Indigenous Peoples: 'We Are Fighting for Our Lives and Our Dignity'

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The Guardian/UK

Indigenous Peoples: 'We Are Fighting for Our Lives and Our Dignity'

Across the globe, as mining and oil firms race for dwindling resources, indigenous peoples are battling to defend their lands – often paying the ultimate price

John Vidal

Natives set up a road block at the entrance of the Amazonian town of Yurimaguas, northern Peru. "For thousands of years, we've run the Amazon forests," said Servando Puerta, one of the protest leaders. "This is genocide. They're killing us for defending our lives, our sovereignty, human dignity." (AFP/Ernesto Benavides)

It has been called the world's second "oil war", but the only similarity between Iraq and events in the jungles of northern Peru
over the last few weeks has been the mismatch of force. On one side
have been the police armed with automatic weapons, teargas, helicopter
gunships and armoured cars. On the other are several thousand Awajun
and Wambis Indians, many of them in war paint and armed with bows and
arrows and spears.

In some of the worst violence seen in Peru in
20 years, the Indians this week warned Latin America what could happen
if companies are given free access to the Amazonian forests
to exploit an estimated 6bn barrels of oil and take as much timber they
like. After months of peaceful protests, the police were ordered to use
force to remove a road bock near Bagua Grande.

In the fights that
followed, at least 50 Indians and nine police officers were killed,
with hundreds more wounded or arrested. The indigenous rights group Survival International described it as "Peru's Tiananmen Square".

thousands of years, we've run the Amazon forests," said Servando
Puerta, one of the protest leaders. "This is genocide. They're killing
us for defending our lives, our sovereignty, human dignity."

as riot police broke up more demonstrations in Lima and a curfew was
imposed on many Peruvian Amazonian towns, President Garcia backed down
in the face of condemnation of the massacre. He suspended – but only
for three months – the laws that would allow the forest to be
exploited. No one doubts the clashes will continue.

Peru is just
one of many countries now in open conflict with its indigenous people
over natural resources. Barely reported in the international press,
there have been major protests around mines, oil, logging and mineral
exploitation in Africa, Latin America, Asia and North America. Hydro
electric dams, biofuel plantations as well as coal, copper, gold and
bauxite mines are all at the centre of major land rights disputes.

massive military force continued this week to raid communities opposed
to oil companies' presence on the Niger delta. The delta, which
provides 90% of Nigeria's foreign earnings, has always been volatile,
but guns have flooded in and security has deteriorated. In the last
month a military taskforce has been sent in and helicopter gunships
have shelled villages suspected of harbouring militia. Thousands of
people have fled. Activists from the Movement for the Emancipation of
the Niger Delta have responded by killing 12 soldiers and this week set
fire to a Chevron oil facility. Yesterday seven more civilians were
shot by the military.

The escalation of violence came in the week
that Shell agreed to pay £9.7m to ethnic Ogoni families – whose
homeland is in the delta – who had led a peaceful uprising against it
and other oil companies in the 1990s, and who had taken the company to
court in New York accusing it of complicity in writer Ken Saro-Wiwa's
execution in 1995.

Meanwhile in West Papua, Indonesian forces
protecting some of the world's largest mines have been accused of human
rights violations. Hundreds of tribesmen have been killed in the last
few years in clashes between the army and people with bows and arrows.

aggressive drive is taking place to extract the last remaining
resources from indigenous territories," says Victoria Tauli-Corpus, an
indigenous Filipino and chair of the UN permanent forum on indigenous
issues. "There is a crisis of human rights. There are more and more
arrests, killings and abuses.

"This is happening in Russia,
Canada, the Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Nigeria, the Amazon, all
over Latin America, Papua New Guinea and Africa. It is global. We are
seeing a human rights emergency. A battle is taking place for natural
resources everywhere. Much of the world's natural capital – oil, gas,
timber, minerals – lies on or beneath lands occupied by indigenous
people," says Tauli-Corpus.

What until quite recently were
isolated incidents of indigenous peoples in conflict with states and
corporations are now becoming common as government-backed companies
move deeper on to lands long ignored as unproductive or wild. As
countries and the World Bank increase spending on major infrastructural
projects to counter the economic crisis, the conflicts are expected to

Indigenous groups say that large-scale mining is the most
damaging. When new laws opened the Philippines up to international
mining 10 years ago, companies flooded in and wreaked havoc in
indigenous communities, says MP Clare Short, former UK international
development secretary and now chair of the UK-based Working Group on
Mining in the Philippines.

Short visited people affected by
mining there in 2007: "I have never seen anything so systematically
destructive. The environmental effects are catastrophic as are the
effects on people's livelihoods. They take the tops off mountains,
which are holy, they destroy the water sources and make it impossible
to farm," she said.

In a report published earlier this year, the
group said: "Mining generates or exacerbates corruption, fuels armed
conflicts, increases militarisation and human rights abuses, including
extrajudicial killings."

The arrival of dams, mining or oil
spells cultural death for communities. The Dongria Kondh in Orissa,
eastern India, are certain that their way of life will be destroyed
when British FTSE 100 company Vedanta shortly starts to legally exploit
their sacred Nyamgiri mountain for bauxite, the raw material for
aluminium. The huge open cast mine will destroy a vast swath of
untouched forest, and will reduce the mountain to an industrial
wasteland. More than 60 villages will be affected.

"If Vedanta
mines our mountain, the water will dry up. In the forest there are
tigers, bears, monkeys. Where will they go? We have been living here
for generations. Why should we leave?" asks Kumbradi, a tribesman. "We
live here for Nyamgiri, for its trees and leaves and all that is here."

Davi Yanomami,
a shaman of the Yanomami, one of the largest but most isolated
Brazilian indigenous groups, came to London this week to warn MPs that
the Amazonian forests were being destroyed, and to appeal for help to
prevent his tribe being wiped out.

"History is repeating itself",
he told the MPs. "Twenty years ago many thousand gold miners flooded
into Yanomami land and one in five of us died from the diseases and
violence they brought. We were in danger of being exterminated then,
but people in Europe persuaded the Brazilian government to act and they
were removed.

"But now 3,000 more miners and ranchers have come
back. More are coming. They are bringing in guns, rafts, machines, and
destroying and polluting rivers. People are being killed. They are
opening up and expanding old airstrips. They are flooding into Yanomami
land. We need your help.

"Governments must treat us with respect.
This creates great suffering. We kill nothing, we live on the land, we
never rob nature. Yet governments always want more. We are warning the
world that our people will die."

According to Victor Menotti,
director of the California-based International Forum on Globalisation,
"This is a paradigm war taking place from the arctic to tropical
forests. Wherever you find indigenous peoples you will find resource
conflicts. It is a battle between the industrial and indigenous world

There is some hope, says Tauli-Corpus. "Indigenous
peoples are now much more aware of their rights. They are challenging
the companies and governments at every point."

In Ecuador,
Chevron may be fined billions of dollars in the next few months if an
epic court case goes against them. The company is accused of dumping,
in the 1970s and 1980s, more than 19bn gallons of toxic waste and
millions of gallons of crude oil into waste pits in the forests,
leading to more than 1,400 cancer deaths and devastation of indigenous
communities. The pits are said to be still there, mixing chemicals with
groundwater and killing fish and wildlife.

The Ecuadorian courts
have set damages at $27bn (£16.5bn). Chevron, which inherited the case
when it bought Texaco, does not deny the original spills, but says the
damage was cleaned up.

Back in the Niger delta, Shell was ordered
to pay $1.5bn to the Ijaw people in 2006 – though the company has so
far escaped paying the fines. After settling with Ogoni families in New
York this week, it now faces a second class action suit in New York
over alleged human rights abuses, and a further case in Holland brought
by Niger Delta villagers working with Dutch groups.

Exxon Mobil is being sued by Indonesian indigenous villagers who claim
their guards committed human rights violations, and there are dozens of
outstanding cases against other companies operating in the Niger Delta.

groups are using the courts more but there is still collusion at the
highest levels in court systems to ignore land rights when they
conflict with economic opportunities," says Larry Birns, director of
the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "Everything is for
sale, including the Indians' rights. Governments often do not recognise
land titles of Indians and the big landowners just take the land."

leaders want an immediate cessation to mining on their lands. Last
month, a conference on mining and indigenous peoples in Manila called
on governments to appoint an ombudsman or an international court system
to handle indigenous peoples' complaints.

"Most indigenous
peoples barely have resources to ensure their basic survival, much less
to bring their cases to court. Members of the judiciary in many
countries are bribed by corporations and are threatened or killed if
they rule in favour of indigenous peoples.

"States have an
obligation to provide them with better access to justice and maintain
an independent judiciary," said the declaration.

But as the
complaints grow, so does the chance that peaceful protests will grow
into intractable conflicts as they have in Nigeria, West Papua and now
Peru. "There is a massive resistance movement growing," says Clare
Short. "But the danger is that as it grows, so does the violence."

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