Jun 10, 2010
A year has passed since a police
to end 55 days of peaceful indigenous protests in the Amazon basin
in a violent clash between military police and peaceful indigenous
in Bagua last June 5, 2009. It was the worst violence Peru has seen in recent history, leaving 34
people dead and almost two hundred injured. One year later there is
a troubling divide between indigenous leaders, seeking reconciliation
and clear answers about what happened, and a government intent on
all responsibility and criminalizing indigenous protesters with
Sadly, the government's discourse has not changed much since the
of the Interior's public service announcement
broadcast on television in the days following the clashes to portray
indigenous peoples as savage extremists, tricked by foreign infiltrators
to think the government was trying to take their land. In his recent
public address on the one-year anniversary of the clashes, Peruvian
President Alan Garcia characterized the incident as an ambush and brutal
massacre of police by indigenous extremists armed for war.
these inaccurate and inflammatory statements only serve to demonstrate
that the Peruvian government has yet to learn the true lessons of Bagua.
Meanwhile, in Bagua, at the site of the bloody clashes, the contrast
with the government's polemical rhetoric could not have been greater.
Indigenous people were joined by environmental youth groups and local
townspeople in a peaceful march of remembrance and reflection. Standing
in vigil that night, holding candles, indigenous leaders called for
justice, reparation, reconciliation and peace. Rather than anger at
police, there were shared tears and condolences for fellow Peruvians
simply following orders. One wishes that the government would show the
same wisdom and maturity in addressing both this tragic history and
the tension still dominating its relations with indigenous peoples.
Indigenous leaders are frustrated that at a time when the country
needs reconciliation and impartial investigation into what happened,
the government continues to demonstrate a dangerous lack of good faith
by fomenting division and hatred of indigenous peoples, and refusing
to accept any responsibility for its central role in this tragedy.
are tentatively hopeful about a new law recently approved by the
congress which would guarantee indigenous peoples' right to consultation
on projects that affect them. It is a far cry from the consensus
prepared by indigenous groups, civil society and the Peruvian Ombudsman
office, but if signed into law by the President it would be a small
but important step forward. However, in an example of the "one step
forward, two steps back" dynamic that has characterized progress with
the current administration, the government's hydrocarbon licensing
arm recently opened a bidding round for 24 new oil blocks that overlap
indigenous territories in the Amazon, which brings the total percentage
of the Peruvian Amazon targeted for oil and gas exploration to 72%.
Little progress has been made in identifying who is responsible for
the peaceful protests turning to bloodshed last year, despite continued
calls by Peruvian and international human rights groups for a real
and an end to the continued threats against indigenous peoples in Peru. The government maintains that it shares no responsibility, and that
national indigenous leader Alberto Pizango bears sole responsibility
for inciting violence, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The
entire case rests upon a press conference when Pizango informed the
press that protest leaders were invoking their constitutional right
to insurgencia (civil disobedience) in the face of the
declaration of a state of emergency to clamp down on the protests.
publicly withdrew the call for insurgencia the following day,
nearly three weeks before the violent clashes took place.
Garcia objects that police deaths have not been investigated with the
same urgency as civilian deaths, which is patently false since there
have been no investigations at all into civilian deaths. All court
to date have focused on identifying indigenous people as responsible
for killing police. The criminal proceedings to date are widely
as a political farce. The government appears to be using politically
motivated criminal prosecutions against indigenous leaders in an attempt
to assign responsibility to anyone other than government officials and
use the incident to criminalize legitimate social protest and
the indigenous movement. Charges have been bought seemingly at random
against leaders and indigenous people who just happened to be present,
and over one hundred protesters were immediately detained with no
against them. The government has issued capture orders against a large
number of indigenous leaders, some of whom were not even present during
the clashes, and has not provided the accused with due process or an
opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. To date there
still have been no criminal proceedings against any police or the
officials who ordered the use of force for the civilian dead or
For progress to be made and the wounds to heal, the government needs
to answer some key questions.
First, why, on June 4th, the day before the clashes, did the Peruvian
congress for a third time postpone the debate of the controversial
that were the focus of the protests, which both a multi-party commission
and constitutional commission had already found to be unconstitutional?
Second, why were the police sent to clear the road at the Devil's
Curve outside Bagua on June 5th when it was widely known the protesters
had already reached an agreement to leave voluntarily that day? On the evening of June 4th, local police chiefs met with indigenous
leaders and explained they had orders to clear the road. Protesters
agreed with the police that they would peacefully lift the roadblock
at 10:30am the next morning, yet a group of heavily armed police
the protesters, some of whom were still sleeping, before dawn on the
morning of June 5th, and set off the violence.
Third, who gave the order for an operation to clear a roadblock and
peaceful protest with a pre-dawn raid carried out by a squadron of
armed with AK-47s, and who gave the order for the police to fire on
thousands of unarmed civilians? Photographs and video footage of the
clashes demonstrates that protesters were armed, if at all, only with
symbolic wooden spears.
Yet 208 automatic weapons fired 24,900 bullets that morning, and
analysis of all the protesters arrested that day has demonstrated that
none of them had fired weapons.
Finally, the government needs to recognize its obligation to respect
indigenous peoples' rights. The government continues to refer to
protesters tricked by foreign agitators into thinking the government
was trying to take their land, despite the abundance of information
supporting the legitimacy of the protesters' position. The minority
report produced by a subset of the commission charged with investigating
the clashes lists fifteen texts by various experts that outline the
legal implications of the decrees at the heart of the protest on
peoples' rights. Most of the protesters were responding to very real
and immediate threats to their territories and ways of life: oil and
mining companies moving into their hunting and fishing grounds, sacred
places and ancestral homes, and preparing to exploit the resources of
the Amazon for the short-term financial gain of a few.
It is unjustifiable that a year after the tragic clashes in Bagua,
people in Peru still face continued attacks by the Peruvian government
against their rights. They have the right to determine their own future,
and the Peruvian government needs to recognize its obligation to support
and respect their right to self-determination.
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