central figure at the negotiating table. It retracted the demand after AIDESEP threatened to hold nation-wide protests.

"This is a dialogue where the same government who sits down with us is promoting our dissolution," says Saul Puertas, the Secretary General of AIDESEP. Puerta and two other AIDESEP leaders fled to Nicaragua following charges for inciting the protests because "we felt our lives were at risk," he says. He returned at the beginning of October after his arrest warrant was changed to a summons. AIDESEP's president is still exiled in Nicaragua.

Criticisms abounds over the pace and results of the current dialogue. "It's been five months and there have been no advances," says Manuin.

Indian leader Salomon Awanash accused the government of blocking the formation of an independent truth commission to investigate the June violence, as it had delayed appointing its representative for two months. Last week, the commission's coordinator told journalists that a lack of logistical support was hindering any progress.

"We wish we could have more resources, but dialogue is happening," says Ibarra.

Miguel Rosas, director of the General Forest and Wildlife Directorate leading the creation of a new forestry law, rejects claims the government is not interested in seeing results. "There is no problem on the part of the government. To the contrary," he says.

He pointed to the recent proposal submitted for a new forestry law. Indigenous representatives agree it
makes important suggestions, such as using an approach that considers all parts of an ecosystem and mechanisms for Indians to manage their land communally. All of the negotiating channels are required to submit reports by Dec. 26, after which they will be considered by the executive branch and lead to possible debates when the legislature returns in March.

The government has until July to make changes to bring laws into compliance with various environmental and labor requirements of the FTA.

"I think the government is playing a double-role," says Chavez, the biologist assisting with the negotiations. He says that while Peru is assuring the U.S. that it is making necessary changes, the government is taking as long as possible to do so; some of those changes will bring about greater transparency and regulation of industries that currently benefit from the status quo.

"Until there's a new law, extensive logging can take place, for example," Chavez says, adding that close ties exist between the government and logging industry.

Meanwhile, simmering frustrations may boil over if Indigenous groups and the government cannot agree on
a vision of development for the Amazon.

"I think it's very unlikely the government will change the model that they've been implementing," says Jugo. But if the government doesn't accept natives' proposals nor strike down the most contentious decrees, Tapayuri says, "we will call for a constitutional reform in the whole country."

Just weeks ago, Awajun and Wampis Indians detained eight workers from two Canadian mining companies who they claimed did not have authorization to enter their territory, according to press reports.

Indigenous groups will not easily give up the new political space they've gained post-Bagua. "The people are bitter," says Manuin. "The people are not scared. The people will not tire."

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