Activists Urge Obama to Use Trade Pact as Leverage

Indigenous people line up to enter the Cabinet Chief Headquarters for a meeting with Peru's Prime Minister Yehude Simon in Lima June 16, 2009. Peruvian President Alan Garcia's cabinet chief will step down in the face of opposition demands for his ouster over deadly clashes between police and Amazon tribes in resource-rich jungles on northern Peru.Simon said on Tuesday he plans to resign after persuading the Peruvian Congress to repeal two controversial laws that native groups say would speed up the destruction of their jungle habitat. (REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)

Activists Urge Obama to Use Trade Pact as Leverage

NEW YORK - The United States government is coming under intense pressure from rights organizations and environmental groups to redefine its trade pact with Peru, a tool that they charge the government in Lima is using to justify oppression against the indigenous population.

"Whether or not the U.S. intended it, the reality is that the U.S.-Peru Trade Agreement gave license to the [Alan] Garcia administration to roll back indigenous rights and has contributed to increasing social conflict and human rights abuses in Peru," said Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch.

On Monday, Miller's group joined a broad coalition of 14 other organizations in sending a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-level officials calling for immediate U.S. action regarding the ongoing political conflict in Peru between the state authorities and indigenous rights movement.

Last year the Garcia administration issued several decrees to implement the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement. The decrees are controversial because they are designed to regulate investment in the Amazon, which is a source of concern for environmental organizations as well as the indigenous population.

On Jun. 5, the police opened fire on indigenous activists at a roadblock near the northern Peruvian town of Bagua. The demonstrators were blockading traffic to protest the government's policy to let foreign investors use indigenous lands in the Amazon. In the clashes, an as yet uncertain number of protesters were killed, along with a number of police.

Analysts of U.S. policy towards Latin America describe the bloody incident in Bagua as the latest rendition of the discord that exists between the United States, Latin American governments and the indigenous people of the region.

"The increase in foreign direct investment since the 1980s has ignited countless humanitarian and environmental crises throughout Latin America as the leaders of developing world are being forced to choose between the perceived economic benefits of free trade," note researchers Arienna Grody and Lincoln Wheeler.

In a report for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank, they describe Garcia as "a robust ally of foreign investors and multinational corporations" who has strongly defended Peru's development initiatives by claiming that it was in the benefit of the poor.

But, to Grody and Wheeler, such an assertion is highly questionable.

"This grand scheme to uplift the poor, cynical it may seem, has significantly increased the disenfranchisement of the already underrepresented native people who have now seen themselves [of having been] stripped of basic ownership rights of their traditional lands," they wrote.

The ownership rights to traditional lands are fully recognized by the majority of the international community. The U.N. General Assembly endorsed that principle in a resolution approving the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The resolution was passed in September 2007.

Since the adoption of the declaration, which is not legally binding, indigenous peoples all over the world have been joining hands with environmental organizations and calling upon governments to respect their way of life and protect their resources from commercial concerns.

Since Peru is rich in copper, silver, lead, zinc, oil and gold, many foreign corporations are keen to explore and exploit such commodities for profit. The indigenous communities have been resisting such attempts for decades and have often had violent clashes with the authorities who support the use of indigenous lands for private use.

On Tuesday, the Peruvian government promised to introduce a draft law to get Congress to repeal the two decrees that sparked the protests.

The U.N. declaration demands that government and corporations must seek the "informed consent" of indigenous communities before embarking on any kind of commercial venture on indigenous territories.

A multi-party parliamentary committee had declared the decrees unconstitutional in December.

Critics note that the legislative decrees were passed without transparency or genuine consultation with indigenous communities. According to Oxfam International, a British anti-poverty organization, the decrees are not only in contradiction to the U.S.-Peru pact, but also violate ILO Convention 169, which Peru ratified in 1993.

The ILO Convention grants indigenous communities the right to be consulted on issues affecting them.

"The Peruvian Congress has taken an important first step by suspending these decrees, but much more needs to be done to bring an end to this conflict," said Raymond C. Offenheiser of Oxfam America.

He thinks that the U.S. government "can help by fostering a solution through dialogue, not force."

Concerned about the fact that the Peruvian government intends to clear protesters in other areas of the Amazon, he said the U.S. government must act quickly to work with Peru to address the issue of legislative decrees, and to clarify what relation, if any, these decrees have to compliance with the trade pact.

"We strongly urge the U.S. government to help bring an end to this crisis by supporting a dialogue that includes views of indigenous communities and protects the human rights of these citizens as guaranteed by national and international law," said Offenheiser.

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