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Amazonian Indians End Protest After Peru's Congress Repeals Decrees

LIMA, Peru, June 19, 2009 (ENS) – A 10-week protest by Peru’s Amazonian indigenous groups against legislation that facilitates development in their region ended yesterday after the Peruvian Congress repealed two legislative decrees. Leaders of the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association, AIDESEP, called upon thousands of indigenous protesters to lift blockades of two highways and return to their villages.

The congressional vote was a partial victory for the seven indigenous organizations that AIDESEP represents, which were demanding that the government repeal nine decrees. Indigenous leaders claim those decrees threaten their people’s rights to land and natural resources, and that they violate the UN International Labor Organization’s convention 169, which requires the government to consult indigenous groups before passing laws that will impact them.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia, left, meets with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House on the Free Trade Agreement. October 2006. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)

Peruvian President Alan Garcia signed the decrees last year as part of an extensive legislative package designed to help Peru comply with its Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

In a televised address to the nation on June 16, Garcia admitted that it was a mistake not to consult indigenous leaders when drafting the legislation, though he added that he didn’t think the decrees affected indigenous lands.

He called upon the Peruvian Congress, which had resisted indigenous demands for more than two months, to repeal two decrees that it had suspended the week before in a move that AIDESEP rejected. The legislators, led by Garcia’s APRA party, complied the next day.

At a press conference following the congressional vote, AIDESEP vice president Daysi Zapata, a Yine Indian, said it was an historic day. “The voice of the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon should be heard and should be respected by whatever government is in power,” she said.

Zapata said that the remaining decrees will be discussed in a dialogue between the government and indigenous leaders that will be moderated by representatives of the Catholic Church and the country’s Ombudsman and is scheduled to begin next week.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 indigenous people from more than a dozen Amazonian ethnic groups participated in the 10-week protest, blockading highways and Amazon tributaries, and shutting down rural airports and an oil pipeline pumping station, among other actions.

Indigenous blockade at Bagua a week before the violence there. May 29, 2009 (Photo © David Dudenhoefer)

After ignoring the indigenous protest for almost six weeks, the Garcia Administration began to crack down in late May, declaring a state of emergency in the Amazon region and charging several of AIDESEP’s leaders with sedition and other crimes against the state.

The largely peaceful protest took a deadly turn on June 5, when police attacked an indigenous highway blockade in Bagua province, igniting two days of violence that left at least 34 dead and 150 injured. AIDESEP leaders claim that more protesters were killed than the government has reported – witnesses claim bodies were removed by helicopter – and have sent a delegation to Bagua to investigate.

In his televised address, Garcia claimed that enemies of Peru manipulated the Indians and infiltrated their ranks in order to provoke the violence. “The native chiefs believed agitators and demagogues instead of examining the decrees themselves,” he said.

According to Richard Smith, executive director of the Peruvian NGO Instituto del Bien Comun, which helps indigenous communities to get title for their land and improve their natural resource management, at least a dozen lawyers have analyzed the decrees in question and shown that they threaten indigenous property rights.

Zapata assured reporters that the indigenous people were not being manipulated. “We don’t depend on NGOs. We don’t depend on political parties. We at AIDESEP have principles. We have a long-term plan that we have been working on with the regional organizations,” she said.

Ashanika Indians shut down the airport at Atalaya and took over oil company boats for two weeks, until the Peruvian Navy broke up the protest, without casualties. April 2009. (Photo © David Dudenhoefer)

Zapata assumed the role of spokesperson after the government charged Alberto Pizango, AIDESEP’s president, with homicide in the deaths of policemen in Bagua, and he sought and was granted political asylum in Nicaragua.

She called upon the government to lift the curfew in Bagua and the state of emergency in the eastern half of the country, and to drop the charges against AIDESEP’s leaders. “I want to ask once again … that the harassment and persecution of our national and regional leaders end,” she said.

Gil Inoach, an Awajun Indian and former president of AIDESEP who now works for WWF Peru, said the government is mistaken to blame Pizango, noting that he was neither a planner nor an agitator, just a spokesperson for a broad indigenous movement.

Inoach said that the decrees the Indians protested facilitate the privatization and deforestation of communal indigenous lands and restrict the rights of indigenous communities to negotiate with oil companies operating in their territories, among other problems. He called the repeal of the two decrees an important step, but noted that other decrees are linked to them, and should thus be repealed, or modified.

Inoach predicted that AIDESEP will have a hard time getting additional concessions from the government through dialogue. Nevertheless, he said the protest had at least succeeded in showing the country that its Amazon region is far from uninhabited. “The government now knows that they need to consult with us,” he said.

“There needs to be a balance, a middle ground that respects the rights of indigenous people and the needs of the rest of the country, and we need to reach that point without mortgaging our natural resources,” Inoach said. “We need to protect both our biological diversity and our cultural diversity.”

By David Dudenhoefer

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