A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
Depending upon who you listen to, there is either a populist uprising or a coordinated domestic terrorism onslaught that has been ongoing in Peru for the past month or so. The only thing clear from photos and videos leaking out of the country is that tensions are running high and people are killing each other.
After weeks of indigenous people blocking a road and waterway via peaceful protest, Peruvian President Alan Garcia announced he was fed up with the protesters, who were trying to get the government to rescind new laws expanding the rights of energy companies to exploit indigenous lands and forested areas. Garcia ordered his ministers to end the blockade, which forced the closing of the state- owned oil pipeline, PetroPeru.
At least one human rights group is accusing the Peruvian government of “atrocities.” Gregor MacLennan of Amazon Watch is in the area gathering testimony from journalists and people involved in the protest, and issued this statement:
All eyewitness testimonies say that Special Forces opened fire on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators including from helicopters, killing and wounding dozens in an orchestrated attempt to open the roads. It seems that the police had come with orders to shoot. This was not a clash, but a coordinated police raid with police firing on protesters from both sides of their blockade.
Of course, this is not the story one gets from the wires. The origin of media misinformation is evident in the dateline; it is hard for journalists to get to Bagua due to both the location and 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfews, so they’re reporting from the capital city or even nearby Colombia.
Further, the stories told by police and indigenous groups don’t match up. So, as is common in the corporate media, reports tend to reflect the statements of so-called authorities and not those of indigenous leaders and other eyewitnesses. Currently it appears that more than 50 people have been killed in the conflict; around 30 protesters and 23 police officers, according to the respective sides of the conflict. More than 150 people have been injured in the conflict and dozens are in police custody.
Reporting is further complicated by the fact that there are several different protests, blockades, and face-offs happening across the country. The main violence erupted at the PetroPeru pipeline, but conflicts also occurred elsewhere, at blockaded roads and an airport used by an Argentinian energy company.
An unrelated attack by remnants of the Shining Path rebel group, killing one and injuring four, made it into this Reuters story on the Peruvian unrest. The Garcia government has been criticized by Amazon Watch for its history of drawing parallels from today’s protesters to the Shining Path movement, a violent communist group active in the country in the 1980s and 1990s, but which is now more of a drug cartel than any political movement.
There is loaded language on both sides, with the government accusing the protesters of insurgency and the indigenous protesters accusing the government of genocide.
In Lima on Friday, indigenous leader Alberto Pizango told journalists he put the blame squarely in the president’s court, saying, “I hold the government of President Alan Garcia responsible for ordering the genocide.” Pizango has since gone into hiding due to several arrest warrants accusing the organizer of sedition, homicide, and other acts. His replacement, Champion Nonimgo, asked that the Organization of American States and others look into the violence.
The Peruvian government has given credence to indigenous people’s claims of genocide via racist language employed by President Garcia. From a press release issued by Amazon Watch Monday:
The Amazonian indigenous peoples’ mobilizations have been peaceful, locally coordinated, and extremely well organized for nearly two months. Yet Garcia insists on calling them terrorist acts and anti-democratic. Garcia has even gone so far as to describe the indigenous mobilizations as “savage and barbaric.” Garcia has made his discrimination explicit, saying directly that the Amazonian indigenous people are not first-class citizens.
“These people don’t have crowns,” Garcia said about the protesters. “These people aren’t first-class citizens who can say — 400,000 natives to 28 million Peruvians — ‘You don’t have the right to be here.’ No way. That is a huge error.”
When Garcia accuses the uprising of having foreign roots, he is alluding to foreign agitators such as Venezuelan leftists. But the indigenous groups have concrete outside forces, such as the United States, upon which they lay blame for the controversial policies they are protesting.
The protests themselves have been going on for many weeks and are in response to changes made during the negotiation and signing of a Peru-U.S. free trade pact. The legal changes “open communal jungle lands and water resources to oil drilling, logging, mining and large-scale farming” according to The Associated Press.
The free trade agreement was so contentious that, though details were finalized between Peru and the Bush Administration years ago, it was not signed by President Bush until mere days before his handing over the White House to President Obama.
The agreement raised environmental, labor, and human rights concerns. The head of the indigenous caucus of Peru’s congress predicted the new pact would allow for the deforestation of 70 percent of the Amazon. Others have said that the open market between nations will put Peruvian farmers out of business while at the same time driving up prices for necessities such as medicine for Peru’s poor.
Multinational corporations and wealthy citizens living in urban Peru have benefited from Garcia’s emphasis on free markets and foreign investment, according to his critics. And he has plenty of critics; his approval rating is around 30 percent.
This protester, speaking in front of a crowd in Lima, posits that a popular referendum on the Garcia presidency would kick the current administration to the curb. Such language relates to the frustration of Peruvians who were left out of the discussion of when, how and to whom the riches of the country’s rainforest should be opened. The debate is further complicated by indigenous land rights, which favor communal ownership.
Some analysts believe Garcia will try to circumvent judgment by reshuffling his cabinet instead of taking concrete action that would do more to solve the underlying problem of inequity, but would put his foreign and business relations at risk.
The Peruvian congress had already ruled the new laws unconstitutional, but they hadn’t quite gotten to the point of invalidating them before President Garcia stepped in. A congressional attempt last week to revisit the new laws opening up the Amazon to exploitation was blocked by the executive branch, setting off this weekend’s bloody conflict.
The Peruvian government declared a 60-day state of emergency on May 8, suspending constitutional guarantees as a way to quell the unrest. But indigenous organizers accuse police of initiating the bloodshed. They insist citizens did not have advanced weaponry and that the authorities opened fire on the protesters, who were armed symbolically with spears. They also accuse police of burning and dumping dead protesters’ bodies to obscure the death count.
Local journalists have posted on the Internet pictures and accounts of snipers shooting at indigenous protesters and of police beating and killing men, women and children. Amazon Watch cited in their press release Monday several sources reporting on police officers disposing of protesters’ bodies as well as detaining hundreds more in unknown locations, some of whom have been injured.
Over the past few weeks, most of the coverage of the situation in Peru has concentrated on the shutdowns of oil pipelines and associated resource shortages.
At his blog Peruanista, Carlos Quiroz writes an analysis of major media reports on the clash as of Saturday, noting almost all are skewed toward a positive portrayal of government and police forces.
As mentioned earlier, this is a tough story to cover. But there’s another important reason we’re not hearing more about this issue. It has something to do with the paltry coverage given to Alaskan Natives who are becoming our country’s first climate refugees.
In order to continue at our current levels of consumption, something has to give. First, we compromise natural environments. Plants and animals are the first to suffer blows, and have silently been taking the heat for decades at the very least. But the burden of environmental degredation has been increasingly shifting to human populations, and the first people to feel the pain are almost always poor and quite often indigenous.
It may not be entirely shocking that these are the people who pay first, but it is ironic. The communities that are most likely to have a symbiotic relationship with nature that respects the power and fragility of mother earth are unfairly impacted by the environmental policies of major world powers that lack such respect.
A BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS