Photo by Kelly Hearn
For the past two months, Amazon Indians in Peru have put this country in an economic headlock by stringing steel cable across rivers, blocking roads and shutting down oil pipelines. The campaign is aimed at forcing the government to cancel a set of land reforms that loosen restrictions on private development for energy and mining in the Amazonian rainforests. The struggle is ongoing and has led to outbursts of violence, but it’s working.
The protests became deadly on June 5 in an oil-rich area called Bagua. For weeks natives had blocked a highway leading to a remote oil facility. When police tried to dislodge them, shots rang out and some fifty police and protesters ended up dead in a melee that left charred, bullet-ridden bodies scattered in the jungle sun. The resulting outcry–and vows by natives to step up their protests–forced Congress to roll back two of the most hotly disputed laws on June 18. But many native groups say they won’t rest until all the noxious laws are gone.
Meanwhile, Peru’s pro-business president, Alan García Pérez–who issued the controversial laws last year as part of the free trade pact between the United States and Peru–has watched his popularity plummet as his native opponents have shown bolder resolve. According to a report issued on June 22 by pollster Ipsos Apoyo, García’s approval rating has fallen 9 points to only 21 percent. Ninety-two percent of Peruvians believe the US-friendly leader should have sought native buy-in before passing the laws.
And García’s headaches continue to build. To his opponents, Bagua has become a kind of jungle Tiananmen, shorthand for an unprecedented and burgeoning Amazonian insurgency. On June 23, protesters continued marches and road blockades around the central Andean city of Andahuaylas, the Inca citadel city of Cuzco and a mining area called La Oroya in central Peru. The Andahuaylas blockade was lifted after Peru’s prime minister, Yehude Simon, signed an accord promising to open dialogue.
Many in the Peruvian Congress (in which García’s party is a minority) are blaming the Bagua massacre on Simon and Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas, and calling for them to step down. Simon said on June 17 that he would resign in the coming weeks.
The Interior Ministry, in turn, blames what happened on Alberto Pizango, an ethnic native and leader of a powerful political federation known as AIDESEP. I was with Alberto four days before Bagua and five days before the government issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of sedition and rebellion, making him Peru’s most wanted man (he evaded arrest and now sits in the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima awaiting asylum). “We will keep up the protests until they get rid of all the decrees,” he told me during an interview for a documentary project called Block 57. “We will continue for as long as we have to.”