LIMA, Peru - After more than six weeks of protests by Peru's Amazonian indigenous groups that have included blockades of major roads and waterways and the shutting down an oil pipeline pumping station, the Peruvian government has begun to crack down.
During the past two weeks, the administration of President Alan Garcia has declared a state of emergency in the country's Amazon provinces, issued a decree allowing the military to help the national police maintain order there, and charged the protest's leaders with crimes against the state.
The protests, which have involved more than 10,000 men, many of them in war paint and armed with bows and arrows, are being coordinated by the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association, AIDESEP, an umbrella group that represents most of the country's approximately 50 Amazonian indigenous ethnicities.
AIDESEP's leaders are demanding the repeal of nine legislative decrees issued last year that they claim will facilitate the deforestation and privatization of their traditional lands and natural resources.
"This is a struggle to defend our rainforest, to defend our natural resources, to defend the territory we live in," said Daysi Zapata, vice president of AIDESEP.
The laws that AIDESEP objects to were part of a package of more than 100 decrees that President García signed last year in order to get Peru into compliance with a Free Trade Agreement that the country made with the United States. During the past week, various of the country's ministers have warned that repealing those decrees could endanger the Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect early this year.
But according to Congressman Roger Najar, the president of the Congressional Commission of Andean and Amazonian Peoples, the decrees in question have nothing to do with the Free Trade Agreement. He claims that they are simply part of the Garcia administration's agenda to open the country's Amazon region up to large-scale foreign investment.
Following indigenous protests in August 2008, Peru's Congress repealed two decrees and formed a commission to study AIDESEP's other demands.
Najar noted that the commission's report, issued in December, recommends that the remaining decrees be repealed, but the Congress only began to move on those recommendations last week, when its Constitutional Commission declared one of the nine decrees unconstitutional. The Congress is scheduled to vote on the repeal of that decree this week.
The current conflict seemed headed for resolution a month ago, after just two weeks of indigenous protests,when AIDESEP's leaders gained promises of cooperation from the President of the Congress and Garcia's Chief of Staff Yehude Simon (ENS April 23, 2009), but those negotiations soon broke down.
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Only last week did the government establish an inter-ministerial commission for dialogue with AIDESEP, just two days after charging Pizango with conspiring against the state.
Najar, a member of the minority Bloque Popular party, blamed Garcia's majority APRA party of blocking moves in congress to address the indigenous demands. He said that the offending decrees eliminate indigenous communities' rights to be consulted about oil and forestry concessions and other development in their traditional lands, as well as their right to negotiate directly with with oil companies.
Najar noted that the Peruvian government has assigned dozens of oil and gas concession in the Amazon Basin that overlap the territories of hundreds of indigenous communities.
"The President is only interested in getting major investment in the Amazon region. He is facilitating deforestation and the sacking of its natural resources by a handful of transnational companies," said Najar.
President Garcia has largely ignored the protesters, leaving it to his chief of staff and ministers to defend the decrees. However, in a public event on May 16, he lamented the position of AIDESEP's leaders and reminded the audience that, "The Amazonian lands belong to the entire nation, not to a small group that lives there."
Eastern Peru comprises about 16 percent of the Amazon rainforest - one of its most biologically diverse regions - and is home to more than 350,000 indigenous people from some 50 ethnic groups.
Protesters from the Ashanika tribe who occupied an airstrip and took over oil company boats near the Amazonian town of Atalaya claimed that Garcia neither understands, nor is interested in their views. They complained about logging concessions near their villages and water pollution caused by oil companies, citing a major fish kill on the Urubamba River in December of 2007.
One of those protesters, Luis Cushi, a farmer from the town of Unini on the Urubamba River, said he was protesting to defend the region's forests and the rivers.
"We are fighting for our children," he said. "We want peace. We don't want to fight. But we all have the right to defend our territory, where we live."