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Government runs into the muralla verde
Latinamerica Press
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Indigenous groups from Perus Amazon basin face down Garcias pro-business government and get results.

The political power of Peru´s indigenous peoples -- estimated at around 45 percent of the country´s 28 million people -- has long paled in comparison with those of its Andean neighbors Ecuador and Bolivia.

Despite recent efforts to consolodate an indigenous political agenda, movements have traditionally remained disjointed, and Peru´s government ignores the nation´s native peoples, criminalizing protests, and calling them isolated incidents. Peru´s indigenous are among the country´s poorest and most disenfranchised sectors, many of whom live on resource-rich lands.
In April, however, Peru´s indigenous movement, took a turn.

Unlike the more fruitful struggle of highland indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Bolivia, it is the native groups from Peru´s Amazon basin that have organized and are seeing results for their demands to protect their lands and livlihoods.

Since taking office in July 2006, President Alan García, has steamed ahead with his pro-business agenda, seeking free trade with nations from Chile to China, and aggressively opening up the country´s jungle to investment for massive oil and gas exploration, a turnaround from his disastrous left-center government of 1985-90 that left the country nearly bankrupt.

One of the most controversial of his moves was the passage of a package of legislative decrees to help spur private investment in Peru, still expected to be the region´s leader this year in economic growth.

But the decrees, passed as part of the free trade agreement with the United States, which went into effect on Feb. 1, drew ire from Peru´s indigenous communities, particularly in the jungle.

Last year, massive protests ensued in Peru´s Amazon basin, where indigenous Peruvians complained that the laws eased the requirements for the sale of their native lands. They said the decrees would serve to create divisions in their tightly-knit communities, while other critics of the measures said hydrocarbons companies could use financial incentives to persuade Amazon natives to give up their ancestral lands.

This time, lawmakers were listening.

Following 11 days of protests, Congress last September voted to repeal two of the decrees, shortly after the government auctioned off 17 new oil and gas blocks, several of them in the Amazon basin. García called lawmakers´ decision a "historic error."

But there were nine other decrees that indigenous movements, led by the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Amazon, or Aidesep, an umbrella group of Amazon indigenous organizations, wanted to see thrown out because they are thought to be unconstitutional.

It also violates the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169 on indigenous peoples, which calls for the protection of communal lands and for previous consultation for any activity or sale of them. On April 9, they began to march.

Breaking ground
The protests put unprecedented pressure on García´s government. Protesters occupied bridges and roadways and snarled river traffic. They too over two pumping stations of state-run oil company PetroPeru SA, which led the company to shut down its Nor-Peruano pipeline because of the backup at oil storage stations, cutting off the shipment of crude from the northeastern jungle to the coast for export. Argentine oil company Pluspetrol was forced to shut operations at its Block 1-AB and Block 8, in northeastern Peru. On May 30, other protesters occupied part of a pipeline in the Camisea gas fields in the southeastern Cusco department.

The protests even stretched to New York, where environmental organizations staged demonstrations in front of Peru´s Mission to the United Nations on May 22.

Peru´s government declared a 60-day state of emergency and called on the military to break up the protests.

"The lands of Amazonia belong to you, to your children," García said, in an address to the nation, just over a month into the demonstrations. "They belong to the whole nation. They belong to all Peruvians, not just a small group that lives there.

"The riches of Peru belong to all Peruvians," he said.

New advances
Despite García´s theory, Congress´ constitutional committee voted to repeal Decree 1090, the so-called Flora and Fauna Law, one of the most contentious of the nine decrees the groups are demanding be repealed, which allows lands to be sold if they are "of national interest."

García´s Cabinet chief, Yehude Simon, was tasked with quelling the unrest, but used a hard line on the protests, refusing to agree to talks while the demonstrations were going on. Alberto Pizango, Aidesep´s president, and Simon agreed to talks to discuss the decrees, as well as other issues such as health care and educations in these underfunded communities, but protests have continued, and some members of the Amazon indigenous communities railed on Pizango for agreeing to the negotiations.

Pizango has now found himself at the center of a government crackdown on the protests´ organizers.

While he denies violating any private property rights, special state prosecutor Julio Talledo has filed charges against Pizango and at least five other indigenous leaders, for allegedly disturbing public peace, attacking transportation, communication and other public infrastructure.

Despite these setbacks, and government targeting the indigenous leaders, eyes are on García´s government, who is struggling to save the country´s image as the "rising star" of Latin America, a magnet for investment. But these issues, long lurking just below the surface have boiled over, and lawmakers are finally paying at least some attention.
—Latinamerica Press.


Miguel Palacín, an Andean indigenous leader and Alberto Pizango, one of the leaders of the Amazon movement meet at a regional summit in southern Peru. (Photo: P. Hemmerling, SERVINDI)
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