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Amazonia burning

6 June 2009

Once again Peruvian society has failed. The death of Peruvian citizens in confrontations that could have been avoided is a symptom of our failure. Moreover, the indifference and even the justification by many commentators and bloggers, who are able to accept these deaths as necessary to maintain order and development means that we are still very far from being a country that can progress.

(“Amazilia Alba” at Peru Apartheid.  My translation)

The massacre in Bagua (Amazonas Department), Peru has proven nearly impossible for the Peruvian government to “spin” outside of the country’s small elite.

Despite the tenor of stories (like this one from the BBC) that suggest “tribesmen” attacked military units, it’s pretty clear from both photographers in Bagua and from Peruvian television (both with real, not simulated, graphic violence) show it  was the other way around.

IncaKolaNews gives an overview of the very real horror-show, with links to reports from around the country. The number of deaths officially acknowledged as I write this is 31 — 9 police officers and 22 protesters.  One Amazonian on-line report (Red Ucayali) claims the death toll is much higher, and police are burning the bodies to hide the evidence of a widespread massacre.

Far from “tribesmen” (and one feels obliged to ask if the BBC would describe rural protesters in Scotland with such patronizing language), the protests by Amazonian residents — organized by the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association — have been on-going for at least a year.

Simon Romero of the New York Times (usually the favorite whipping-boy of everyone who claims the U.S. press is hapless and hopelessly biased when it comes to Latin American coverage) captures what is at the heart of Amazonian protests, and of government repression:

…  protests by indigenous groups over plans to open vast tracts of rain forest to oil drilling, logging and hydroelectric dams.

The protests are part of an increasingly well-orchestrated campaign by indigenous groups that have been inspired in part by similar movements in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Angered by the government’s failure to involve them in the plans, the indigenous groups in Peru have surprised the authorities with their sudden strength and organization and are now threatening to blunt President Alan García’s efforts to lure foreign investment to the region.

“The president thought we would be docile in accepting plans that could completely change the way we hunt for food and raise crops, and we are not,” said Juan Agustín, 41, a … leader of …  an umbrella group here representing more than 300,000 people from dozens of indigenous groups.

Exploitation of natural resources in Amazonia is the key issue in this uprising.  There there have been violent clashes between the national government and the local peoples over development issues throughout Latin America.  While we have seen uprising like that in Oaxaca  (which was complicated by other issues like a union strike, allegations of voter fraud and purely local political issues that foreigners failed to comprehend*)  rooted in the same conflict of interests, the Mexican uprisings have not led to the same level of violence.

Although I have noted problems with the Constitutional guarantee of communal rights to indigenous communities, and it’s foolish to pretend that indigenous people are not discriminated against in society at large,  for the most part indigenous people are treated the same as other citizens… badly at times.   On the other hand, “indigenous” is not automatically lower-class in Mexico, nor does this country have a “Criollo” class (and hasn’t since the 19th century in any real sense).  Discrimination usually runs more along social class lines than “racial” ones, though of course the traditional indigenous are the bottom of the rung.  The Peruvian protesters in the videos and photographs would not be considered particularly “indigenous”, nor treated as such, outside a bloodline obsessed nation like Peru.

“Local needs v national development needs” protests have usually centered on fair price for development (as in the Atenco protests, set off when the Fox Administration tried to seize an ejido for a new Mexico City airport without fair compensation for land and lost income) or… over conflicting uses of natural resources:  water for farms, vs. water for cities.  Here in Sinaloa, both compensation and resource use are the issues in protests against a proposed hydroelectric dam project).

At least one of Romero’s sources “blames” the massacre on the usual “outside agitators” in Peru:  Ecuadorians and Venezuelans.  In a way, that’s true.  Foreigners looking at the uprising in Oaxaca, mostly assumed “foreign interests” meant the tourism industry.  Both those sympathetic to the protesters, and those vehemently opposed, talked about the effect on hotels and restaurants.  They were unwilling to look at where the real opposition was (and where there was real violence) — in the countryside, where foreign developers were the mining and energy sectors.  In Ecuador and Venezuela, the governments themselves are largely trying to get control of those foreign developers — and, in both countries, the governments are more responsive to the needs and expectations of these affected citizens.

In Peru, no.   Romero quotes the Paul McAuley, a Christian Brothers lay-worker, as saying “Now we have a government resorting to using military force to spearhead development of the Amazon.  This cannot be a strategy that is sustainable.”  To which, the response from President Garcia (quoted by Inca Kola) is:

“They (Amazon indigenous) are not first class citizens.”

* I’m still a little rankled about the foreign commentators who  simplify conflicts like that in Oaxaca to fit their own notions…   — often as not a mish-mash of  half-baked romantic Marxism and the noble savage myth.  I was exiled to “cyber-ia” by one Oaxaca interest group when I pointed out that a regular contributer was claiming (and later claimed in a well-read on-line publication) that she mistook the owner of a security company for a police official, and claims to the contrary, not all anti-government groups in Oaxaca were non-violent.  I don’t know enough about Peruvian politics, nor the players involved in this conflict, to pretend that I’m doing anything more than pointing MexFiles readers to Peruvians who either I know,  or I have no reason to doubt,  are reliable.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 June 2009 2:34 am

    Inca Kola News = *Excellent Choice* 🙂

    Last year, Otto Rock quickly became a personal favorite, a trusted resource when it comes to hearing what is *really* occurring in South America.. Can’t quite explain why but it just *feels* like he reports things exactly as they are even though his very firm private stance on [issues] is openly apparent.. 🙂

    Warmest wishes from North Georgia..


  1. Posts about Mexico Violence as of June 6, 2009 | EL CHUCO TIMES

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