Massacre in Peru cements impasse

Conflict over land in the Amazonian regions of Peru left 23 police officers and at least 30 indigenous protesters dead on June 5, a day of shoot-outs, plundering and incendiary attacks in Bagua Province. One hundred fifty-five persons were wounded and 159 protesters jailed.

Over 650 police enforcers arrived mostly by helicopter, reportedly with orders to shoot. Over a thousand protesters blocking the important Fernando Belaunde Highway came under gunfire from the air. The army imposed curfews in Amazonian cities. Indigenous groups vowed to continue their struggle, accusing the government of President Alan Garcia of genocide.

Over the course of two months, indigenous groups, using nonviolent tactics, had forced cutbacks in oil and natural gas production and blocked road and river shipments to cities and coastal ports. The state energy company Petroperu reported daily losses of $120,000.

Insisting that “behind the strike there are foreign interests,” President Garcia declared, apparently referring to Bolivia and Venezuela: “Peru is a victim of subversive aggression against the democracy.” He inveighed against an indigenous minority and asserted “Peru’s riches belong to all Peruvians.”

Reports of police casualties and indigenous brutality dominated media reports and official statements. Indigenous casualties received scant press attention.

The government charged Alberto Pizango, head of the main organizing group, the Interethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), with “sedition, conspiracy, and rebellion.” Before taking refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Lima, Pizango called for a march “for peace, dignity, and national sovereignty” and denounced privatization. He had been elected to his post by the leaders of 1,200 indigenous communities comprising 350,000 people.

Resistance against natural resources extraction by the rich and powerful, a legacy from Peru’s colonial past, sharpened after the United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (FTA) was signed on April 12, 2006.

In December 2007 Peru’s Congress authorized the Executive Branch to make rules for implementing the FTA. Six months later, the Executive promulgated 99 legislative decrees. Ten of them eased the way for multinational petroleum, mining, logging and natural gas corporations to exploit forested areas. One authorized private sales of communal property with the consent of three community members. Another re-designated forest acreage as agricultural land.

AIDESEP initiated protests demanding repeal of the decrees, arguing that Peru had agreed to International Labor Organization Convention 169 that protected communal lands and backed the right of indigenous people to be consulted by governments. In December 2008 a constitutional commission declared the decrees unconstitutional.

However, Congressional discussion and a vote were required for repeal. That process stalled, and indigenous activists upped the ante beginning April 9. In mid-May, Alberto Pizango raised the specter of an insurgency, provoking army takeover of civil authority in the affected areas.

The rhetoric cooled, and Prime Minister Yehude Simon proposed discussions between the government and indigenous representatives on the future of the Amazon regions. The tipping point was reached when Congress suspended debate over the legislative decrees; there would be no vote. The next day brought violent confrontation.

Writing in the Peruvian daily La Republica, news analyst Alberto Adrianzen suggested the conflict may change the status quo. Indigenous demands, he explained, “go to the heart of the neoliberal model of economic development.” They threaten “the delivery of our natural resources to the great capitalist groups.” Resolution of the conflict, he believes, “whatever the result, implies a great social convulsion.”

With a poverty rate of 36.2 percent, the stage is set. Peru is the world’s top silver producer and among the top five for gold, copper and zinc. Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests reports that 64 oil and gas [exploration] blocks cover approximately 72 percent of the Peruvian Amazon. All but eight of them have appeared since 2003, when Peru launched a major effort to boost exploration (see article/258611.) President Garcia signed 13 oil and gas concessions last month.

The Peruvian Communist Party “expressed its most energetic condemnation of the massacre ordered by the government of President Alan Garcia.” The statement urged the Congress immediately to repeal the legislative decrees. The National Front for Life and National Sovereignty is organizing a “national day of struggle in solidarity with the peoples of the Amazonas region” for June 11.