The recent clash between indigenous peoples and Peruvian national police sends a powerful message from the Amazon jungle straight to Washington: The enormous social, political, and environmental costs of the free-trade model are no longer acceptable.
Using a combined offensive of helicopter and ground forces, the police attacked a peaceful demonstration of 2,000 Wampi and Aguaruna indigenous people near the town of Bagua. The protesters belong to the interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle, an organization of about 300,000 members and 1,350 communities in the region. They blocked roads and occupied oil facilities to protest the executive decrees of President Alan García to implement the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA). The decrees open up the Amazon to foreign investment, particularly gas and oil extraction.
In the police attack and counterattack by protestors and nearby residents of Bagua, indigenous organizations and international news reports count over 50 dead and hundreds missing. The Peruvian government claims that 24 police officers and nine civilians died in the violence.
Reports that police threw the bodies of protestors in the river to hide the real death toll have begun to circulate on the Internet and in the international press. International human rights and advocacy organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Survival International and Amazon Watch, have deplored the violence, the subsequent crackdown on NGOs in Peru, and the role that the free-trade agreement has played in the crisis.
Videos of the attack show well-armed police up against indigenous protesters with spears, and scenes of chaotic violence suffused in tear gas. The rage of the local communities can be seen in this video of an indigenous woman, even if one can't understand Spanish. Many images show indigenous women at the forefront of these protests.
Regional analyst Raul Zibechi points out that mobilization of these indigenous organizations didn't spring up overnight. Protests against the decrees began on April 9 and intensified on June 4, when the ruling party blocked discussion of repeal in Congress, although a commission had already declared them unconstitutional.
Background to the Events
The real back story dates from May 2004, when the U.S. and Peruvian governments began negotiations for a free-trade agreement as U.S. plans for a broader regional agreement broke down. Peru broke from the Andean group, some of whose members had balked at the demands of the United States, to sign its own bilateral agreement on December 8, 2005. The signing provoked the first round of widespread protests, led by small farmers. From then until the signing of the ratified version at the beginning of this year, demonstrations continued in various sectors, leading to four killed in 2008.
The connection between the protests, repudiated decrees, and the free-trade agreement is explicit, as even the Peruvian government describes in its chronology of events: "By Law 29157 published on Dec. 20, 2007 the Congress delegated legislative powers to the Executive branch on various subjects related to the Peru-U.S. Trade Promotion Agreement and to support improvements in economic competitiveness."
The resulting decrees include moves to privatize water and allow private investment in other sectors. The most controversial decree relates to forestry. Indigenous organizations warn that this ruling effectively opens up 45 million hectares to foreign investment and timber, oil, and mining exploitation. The decrees stipulate that a minority of communal land holders can push a vote to parcel off and privatize lands, much as constitutional reform in Mexico was a pre-condition to NAFTA and led to massive out-migration. Two decrees have been suspended for 90 days, but indigenous groups have called for repeal.
The Amazon conflict presents an acid test for Congress and the Obama administration on trade. The Bush administration presented the Peru agreement as a model of compromise between free-trade Republicans and Democrats with growing anti-free-trade constituents. It incorporated environmental and labor standards into the text and was redubbed a "Trade Promotion Agreement." Obama and the Democratic leadership supported the U.S.-Peru free-trade agreement, although a majority of Democrats still voted against it. At the Pathways to Prosperity meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the agreement as "good environmental stewardship," just four days before Peruvian police shot indigenous activists protesting invasion of the Amazon jungle.
Some Washington organizations have now signed a letter asking the Obama administration to communicate to the Peruvian government that repeal of the decrees "does not conflict with the obligations of the U.S.-Peru TPA."
But even if the administration showed a new flexibility on free-trade agreements, the conflict wouldn't likely go away. This isn't just a battle over jungle lands and competing interests in the Amazon. As a planetary lung and a reserve of culture and biodiversity, the Amazon region provokes conflicting views of human progress.
For Peruvian President Alan García, in an editorial in El Comercio, the area considered a marvel by many is really just a big waste: "There are millions of hectares of timber lying idle, another millions of hectares that communities and associations have not and will not cultivate, hundreds of mineral deposits that are not dug up and millions of hectares of ocean not used for aquaculture. The rivers that run down both sides of the mountains represent a fortune that reaches the sea without producing electricity."
García argues that indigenous peoples born in the Amazon do not have special land-use rights on the area. Instead, the Amazon should be carved up into very large plots and sold to people with the capital to make use of it. The Peruvian government coveted the free-trade agreement with the United States because, with required changes in national legislation, it opens up the Amazon to foreign investment.
In contrast, indigenous communities and their supporters value the conservation of the Amazon. They want to preserve traditional knowledge and cultures, all of which would be threatened by bioprospecting and patent law changes under the FTA.
This contest between oil wells and jungles, foreign engineers and Amazon inhabitants has spread to the rest of Peru and the world. On June 11, tens of thousands of people marched in support of the indigenous protests in cities and towns across the country, chanting, "In defense of the jungle - the jungle is not for sale." Simultaneously, demonstrators hit the streets to show support for the indigenous communities in cities throughout the world.
In Peru, those who have suffered most under this economic model have led the charge for change - just as in Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to protest NAFTA's agricultural chapter; Colombia, where Minga demonstrations opposing a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement mobilized thousands of people; Costa Rica, where nearly half the population voted against CAFTA; and Guatemala, where FTA protesters were killed in the streets.
Yet somehow these voices never make it into the U.S. trade debate. The assumption that a free-trade agreement is a gift to a developing country continues to be enforced by governments' refusal to heed messages from grassroots movements. Meanwhile, The New York Times echoes accusations that neighboring countries have duped these thousands of women, farmers, indigenous groups, and workers.
The Amazon conflict shows that as long as providing clear access and mobility for transnational companies and financial capital is accepted as the sole measure of progress, concerns for the earth and human beings with little economic power and a different view of progress won't be part of the discussion.
The U.S. government must do more than authorize repeal of the hated national laws it provoked. It must rethink this free-trade model and begin to listen to voices from the bottom of the economic ladder. The crisis compels a new vision of sustainable growth and social equity, and the Obama administration has noted the need for change. Reviewing trade policy should be at the top of the agenda.