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Anguish, oil and the Amazon

Observations on Peru

Violence erupted in the Peruvian Amazonia earlier this month, when thousands of indigenous people, protesting against legislation that would open up the country’s rainforest to logging, gas and oil contractors, were met by a poorly planned police response. During the events that ensued hundreds of indigenous protesters were killed or injured, and thousands displaced. At least 23 police officers also died.

The protesters, mobilised by AIDESEP, the umbrella group of indigenous people’s organisations, belong to various tribes under constant threat in the Amazonia: at least 30 ethnic groups have already disappeared completely. Many have served in the army and are well trained in weapon use, and the police sent to pacify the region were outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. They had been sent by the Home Office minister Mercedes Cabanillas, but without clear orders. A potential candidate in the country’s 2011 presidential elections, Cabanillas had dithered for months, in an attempt to avoid becoming politically implicated. In turn, she had been ordered to put a stop to blockades along the few roads connecting the vast jungle region with the rest of the country by the current president, Alan García, keen to preserve his own political capital.

The government’s handling of the crisis has been heavily criticised by many Peruvians, even those who disagree with AIDESEP’s tactics. García branded the protesters savages and terrorists. To divert attention from his own role in events, he blamed an international conspiracy for the protests, suggesting that Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez, envious of Peru’s record-breaking economic growth, were responsible. In addition, he’s ignored the long-standing support of the Danish, German and Spanish governments for the protesters.

Like all of his predecessors, García has achieved economic growth by extracting natural resources and exploiting workers. Policies are fundamentally discriminatory: even initiatives for the poorest are undermined by policies that permit unreasonable labour practices and the systematic destruction of the Amazonia’s environment and cultural identity. The protesters’ thesis – that through local political representation, communities can play a central role in the sustainable use of natural resources – is far more progressive than the president’s.

Indigenous people have demonstrated commitment to the country. They presented Congress with a detailed analysis of the contested legislation’s effects as early as September 2008, only to be messed about for months by a token consultation process. In the end, they felt political institutions had failed them. Roadblocks were the only option left.

Unless there is a serious attempt to address the rights of indigenous peoples, the government’s actions are likely to benefit radical nationalist groups in the 2011 elections. But the private sector that García is so keen to protect could easily be part of a settlement: instability and violence, after all, are not good for business.

Taking fundamental positions only leads to the radicalisation of the protesters, and the need for tougher state repression. The government must accept its responsibility in the crisis and ensure that those guilty of the deaths of Peruvians – on both sides – are brought to justice.

Enrique Mendizabal is a research fellow and programme leader at the Overseas Development Institute

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran