The enduring conflict in Bagua, Peru between the government and indigenous inhabitants of the Amazon led to violent confrontations last month. Between 30 and 84 deaths were reported and more than 100 people were wounded when security forces used violence to try and stop a roadblock. According to the police, indigenous people fired at the policemen first. Representatives of different indigenous groups in the area contest this, saying they were only armed with their traditional spears. Most sources affirm that shots were released from police helicopters.
The stake of the conflict is the admittance of multinational companies to the areas in northern Peru, which is rich in oil, gas and minerals. For almost two months, more than 30,000 indigenous inhabitants of different provinces of the Amazon and the highlands protested the way in which the state and companies want to invest in the exploitation of natural resources. Indigenous people and farmer communities want to take part in the decision-making process about the development of the land.
Over the last two years, changing regulations have led to the removal of a large number of ecological and social restrictions on the extraction of resources – leading to much less restrictive legislation. This eases direct foreign investments developing mines and exploiting oil and gas in Peru. Indigenous people protested these changes by going on strike and forming roadblocks for 57 days.
On May 9, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in seven provinces of the Amazon, which means that “the constitutional provisions on freedom and security of persons and the immunity of accommodation are temporarily suspended, and that there is a ban on gathering.” Officially the government’s actions were to safeguard access to roads and airports and to prevent production losses due to the actions of the indigenous people. A few days later, however, it appeared to be nothing more than an alibi for using violence. Negotiations between the state and the representatives of the indigenous communities were ceased on May 15, after the indigenous people announced that they would continue their actions. The protest and the reactions of the government became grimmer.
The C169 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, set up by the International Labour Organization and ratified by Peru in 1994, obliges Peru to consult indigenous people in cases where the State or a company plans to exploit the natural resources in land occupied by indigenous people. This is not, however, a common practice in the Amazon forest. The biodiversity and the lives of indigenous people are at stake. The Sate and the companies involved – including the French oil company Perenco and the Spanish company REPSOL – push for a quick exploitation. In the worldwide context of a growing shortage of natural resources, the Peruvian Amazon forest is wanted for its potential profits.
Criticizing the indigenous people’s actions, President Alan García Perez said in a statement that “the State retains the ownership of sub-surface resources” and that “all Peruvian people have to profit the natural resources in the country.” The indigenous people do not claim ultimate ownership of the Amazon forest, but simply ask for a voice in the decision-making process in the development of the region. Alberto Pizango, leader of the umbrella indigenous people’s organization AIDESEP, explains: “we do not fight development, but we ask for development from our perspective.”
CATAPA, from Upside Down World: Covering Activism and Politics in Latin America, upsidedownworld.org.