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Peru: Indigenous occupations end with victory in Congress

posted by Sandra Geography: Latin America Peru Topics: Indigenous, energy, Peru, FTA, oil & gas

August 23, 2008

Peru: Indigenous occupations end with victory in Congress

On August 22nd, the Peruvian Congress repealed two legislative decrees at the root of the indigenous demonstrations that paralyzed various roads and energy installations from August 9th through 20th. The indigenous movement of the Amazon, home to 65 different indigenous nations, declared victory.

[note: several of the hyperlinks are to articles and websites in Spanish.]


Peruvian President Alan Garcia approved more than 100 legislative decrees in the first half of 2008, making use of special powers bestowed upon the Executive branch by the Congress in order to bring the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the US and Peru into effect. The FTA was signed in 2006 and passed - despite opposition - by the US House and Senate in late 2007.

Several of the new laws enacted by Garcia are not directly related to the FTA, including legislative decrees #1015 and #1073. The former facilitated procedures for the fragmentation and sale of communal lands held by indigenous and farming communities in the mountainous (Sierra) and forest (Selva) regions of the country, enabling these crucial decisions to be made in an assembly by a simple majority, instead of the previously required two thirds of communal landowners, thus bringing these regions in line with the procedures of Peru's coastal region. Decree #1073 makes further modifications to decree #1015.

Laws regarding the control of the land titling process, logging, natural resources and agricultural policy were also among those passed by Garcia earlier this year. Although Peru has ratified the International Labor Organization's Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, there was no consultation with the indigenous peoples whose territories would be affected by these new laws.

In the months leading up to the most recent mobilizations of the past two weeks, indigenous organizations led a series of protests, press conferences and judicial actions to denounce the new decrees.

Indigenous Occupations

Starting on August 9th, the indigenous movement of the Amazon and of the country in general displayed its power with coordinated occupations of energy and road infrastructure in both southeastern and northern Peru. Occupied sites included a key bridge in Bagua linking the Peruvian amazon to the coast, an oil pipeline owned by State company PetroPeru, a natural gas lot owned by Argentinian company PlusPetrol (key operator in the Camisea mega-project), drilling platforms, a hydroelectric dam, and other important infrastructure.

The indigenous movement's spokespeople demanded that the government rescind over 30 legislative decrees considered as violatory of indigenous rights, including decrees 1015 and 1073. The government was widely denounced for facilitating mining and energy industry interests in indigenous territory, particularly in the Amazon, via the privatization of communally held lands. Another demand was for consultation with indigenous communities concerning their own views on "development" and relevant legislation.

Government Response

Government attempts to resolve the conflict during the first week of the actions were limited to the executive branch insisting that all occupations cease before establishing a dialogue. On Friday, August 15th, the indigenous rights organization AIDESEP broke off talks with a government commission, questioning the commission’s validity and vowing to continue the occupations. By the following day, another highway blockade and other actions in northeastern Peru had begun.

Meanwhile, declarations questioning and undermining the capabilities and objectives of the indigenous movement abounded in the media. Environment Minister Antonio Brack warned the public that behind the demonstrations “there is a movement to liberate ancestral indigenous territories, even until they are independent from the Peruvian State.” Peruvian Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo compared the actions to the strategy of the former guerrilla organization Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”). Other prominent figures in the Peruvian government and commentators publicly speculated that NGOs, opposition political parties or Chavez must have been behind the actions. Alberto Pizango, leader of and spokesperson for the movement, promptly dismissed these claims.

The second week of continuous actions began with the government's declaration of a state of emergency in several key areas: the province of Datem del Marañon (Loreto region), Bagua and Utcubamba (Amazonas), and the district of Echarate in the province of La Convención (Cusco). The emergency measures that came into effect on Monday August 18th suspended rights to the freedom of assembly and freedom of movement, and also authorized police to arrest and search without a warrant. The government announced the possible intervention of the Army and Special Forces to end the demonstrations.

Peruvian Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo explained that regions affected by the state of emergency did not entirely correspond to the regions affected by the protests, but that they were limited to regions of key energy infrastructure: an oil pipeline through the northern Amazon region and the Malvinas gas plant – part of the Camisea mega-project – in the south. In a press conference with several Ministers, del Castillo declared that the intention of the state of emergency decree was “not to provoke the communities, but to protect strategic points for energy security.”

Alberto Pizango, however, called the measures “a declaration of open war” against indigenous people who were willing to die in the defense of their territories. He announced that the protests would continue despite the state of emergency and the impending intervention of the armed forces.

The occupations, blockades and protests continued; in fact, others joined in solidarity. A provincial Committee of Struggle in La Convención (Cusco) including a Farmworkers’ Federation announced indefinite actions in support of the communities in the Amazon, including blockades of roads and inter-provincial transportation.

On Tuesday, August 19th, police were first sent to break up the occupation of the Corral Quemado bridge in Bagua, a key transportation link between the Amazon region and the rest of the country. Onsite negotiations between police and protestors led to an agreement that police would not permit the intervention of special forces in the area, and that the 2000 indigenous demonstrators would voluntarily open the bridge to traffic for 24 hours as of 4pm that afternoon.

Resolution in Congress

During the morning of Wednesday, August 20th, an agreement was reached between AIDESEP and President of Congress Javier Velásquez Quesquén. Velásquez promised to convoke an extraordinary plenary session of the Peruvian Congress on Friday, August 22nd, to discuss two issues: the repeal of legislative decrees 1015 and 1073; and the creation of a special multi-Party Commission to study indigenous concerns and issues. He pledged his support for legislative proposal 2440, which would revoke 1015 and 1073. The agreement signed also included an initiative to modify the regulations of Congress procedures themselves in order to include consultation with indigenous peoples, which would incorporate ILO 169 into the legislative process. Finally, the agreement involved an end to the mobilizations and actions.

In the meantime, there was some conflict between indigenous demonstrators and police in Bagua. A larger group of Bagua residents mobilized to support the indigenous demonstrators and gathered outside the local police headquarters. By early Friday morning, there was a strong police presence in Bagua, on local roads and on the Corral Quemado bridge. Residents and indigenous community members, however, were gathering in a plaza to await the outcome of the Congressional session in Lima. Press reported a concentration of some 4000 people in the Heroes of Cenepa plaza in Bagua.

After several hours of discussion and debate, Congress passed legislative decree 2440, repealing decrees 1015 and 1073, by a vote of 66 in favour, 29 against, and no abstentions.

President Alan Garcia maintained his opposition to the overturning of the decrees, an act he categorized as an “historic error.”

AIDESEP leader and indigenous movement spokesperson Alberto Pizango celebrated the decision, declaring, “The people of Peru, indigenous or not, have demonstrated once more that it is possible to reclaim our rights to life, to dignity, and to a lasting sustainable development. This is a new dawn for the Indigenous Peoples of the country.”

[Summary of media reports and information compiled by Sandra Cuffe.]

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Canada - Peru FTA

Canada has also finished negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with Peru. The text of the agreement was made public once the negotiations were finished, and is available here.

The FTA between Canada and Peru contains investment protection guarantees for Canadian corporations active in Peru. These include: Royal Bank, Yamana Gold, Teck Cominco, Iberian Minerals Corporation, Barrick Gold, and Saputo Inc.

The FTA was signed by former "Miss Huronia" Helena Guergis in her current capacity as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The enabling legislation has not yet been enacted in Canada.