The Bagua Movement
On the drive back to Quillabamba, Plenio called someone on a cellphone. "Get on the radio and call on the communities and tell them we are planning an action," he said. To avoid being overheard by Spanish-speaking police, he ordered that all radio communication be in the Machiguengas' ethnic language. Four days later, as the action was getting under way, native leaders in Lima called it off, citing progress in government negotiations.
The Bagua movement--if I can venture to call it that--is as much a response to the decrees as to the broader, longer-term campaign to develop the Amazonian slopes of the Peruvian Andes, which are rich with huge deposits of oil and gas. (The Smithsonian Institution has said this is, acre for acre, some of the most biodiverse land on the planet.) To fire its steady economic growth, the Peruvian government--starting with President Alejandro Toledo and continuing with García--has bet the ranch on it. Last August, a Duke University study showed that oil and gas concessions in the Western Amazon had grown to a size as big as Texas. Logging companies are also pulling fortunes from the rainforest. But where governments and companies see profits and royalties, natives--even those who have benefited from jobs and company payouts--talk about contamination and disease, fishing holes ruined by oil barges and hunting grounds emptied by helicopter noises.
And natives have grown very angry at the way oil companies behave in the Amazon. It is naïve to think that Big Oil is guilty of all the accusations made by natives and their backers. But it's stunning to see the morally reprehensible actions these companies have taken in the region. Last year, I traveled with a film crew to the Corrientes region in northeastern Peru, where Occidental Petroleum has allegely dumped toxic wastewater into rivers for some thirty years. Now Achuar natives--many of whom have strange illnesses because of toxins in the blood--are suing the California-based company for poisoning their water and blood. We also filmed parts of our documentary in a pitiful jungle oil town called Lago Agrio, in Ecuador's once oil-flush eastern Amazon. There the world's largest environmental lawsuit is under way against Chevron, which is accused by 30,000 native Amazonians of poisoning the rainforest with open pits of discarded crude. If the company loses, it could be on the hook for $27 billion.
I first realized why natives hate oil companies in 2006, when a source passed me a previously classified "social contract" between a village of Ecuadorian natives and the Italian oil company AGIP, which he'd gotten through a freedom-of-information claim. The native leaders signed the document, which gave the company access to their lands, and waived any right they had to sue. Lacking only beads and mirrors, the multibillion-dollar company in exchange gave the natives, among other things, a soccer ball and an Ecuadorian flag.
In more than three years living and reporting in South America, as leftist after leftist has come to power, I've interviewed countless people about how their countries are being structured. More often than not, and especially in the wake of the US financial crisis, educated people see free trade as little more than a lie that lines the pockets of the wealthy. They may not be right. But in politics perceptions can count more than truth. If the natives get their way, Peru could follow the statist steps of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.
One thing is certain: the Bagua solidarity movement is making an impact. Most immediately, it has led to the suspension of some of the worst land decrees. But more broadly, it has shown that millions of poor people of color on this continent are fed up with rich white people setting the rules of the game.
The corporate powers behind these decrees may get at least part of the Amazonian land they're looking for, and the Peruvian government, in turn, may fill its tax coffers. That would be good for many Peruvians who want cheap natural gas and affordable electricity. (Who can blame them?) And while natives may claim ancestral rights to lands atop oil and gas reserves, what's beneath the subsoil belongs to all Peruvians.
Despite all the talk about cultural preservation I've heard from natives and their rich do-gooder supporters, what most indigenous people seem to want is a share of the profits. And they are increasingly tuned in not only to their rights (as established in the Peruvian constitution and by UN declaration) but also to the fact that jungle activism can get them plenty of attention. Sitting at a negotiating table is one thing; shutting down an oil pipeline is another. Whereas natives once cowered before developers, many are now standing up. And that may be the best way to correct these entrenched power imbalances.