Bagua, Peru: A Year After

Kristina Aiello

The syndrome of the perro del hortelano, the “dog in the barn,” refers to a dog growling over the food that he neither eats nor lets anyone else eat. This was the image that Peruvian President Alan García evoked in 2007 to describe the many indigenous communities in Peru who intended to protect their lands and resources in the face of the impending free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. García’s argument was that Peru’s future economic development would be paved with the income generated by the exploitation of the country’s rich natural resources, primarily in the Amazon, which would be facilitated through the signing of free trade agreements. Though García got his wish, and the U.S.-Peru FTA went into effect on February 1, 2009, the problem that continued to disturb him was that the people who lived on those lands had the audacity to stand in the way of Peru’s progress.

García’s argument amounted to the declaration of a slow-burning war designed to marginalize and criminalize indigenous and rural community opposition to his administration’s development plans. This war turned violent near the northern Amazonian town of Bagua last June 5, when members of the Peruvian National Police moved in with lethal force to remove indigenous protesters upset about the opening up their lands to the oil and gas extractive industries via legislative decrees promulgated to facilitate the enactment of the FTA. The violence left 34 people dead (including 23 police), and 202 injured indigenous protesters, 89 with bullet wounds. A year later, indigenous rights groups are still calling for a fair and impartial accounting of what led up to the violence, what occurred that day, and who should be held accountable.

In early June, indigenous and rural community leaders from across the country traveled back to Bagua to participate in several events associated with the one-year anniversary of the confrontation, including a memorial commemoration held at the now infamous Curva del Diablo. The events also included a forum on the rights of indigenous and rural communities in relation to the extractive industries, as well as discussions held to plan future protest measures for those living in resource-rich zones targeted by García’s development plans. A delegation of invited activists from Brazil reflected the desire of the forum’s organizers to build national and international alliances among people impacted by these types of development projects.

Noticeably absent from the June 5 memorial service were the thousands of protesters from the Awajún and Wampis communities, many who were among the wounded in last year’s violence, and decided to stay in the mountains fearing a repeat confrontation with the police. People made the pilgrimage up the hill of the curve to pay their respects at a cross that was erected in remembrance of those who died. An old woman held up a sign that said: “So that this never happens again.” One year later, however, little appears to have changed in terms of ensuring that that old woman gets her wish.

Development Plans Continue Full Speed Ahead

After the violence, instead of slowing down, the García-led extraction of natural resources has only accelerated, provoking at least 132 community conflicts with extractive industry projects throughout the country. Many participants in the forum from the Andean regions brought tales of frustration of how their communities have been or will potentially be affected by large multinational mining and hydroelectric projects, as well as the persecution they encountered after organizing in opposition.

As of December 31, 2009, hydrocarbon extractive companies have obtained 52 concessions from the national government for oil and gas exploration and exploitation totaling 322,000 square kilometers of the Peruvian Amazon, which covers 41.2% of the entire area. This is up from 7.1% in 2003. The concessions region includes 17% of Peru’s protected areas and more than half of all lands previously titled to indigenous communities, all authorized without their prior and informed consent despite the fact that that right has been in effect in that country since 1995 when Peru signed Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization. One of the notable concessions is the gold mining project Afrodita of Canadian-owned Dorator Resources Inc. It is located in El Cenepa of the Cordillera del Cóndor, which is home to the national park Ichigkat Muja and the Awajún and Wampis indigenous peoples.

By all accounts this is just the beginning. The García administration is moving full-speed ahead with plans to open 25 new lots for oil and gas drilling, primarily in the Amazon region, which will mean $1.25 billion dollars in potential future investment. García is traveling to the United States, France, Spain, and England to drum up interest in their sale.

The criminalization of protest continues unabated as well. Magdiel Carrión, Vice-President of the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Effected by Mining (CONACAMI), has had 15 criminal charges filed against him since 2007 for his efforts to organize the mountain communities of the northern coastal Department of Piura against several mining operations. Carrión is just one of more than 1500 social leaders facing criminal charges for their activism, 600 of whom are indigenous.

The Call for an Independent Truth Commission

Allin Monteza Ríos, the president of the Federation of Peruvian Students, spoke at the forum about the continued need for a full official accounting of what occurred last June 5 and called for the establishment of a truth commission independent from the government. Although the Commission of Inquiry, which presented its report last December, was supposed to be an independent investigative body, it was heavily criticized by indigenous and human rights groups for governmental interference. A congressional commission looking into the events of Bagua presented a report in May that closely followed the disputed arguments of that earlier report.

Nevertheless, individual, dissenting members of each of those commissions used minority reports, which have been presented to the Peruvian public and government to counter those reports and the government’s version of events, particularly that indigenous protesters were manipulated by outside agitators. Sister Maricarmen Gómez and Jesús Manasés, both from the Commission of Inquiry, also brought their minority report to the Inter-American Court in April to illustrate the need for an independent inquiry. That report will later be sent to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, James Anaya, who months earlier also urged the creation of an independent commission.

All minority reports placed heavy blame on Congress for its failure to act on the constitutionality of the legislative decrees, thus creating a stalemate between indigenous protesters and the government that allowed tensions to grow over many months before the violence. Furthermore, the reports were critical of the García administration focusing on the actions of the president himself and former Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas. The reports also looked at the actions of Peruvian National Police generals Elías Muguruza Delgado and Javier Uribe Altamirano, both of whom are under criminal investigation for their leadership of the police operation to forcibly remove the protestors. However, instead of prosecuting Muguruza, García appointed him to the Office of Human Rights of the Ministry of the Interior in April.

The Consultation Law

One bright spot in the year since Bagua was the passage of the consultation law on May 19 in the Peruvian Congress. Although indigenous leaders recognized the text of the bill had problems, they still celebrated the bill’s requirement of community participation in all concessionary decisions as a step that could move Peru towards a more democratic and inclusive decision-making process in terms of its development policies.

This bill, predictably, faced stiff opposition from the business community as well as members of former President Alberto Fujimori’s party and their voting block partners, the National Unity Party, both who voted against it in Congress.

Although congressional members of the President’s APRA party usually vote with these other two parties in what is known as the “official alliance,” this time they broke with them and supported the bill. The decisive factor for this break was likely U.S. pressure on the García administration to get something passed in order to lower the international criticism stemming from all the social conflicts associated with Peru’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

Perro Del Hortelano Syndrome Continues

Now the consultation law is seemingly being undermined by the García administration. On June 21, the last day for the president to act on the proposed legislation, García returned the bill to the legislative body with observations for changes. Indigenous rights leaders believe the bill was returned in an attempt to postpone the proposed legislation giving the administration time to sell the 25 new lots for oil and gas drilling prior to the law going into effect. The new lots would therefore not fall under the proposed jurisdiction of the consultation law due to a provision barring its retroactive application.

Although the congressional session officially ends June 25, attempts to address the observations prior to the closing of the session failed when the Commission on Andean Peoples, one of the two commissions in charge of developing the consultation law, met to debate the observations on June 23 but failed to attract enough members to achieve a quorum, and the Constitution Commission, the second commission, didn’t even meet. As a result, Congress will not debate this until mid-August when the new legislative session is scheduled to start.

Little has changed in Peru one year after the violence last June. Indigenous and rural community voices remain excluded from conversations around the country’s development plans. Protests will only continue. As Sister Maricarmen Gómez wrote in her report about Bagua, there is every indication “that the conditions and reasons that led to the last great conflict between Indigenous peoples and the State and the terrible events of Bagua remain intact.”


Kristina Aiello is a NACLA Research Associate.

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