Between August 9 and 20, thousands of Awajun, Wampis, Matsiguenka, Shipibo, and other indigenous peoples of the Amazon mounted an unprecedented series of simultaneous, peaceful demonstrations against the Peruvian state. The protesters, organized under an umbrella group called the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP), occupied oil and gas pumping stations and hydroelectric plants, staged marches and demonstrations, shut down navigation on rivers, and blocked strategically located bridges and highways along the eastern reaches of Peru’s Amazonian basin.
Their primary demand was the withdrawal of Law 840, popularly known as the Law of the Jungle, presented to Congress for approval in late 2006 by President Alan García. The proposed legislation sought to undermine the collective-property regime of both highland Andean and lowland Amazonian indigenous communities by conceding supposedly “uncultivated” lands to lumber companies, surrendering the nation’s rights over natural resources to foreign investors. Other measures proposed to expand the area of forest concessions (to almost 100,000 acres for use over 40 years); facilitate the use of public waters by private irrigation projects; lower the restrictions for the introduction of transgenic seeds; ease government control over protected areas; and establish forest zones of “permanent production.”
García justified this onslaught in an October 2007 editorial published in the right-wing daily El Comercio. He identified the communal property regime as Peru’s main obstacle to development and modernization, claiming the existence of “uncultivated” land that indigenous communities “do not till” and “will not till” because they lack the know-how and financial resources. He called for the prompt privatization of these lands in order to attract “long-term high technology” investment, holding the communal-property model responsible for “the vicious circle of misery” afflicting the Amazonian region (the Amazonian regions of Amazonas and Loreto are among the country’s poorest, according to a 2006 study by Peru’s Cooperation Fund for Social Development). The “uneducated and poor farmers,” he said, ought to be replaced with a “middle class” of knowledgeable and financially sound property owners—in his words, the only people capable of “obtaining resources, establishing markets, and creating formal jobs.”
Indigenous protesters were not alone in their denunciations. The Law of the Jungle triggered a wave of protests across the country and was severely questioned by opposition legislators and constitutional scholars. By mid-February popular organizations, labor unions, citizen groups, ecologists, local businessmen, academics, local municipal authorities, opposition congressional representatives, and local politicians from the five Amazonian regions gathered in the Amazon Summit. Participants unanimously rejected García’s proposed legislation and established the Permanent Forum to Defend the Amazon to coordinate actions and elaborate alternative development strategies for the region. The Summit also called the government to an open dialogue and announced an Amazonian strike for March 17–18.
In the ensuing weeks, the congressional Commission for Amazonian, Indigenous, and Afro-Peruvian Affairs tabled García’s proposed law. The People’s Ombudsman Office, on the other hand, asked the Constitutional Court to declare the law unconstitutional. With his Law of the Jungle held up in Congress, García in mid-May issued presidential decrees 1015 and 1073, resorting to special powers he received from the legislature to facilitate the implementation of the free trade agreement with the United States. These decrees overturned the internal procedures by which both Amazonian and Andean indigenous communities safeguarded the integrity of their communally held territories, allowing the intervention of third parties as “business partners,” buyers, or mortgage holders. The decrees thereby eliminated the last legal resource available to indigenous peoples to protect their territorial integrity.
In fact, the decrees were intended to foster the ongoing concessions of thousands of acres of public, indigenous, and peasant lands to private agro-industrialists started during the administration of Alejandro Toledo and continued under García. Calling the palm oil industry a “national interest,” the central government superseded regional governments’ oversight power on legislation involving the use of local resources.
In an indignant but firm letter to García, AIDESEP dismissed his scheme as one “of growth without development” devised for the exclusive benefit of transnational capitalists whose investments would further deplete Amazonian territories, leaving indigenous peoples “without resources, without air, without water, and without identity.” Requesting an official dialogue with the government, the group offered a counter-proposal, suggesting a strategy of sustainable development grounded in the defense of the existing ecosystems, the protection of Amazonian biodiversity, and respect for indigenous territories and knowledge. It also asked that the president not act as a “Trojan horse” for foreign interests and warned him not to “give away any territories” or to implement any measure concerning the Amazon without the consent of its inhabitants. The letter and request for dialogue were met with nine months of silence.
Together with AIDESEP, the Peasant Confederation of Peru, the National Agrarian Confederation (CNA), and the Confederation of Peasant Communities Affected by Mining established a coalition declaring Peru’s indigenous peoples in “state of emergency.” In a press conference following their first meeting, Antolín Huascar, president of the CNA, announced that peasant and indigenous communities across the country would engage in marches, sit-ins, and regional mobilizations as a prelude to a countrywide indigenous strike. Scheduled for July 8–9, the strike was set to coincide with the national strike previously announced by labor and popular organizations, as well as the Amazonian strike decreed by a second Amazonian Summit held in mid-April.
Road blockades, marches, and demonstrations, particularly intense in southern Peru and the Amazon, the two regions with the largest concentration of indigenous communities, paralyzed most of the country. García’s approval rating had already plummeted below 25%. His eager and servile embrace of the despised and ailing Washington Consensus contrasted sharply with his electoral promises to revise the free trade agreement with the United States, uphold the autonomy of the regional governments, promote a rural strategy in the Andes based on modernizing peasant production, protect the environment, and reexamine the tax breaks and fiscal privileges granted to transnational corporations by authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori and left untouched by his successor, Toledo. Oblivious to popular mobilizations and swelling criticism, García dismissed the protesters as opponents to modernization or boycotters of globalization, or as having been manipulated by “outside interests.” He was only making matters worse for himself.
Quietly and steadfastly in the early hours of August 9, hundreds of Matsiguengas closed down navigation in the Urubamba River. Not far away, in a simultaneous action, another group occupied two pumping stations, heliports, and installations of Pluspetrol, the corporation operating the Camisea gas deposit—the largest in the country, located in the southern region (state) of Cusco. Further north, in the other extreme of the Peruvian Amazon, more than 500 Awajun occupied and closed down the hydroelectric plant of El Muyo, while thousands rallied in the nearby provincial capital of Bagua. On the banks of the Ucayali River in the surroundings of the port of Pucallpa, indigenous protesters closed the river to navigation. In Manseriche, region of Loreto, indigenous protesters occupied and closed down the pipeline transporting oil from the deposits in Manseriche to the coast. Vowing to maintain the blockades and occupations until the government established a direct dialogue, AIDESEP released an 11-point platform.
The group demanded, first and foremost, the immediate repeal of decrees 1015 and 1073 and the cancellation of other decrees threatening indigenous territorial integrity and autonomy. The platform also called for the creation of a fund for the establishment of sustainable-development projects among indigenous peoples; the evaluation of the environmental impact of extractive industries in the Amazon; the creation of a program for protecting indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation; the creation of a congressional commission to oversee the implementation of the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples; and the reorganization, with the rank of ministry, of the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazon, and Afro-Peruvian Peoples, which had been dismantled by García.
Startled by AIDESEP’s militancy and the strategic implications of its demands, the government went on the offensive, drawing on the racist and anti-Communist repertoires of oligarchic and Cold War ideologies. The police chief of Amazonas Region, Victor Castañeda, said the mobilizations’ “real stimulus” was to defend the interests of narcotraffickers. Prime Minister Eduardo del Castillo in turn denounced the uprising as part of a broader “plot” led by the Nationalist Party former presidential candidate Ollanta Humala to overthrow the government. As AIDESEP persisted in demanding a dialogue and protesters maintained their actions, the supposed intellectual authors of the mobilization multiplied rapidly: from subversive priests to radical left-wing activists to foreign NGOs to agents of presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.
A week into the protest, with negotiations stalled by the uncompromising stance of government representatives, AIDESEP raised the stakes with another round of actions. Blockades were now extended to the key bridges and highways connecting the Amazonian region with the rest of the country. By this time the ubiquitous presence of Alberto Pizango and other members of the AIDESEP National Council in the media and the skillful and astute work displayed by its press team gained public sympathies to indigenous demands. In response, the government declared a “state of emergency” in the four areas at the center of indigenous mobilization. Basic democratic rights were suspended, and public elected civil officials surrendered their authority to the military.
The government also increased police and military presence in the most conflictive areas. The alarmist and racially charged public declarations of cabinet members, on the other hand, failed to ignite the latent contempt and mistrust toward so-called chunchos (“wild ones” in the Quechua language) harbored particularly by urban populations. Minister of the Environment Antonio Barack, commissioned by the executive as its leading negotiator with AIDESEP, declared to the press that the hidden and “ultimate” goal of the protest was the “liberation” of indigenous territories and “independence” from the Peruvian state. Prime Minister del Castillo falsely asserted that the continued blockade of power plants and gas and oil facilities—mostly for export—would paralyze industry and throw cities into darkness.
The conflict finally reached the halls of Congress. In a unanimous vote the congressional Committee on Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples repealed García’s decrees and drafted their own law. In an astute political move, AIDESEP leaders immediately opened a dialogue with Congress. Indigenous and congressional representatives reached an agreement according to which the protesters agreed to lift their actions while the representatives would take their draft law to the full Congress. Two days later, Congress passes Law 2440, officially annulling Garcia’s decrees.
A severe blow to García’s neoliberal plans, AIDESEP’s victory marked the consolidation of indigenous peoples as a pivotal actor on the Peruvian political scene. The group’s forceful, sophisticated intervention also shattered the condescending attitudes harbored toward Amazonian natives by many Peruvians—including progressive intellectuals and left-wing activists. The product of more than two decades of intense organizing, the AIDESEP’s establishment as an umbrella organization for the several regional and local federations represents a turning point in the political formation and constitution of Peru’s indigenous peoples as an autonomous social and political force. It also embodies the dramatic transformation experienced by Peru’s popular movement during the near decade since the fall of Fujimori. In that period, indigenous peoples have displaced the labor movement—devastated by the elimination of workers’ rights, neoliberal deindustrialization, and unemployment—as the central force for social transformation.
The first autonomous regional indigenous organizations above community level emerged during the 1970s among the Ashaninka, Amuesha, and Aguaruna peoples in the High Marañon Valley in northeastern Peru. Organized along ethnic lines, these earlier organizations were established to defend indigenous territories and resources against the rapid expansion of settlers, cattlemen, and lumber and oil companies. The reformist policies of the military government (1968–80), particularly its legislation recognizing indigenous communities and their territorial claims, created favorable conditions for the political mobilization and organization of Amazonian peoples.
In 1979, AIDESEP emerged out of these experiences. The organization is led by a national council representing six regional coordinating committees spread across Peru’s vast Amazonian territories. Its membership includes every one of the 64 different indigenous peoples living in 1,340 communities with a population of about 350,000, organized in turn in 57 valley and regional federations. Its strength resides in its organization from the bottom up, decision-making by consensus, strengthening of traditional knowledge, and respect and consideration for traditional apus (elders).
Unlike the traditional working class, whose political subjectivity was determined by its subordination to capital, indigenous peoples, and the new poor of the neoliberal age, have a measure of control over the production and reproduction of their living conditions, a key factor informing their anti-systemic militancy and disposition. Indigenous peoples have also displaced the onetime powerful left, fragmented by in-fighting, its retreat from revolutionary socialism, and embrace of mainstream electoral politics. Indigenous peoples have taken over the role of the left as the most important voice in the defense of national and public resources and national sovereignty.
Driven by principles of communality, self-esteem, and respect for nature, the indigenous movement stands as a powerful challenge to the individualism, self-interest, and exclusion that are the core values of the neoliberal, monocultural Peruvian state. The indigenous struggle has also brought to the surface the Peruvian nation-state’s legacy of colonial oppression and racism. Indigenous forms of collective participation, understanding of leadership as service, and decision by consensus also challenge the top-down organization and “democratic centralism” of the traditional left. Their amalgamation of democracy and collective interest; articulation with new and old political traditions; and their simultaneous deployment of reform, insurgency, and rebellion are crucial to developing the revolutionary strategy prophetically envisioned in the 1920s by Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, who imagined a confluence of socialist objectives and indigenous communitarian struggles.
This emerging indigenous movement’s further transformation into a more coherent anti-systemic bloc—and its demands, strategies, and world perspectives into a programmatic alternative to neoliberal capitalism—will not only entail an extraordinary and continuing organizational effort. It must also shed its connections to elements of the left that remain disdainful of indigenous knowledge and political capability.
Gerardo Rénique teaches history at City College, New York. He edited “The Uprising in Oaxaca,” a special section in Socialism and Democracy 44, July 2007 (vol. 22, no. 2).