Murder in Peru: Indigenous Rights and Corporate Interests

Alan Garcia is no friend of the indigenous, thus his close relationship with the former Bush Administration should come as no surprise. Garcia’s sponsorship of regularizing the opening up of the Amazon to exploitation for oil exploration and logging was no accident, and the mess into which he has plunged his government could be viewed as predictive of things to come. This will not only be in Peru, but in Colombia as well, if the U.S. Congress proceeds to ratify a free trade agreement between Washington and Bogotá. Just as Peru has found itself in the predicament of being unable to fulfill obligations it has agreed to with both its indigenous population and foreign investors, the same fate could easily befall its neighbors.

Multinational corporations extracting resources from the Amazon are treading on the constitutionally protected rights of the indigenous, but for the Peruvian government to try to correct these wrongs would mean confrontation with the some of the most powerful economic sectors in the world. If Peru continues to try to protect its indigenous peoples, U.S., Canadian, British, Chinese, and other powerful investors will complain that free trade is being restrained, to which they may respond by seeking to impanel a dispute board. Thus, Alan Garcia has gotten Peru into an incredibly difficult situation where there seems to be no possible way to win. It is only too likely that governments of nearby countries, like Colombia, will soon find themselves in similarly frustrating situations, whereby foreign investors’ intrinsic power would be equal to, or even greater than, the host government’s ability to legislate on the behalf of the population.

The generation of violence
Violence broke out between the police and indigenous people in northern Bagua, Peru last Friday, June 5, during a protest being led by indigenous Peruvians opposed to the government’s policy of unfettered receptivity towards foreign corporations. Details of the hostility and resulting violence, including death counts, are highly disputed and vary greatly from source to source. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jose Garcia Belaunde, claimed that 24 police officers and nine protestors had died, while Amnesty International reported that 22 policemen and 30 demonstrators had fallen. These tragic consequences were the result of a police offensive to disperse a demonstration and resulting road block that had been allowed to last nearly two months. Since 1990, mounting tensions could be seen between the indigenous and the authorities in Lima after multinational corporations were granted access to pursue oil drilling, gas exploration, hydroelectric damming and logging throughout the Amazon.

Witnessing the inevitable
On May 9, President Alan Garcia called a 60 day state-of-emergency in all regions affected by the protests. Violence erupted as representatives from indigenous tribes organized by the Asociacion Interetnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (Aidesep) reacted to pro-development legislation authorizing oil and mining exploitation of indigenous lands. The potential damage from the application of such laws could seriously harm the natural environment as well as the health and welfare of indigenous populations.

The root of the conflict in Peru is the government’s failure to consult with the tribal leadership before selling tens-of-millions of dollars worth of exploration rights to foreign companies – deals on which it cannot renege because of the fines that would be applied due to the terms of the recently passed FTA between the Peru and the U.S. Unable to extract itself from its agreements with foreign companies, Lima neglected its constitutional obligations to its indigenous citizens. Now, as fingers have pointed blame for the outbreak of violence in every direction, the president of Aidesep, and its most visible leader, Alberto Pizango, has sought asylum in Nicaragua in order to evade the police who have accused him of sedition. At least 70 “suspects” have been arrested in Peru and dozens more – most of them indigenous – are missing in the fallout from the protests.

Although oil exploration in Peru’s Amazon actually began in the 1920s, the government’s controversial economic policies were first implemented as part of a free trade agreement signed with the United States in 2006. As a result and in contradiction to international law, the government sold off the rights of the indigenous population to their traditional lands and today 70 percent of Peru’s Amazon is leased for oil and gas exploration. As made clear by the Peruvian example, the U.S., with pressure coming from international conglomerates, often favors imposing unilateral conditions on less developed Latin American countries. These may appear to be win-win agreements on paper, but in reality they largely disregard the specific conditions of tribal communities or the relative degree of government instability of each of the countries being dealt with, as well as the adverse effects that these stipulations have had and will continue to have on voiceless, minority populations.

The drive to develop
The recent violence in Peru is only the latest rendition of the discord that exists between the United States, Latin American governments and their exploited indigenous peoples. The increase in foreign direct investment since the 1980s has ignited countless humanitarian and environmental crises throughout Latin America as the leaders of developing countries are being forced to choose between the perceived economic benefits of free trade and globalization, and the protection of the rights and social stability of their indigenous populations. More often than not, Latin American governments have chosen to pursue economic growth models that give foreign corporations virtually unrestricted access to land and resources traditionally to be found in indigenous hands.

President Alan Garcia has been a robust ally of foreign investors and multinational corporations and has defended Peru’s development initiatives, saying that “the plans are part of his investment program to tackle widespread poverty.” However, this supposed grand scheme to uplift the poor, cynical as it may seem, has significantly increased the disenfranchisement of the already underrepresented native peoples who have now seen themselves stripped of basic ownership rights of their traditional lands. Moreover, Garcia also has yet to successfully explain how capital–intensive activities that barely generate jobs are going to overcome the country’s very real poverty.

Furthermore, the Peruvian president has no answer to the environmental and health concerns raised by indigenous groups and environmentalists. The adverse effects on the environment and on health matters are well documented. Perhaps the most famous case of environmental destruction and human health is Texaco’s “environmental crime of the century” in Ecuador. Lawyers representing 30,000 Ecuadorians allege that Texaco dumped four million gallons a day of toxic wastewater into unlined waste pits and streams over a 20 year period during which it was present in the country. In addition, they claim that over the years of its Ecuadorian enterprise, the company’s operations spilled 16.8 million gallons of oil directly into the environment. Witnessing the court proceedings of the Chevron Texaco case is enough to spark resistance to the possibility of increased oil extraction elsewhere in the Amazon, and the indigenous people of Peru have reacted accordingly, since Peru is no more isolated than Ecuador.

A continental controversy
Across the continent there are recurring examples that prove that wealth has not trickled down from commercial arrangements like the ones backed by Alan Garcia. The record inevitably demonstrates that local inhabitants have not been adequately involved or informed of their countries’ development plans. The Occidental Petroleum Corporation, one of the primary investors in Peru, has become embroiled in a similar dispute in Colombia for displacing and exploiting the U’wa Indian Communities. In 1995, as tensions climaxed there, the tribe threatened a mass suicide by jumping off a cliff in order to bring attention to the injustice that they were experiencing.

Fortunately, not all similar incidents have escalated to the same extent as the situations in Peru and Colombia. In Bolivia, coca, the plant used to produce cocaine, has become the country’s number one cash crop. Currently, expanded production of the crop, urged on by cartel-related entities as well as those raising a legal crop, has displaced thousands and already has perpetuated significant environmental destruction and habitat loss. In Belize, Mayan people who have lived on their land since approximately 2,000 B.C.E., have gradually watched their lands be destroyed and fragmented due to logging. Neither the situation in Bolivia nor Belize has escalated to a level of great violence, but both are beginning to resemble the areas of strife that currently vex Peru.

Canada’s extractions in Guatemala
Indigenous populations already have recognized that by banding together and defending themselves against government policies, they can eventually pursue legal action or gain international attention to their cause. Last November, indigenous people from Ecuador’s Northern Sierra gathered on a main highway to present a proposal for a water measure that ran counter to President Rafael Correa’s draft Water Law, which they feared would privatize water or deny them access to their livelihood. Guatemala also has seen the indigenous protesting a number of catastrophic multinational corporate projects. In 2007, the Xalalá Dam project was stalled due to investors’ fear of the international media covering the overwhelming indigenous opposition. However, in most cases such demonstrations have had significantly less success. In 1999, native Guatemalan opposition to a Canadian corporate project, the Marlin mine, was violently suppressed by police forces. As the Canadian venture had moved forward, public opposition had increased and by 2005, President Oscar Berger eventually deployed military forces against the demonstrators, saying, “We have to protect investors.”

International implications
All of these conflicts are part of a larger indigenous struggle against an increasingly globalized world. The ruthless economic invasion by developed nations and their corporate line-up has been allowed by the governments of weaker states. This is the primary source of these tensions. As these forces exercise their power over peripheral countries, indigenous people are increasingly bearing the burden of development, prompting marginalized groups throughout the world to fight in order to retain their rights and gain a voice in public policy. In Peru, the pivotal issue is that the members of Aidesep do not hold deeds to the land affected by the resource development, even though they not only hold a historical and ancestral claim to the land, but they also attempted to legally register it 15 years ago with the government agency, INRENA. But both the bureaucracy and the government have blatantly disregarded these attempts in their quest for immediate investment and profit.

More and more, governments, regardless of their political persuasion, are choosing corporate interests over the rights of their indigenous populations, indicating the systemic nature of the problem. Native populations will not easily survive in a globalized world that does not empathize or ensure their protection. Yet in order to survive, poor countries are forced to comply with the demands of wealthier nations that control the world economy. The Peruvian situation will continue to be tense until the government begins to more effectively represent its native populations and realign its relationships with pivotal powers like the United States. Violence in Peru is not an isolated phenomenon, but the result of a region-wide situation. Throughout Latin America there are many escalating situations, with remarkably similar progressions. Peru, and other countries facing comparable crises, must recognize the consequences of enticing foreign investment and find a way to pursue development by the least intrusive and exploitative means possible in order to expand their economies without risking the sacrifice of the rights of the local indigenous populations.

Back to Peru
In Peru, the confrontation between protesters and police attracted enough attention to spark dialogue and the possibility of change. In spite of the declared state of emergency and consequent martial law in the Amazon, the Peruvian congress did vote Wednesday to suspend the controversial legislation – Decrees 1064 and 1090. Jorge Saldaña in the high-profile Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, hailed the decision as a long-awaited opening to a solution to the conflict. But the Partido Nacionalista Peruana and its allies in congress voted against suspension of the decrees, arguing that they needed to be completely repealed.

Yesterday, June 11, protesters across the country gathered to push for the permanent revocation of decrees 1064 and 1090. In Lima, student demonstrators were met with tear gas launched by the police, but their message remains intact. However, in a contrary move, Congress (which is dominated by Garcia’s Aprista party and its allies) has suspended a third of the members of the Partido Nacionalista Peruana, the primary defenders of indigenous rights in the legislatures, until after the temporary lifting of decrees 1064 and 1090 is over, making it ever more important that the movement gain support in order to avoid the reinstatement of those damaging laws.

The controversial legislation undermines the fabric of indigenous society and debilitates mechanisms of environmental protection. Suspension of it, although it is a step in the right direction, can be reversed. It is critical that indigenous groups and their supporters in congress continue to push against Decrees 1064 and 1090. This is not intransigence; it is determination, without which the rights of native Peruvians will be completely overrun by concessions to foreign capital.

A government’s first duty is to protect its people, not foreign interests. The Peruvian government must be willing to make this decision when the cost of development is too high. It is time for Peru to recognize this and choose to stop entrenching its mistakes by trying to ignore the native population and instead correct them by revoking its free trade agreement with the U.S., backtracking on the concessions it has allowed foreign corporations in spite of the increase in debt that this move would lead to, and issuing land deeds to the indigenous people or instituting legally recognized protection of those lands and the indigenous rights to them. Justice mustn’t be allowed to be trumped by finance.