Blood at the Blockade: Peru's Indigenous Uprising

Beginning with a series of protests last year, Peru's Amazonian indigenous groups are now leading a full-fledged rebellion against the pro-business policies of President Alan García. The government has responded with brutal violence to the protests, which are demanding that a series of decrees to promote extractive industries in the jungle be overturned among other things. Amazonian groups, who are being joined by an ever-widening swath of society, are now calling for García's resignation.

Gerardo Rénique

On June 6, near a stretch of highway known as the Devil's Curve in the northern Peruvian Amazon, police began firing live rounds into a multitude of indigenous protestors – many wearing feathered crowns and carrying spears. In the nearby towns of Bagua Grande, Bagua Chica, and Utcubamba, shots also came from police snipers on rooftops, and from a helicopter that hovered above the mass of people. Both natives and mestizos took to the streets protesting the bloody repression.

From his office in Bagua, a representative of Save the Children, the child anti-poverty organization, reported that children as young as four-years-old were wounded by the indiscriminate police shooting. President Alan García had hinted the government would respond forcefully to "restore order" in the insurgent Amazonian provinces, where he had declared a state of siege on May 9 suspending most constitutional liberties. The repression was swift and fierce.

By the end of the day, a number of buildings belonging to the government and to García's APRA party had been destroyed. Nine policemen and at least 40 protestors were killed (estimates vary). Overwhelmed by the number of wounded, small local hospitals were forced to shutter their doors. A Church official denounced that many of the civilian wounded and killed at the Devil’s Curve were forcefully taken to the military barracks of El Milagro. From Bagua, a local journalist told a radio station that policemen had dumped bagged bodies into the Utcubamba River.

Indigenous leaders have accused García of "genocide" and have called for an international campaign of solidarity with their struggle. Indigenous unrest in the Peruvian Amazon began late last year. After an ebb of a few months, the uprising regained force again on April 9. Since then, Amazonian indigenous groups have sustained intensifying protests, including shutdowns of oil and gas pumping stations as well as blockades of road and river traffic.

The Devil's Curve massacre is not the only instance of repression. García recently sent in the Navy to violently break through indigenous blockades on the Napo River, also in northern Peru. But few expected such a violent reaction from the government. García says the response was appropriate and blamed the indigenous for thinking they could decide what happens in their territories: "These people don't have crowns. They aren't first-class citizens who can say… 'You [the government] don't have the right to be here.' No way." The president called the protestors "pseudo-indigenous."

Indigenous representative Alberto Pizango called Devil's Curve the "worst slaughter of our people in 20 years." And added, "Our protest has been peaceful. We're 5,000 natives [in the blockade] that just want respect for our territory and the environment."

Protestors' top demand is the repeal of a series of decrees, known collectively as the "Law of the Jungle," signed by García last year. The President decreed the legislative package using extraordinary powers granted to him by Peru’s Congress to enact legislation required by the 2006 U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement. Indigenous groups are also demanding the creation of a permanent commission with indigenous representation to discuss solutions to their territorial, developmental, health and educational problems.

One of the most controversial aspects of the decrees is that they allow private interests to buy up indigenous lands and resources. Following a colonial logic of "progress," García's decrees foster the commodification of indigenous territories, ecological reserves, communal and public lands, water, and biogenetic resources to the benefit of powerful transnational interests. What's more, the “Law of the Jungle” implicitly conceives of indigenous Amazonia as an open, empty, bountiful, and underdeveloped frontier and its inhabitants as obstacles to neoliberal modernization and investment schemes.

History of Plunder and Resistance

Neoliberal elites are apparently oblivious to indigenous historical agency and political activism in Peru, where there is a long-standing trajectory of Amazonian insurgency. Since the eighteenth century, indigenous groups in the rainforest have successfully rolled back the incursions of colonial missionaries, rubber barons, gold miners, lumber contractors, Sendero Luminoso guerrillas and others whose expansion represented a direct and serious threat to their cultural autonomy and territorial integrity.

García and his predecessors have tried to give transnational companies – logging, oil, mining, and pharmaceutical etc. – unfettered access to the Amazon's riches. The potential plunder not only poses a threat to the very existence of indigenous peoples, but also presents a serious danger to the region’s diverse and fragile ecosystems.

Protests have occurred in the past, but this time is different: The scope of the ongoing mobilizations, which cover almost the totality of Peru’s Amazonian territories, is historically unprecedented, as is the government's violent reaction. Coordinating the mobilization effort is the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Amazon (Aidesep), an umbrella group of indigenous organizations. Established almost three decades ago through the incorporation of more than 80 federations and regional organizations, Aidesep’s reach and strength rests on its 1,350 affiliated communities representing 65 different Amazonian peoples.

Under mounting pressure from the protests, the government finally agreed to a closed-door meeting held the morning of May 27 in Lima with indigenous representatives. (Aidesep had demanded such a meeting for years.) Prime Minister Yehude Simon – himself a former leftist and political prisoner – and Aidesep representative Alberto Pizango held a brief press conference after the sitdown announcing the start of formal negotiations.

Following weeks of a racist and dirty government campaign against indigenous leaders, a subdued Simon acknowledged both the García administration’s “bad communications” and – more importantly – “the lack of a state policy towards Amazon communities for over a century.” He also emphasized government willingness to revise and modify Garcia’s decrees.

Meanwhile, a defiant Pizango maintained that Aidesep's campaign of civil disobedience would only be lifted with the total repeal of García's “Law of the Jungle.” Pizango also announced a platform of issues that indigenous representatives planned to bring to the table, including points on indigenous territorial rights, self-determination, health and education, development, and cultural integrity.

Failed Talks, Failed Government

The last time the government agreed to negotiations in August 2008 – again, under pressure from an indigenous uprising – the talks collapsed due to government unwillingness to engage indigenous representatives in a respectful and honest manner. Aidesep withdrew from the talks when the government tried to undermine the group's position by inviting (unannounced) groups of indigenous leaders and academics aligned both with the government's discredited Development Institute for Andean, Indigenous, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA) and the Confederation of Amazonian Nationalities (CONAPA), which groups together a small number of opportunistic Indigenous leaders.

Using INDEPA and CONAPA, the government has initiated "cooperation agreements" between friendly indigenous communities and foreign oil and gas companies. Outraged by their presence at the negotiating table Aidesep denounced the move as a “smoke screen” covering up the government’s spurious collusion with the gas and oil industries.

Meanwhile, Aidesep kept open negotiations with members of Congress, where its demands received support from the left-of-center opposition and even some members of García's ruling party. With the start of formal negotiations (Mesa de Diálogo), Aidesep honored the compromise and halted protests on August 20, ending the 11-day uprising. With growing popular sympathy with indigenous demands and support from the political opposition in late September, congress passed a law that canceled two of the most odious presidential decrees that sought to diminish indigenous territorial rights and political autonomy.

Aidesep's direct action campaign marked the emergence of Amazonian indigenous peoples as an influential and autonomous force in Peru's current political landscape. The mobilization also sparked a public realization that the defense of Amazonian resources is an issue of national importance and not only a regional or indigenous problem. The indigenous uprising has also increased public awareness of the predatory nature of free trade, the prevalence of public good over private interests, and the meaning and importance of citizen participation in the formulation of a sustainable and democratic future. All of this constitutes a healthy questioning of the toxic neoliberal paradigm based on the commodification of life and resources as the only possible alternative to "progress" and "modernization."

In October 2008, video recordings surfaced of conversations between high-ranking officials from the García administration and a lobbyist for transnational gas and oil companies. The recordings show the men negotiating the fraudulent concession of oil rights in natural reserves and indigenous territories. The video not only starkly revealed the real intentions behind the “Law of the Jungle” and Peru's handful of recently negotiated free trade agreements, but also further boosted Aidesep's legitimacy and the moral authority of its struggle. The scandal also helped catalyze the current Amazonian insurgency, coalescing an emerging popular and autonomous anti-systemic bloc and further diminished García's popularity, which has been abysmally low. (Approval ratings have hovered at 30 percent in the city of Lima and are even lower in rural areas, especially the Amazon.)

Amazon 'Insurgency' Declared

By late March, triggered by renewed incursions into their territories, abusive labor conditions in the gas and oil industry, high levels of contamination and government reluctance to address their demands, indigenous peoples in various Amazonian localities staged a number of marches, demonstrations, blockades, and hunger strikes. Incensed by the government’s repressive response to their demands and its threat to declare a state of emergency in the most combative Amazonian provinces, Aidesep renewed mobilizations, blocking ground and river traffic, and occupying hydrocarbon installations.

In an April 9 declaration, Aidesep demanded that Congress rescind the “Law of the Jungle,” establish a genuine Mesa de Diálogo, and promote the creation of new branches of government charged with implementing “intercultural” solutions to indigenous health and education problems. The document also calls for the recognition of indigenous collective property rights, guarantees for special territorial reserves of communities in voluntary isolation, and the suspension of land concessions to oil, gas, mining, lumber, and tourism industries. Indigenous organizations are also demanding a new constitution that incorporates the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization's Convention 169, both of which guarantee indigenous rights to territorial and cultural autonomy. Finally, the April declaration also calls for the suspension of the government's free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, Chile, and China, all of which endanger indigenous territorial rights and Amazonian biodiversity.

As indigenous groups escalated their direct action campaign, the government declared a state of siege on May 9 in four of the most militant provinces of Amazonia. Despite the crackdown, Aidesep has gained sympathy and solidarity from broad sectors of Peruvian society. Unions, popular organizations, and highland peasant and indigenous groups have staged "civic strikes" and other protest actions. Elected municipal and regional authorities across the country have also expressed their support. While Catholic bishops across the Amazon region have called on the faithful to support indigenous demands, stating the "rich cultural and biological diversity" of the region represents a “source of life and hope for humanity."

On May 27, Peru was rocked by a national day of protest called by the country's largest trade union federation and other social movement umbrella groups. Thousands took to the street protesting García’s neoliberal policies and to express their solidarity with Aidesep's struggle. In Lima a massive march arrived to the steps of Congress, demanding that the Law of the Jungle be declared unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the just-concluded Fourth Continental Indigenous People's Summit of Abya-Yala, which was held in southern Peru, called for an international day of action in solidarity with the Amazonian uprising. The Communitarian Front in Defense of Life and Sovereignty established by Aidesep together with labor, Andean indigenous, campesino and popular organizations have called for a day of protest and mobilization on June 11.

The Law of the Jungle

A report from the government's Ombudsman Office not only declared the unconstitutionality of García's decrees, but also noted the legitimacy of indigenous people's campaign of civil disobedience. In Congress, the Constitutional Committee declared two of the presidential decrees unconstitutional. But under pressure from the executive, García's APRA party, with support from followers of jailed former President Fujimori and other right-wing political parties, has blocked discussion of the Constitutional Committee’s resolution.

At the beginning of June, the situation deteriorated. Aidesep walked away from the incipient talks with the government, citing the executive's refusal to acknowledge broadening public rejection of the decrees. The government responded with increased repression that culminated – so far – with the Devil's Curve massacre. García also lashed out against Radio de la Selva, an Amazonian radio station that has been critical of the government. The attorney general is considering charging the station with inciting public unrest. When the military violently broke up the river blockade on the Napo River, spontaneous protests erupted against the Navy.

The declaration of martial law in the provinces of Bagua and Utcubamba, where the bloodiest repression took place, and the trumped-up charges of rioting have forced many of Aidesep leaders underground. But the repression drove many non-indigenous sectors into the fold of the Aidesep-led resistance. A newspaper report interviewed a teacher who described how many non-indigenous locals joined the June 6 protests after the Army blocked villagers from attending to the wounded and bringing water to the natives at Devil's Curve. The indiscriminate shootings only fueled further hostility toward the government. The growing unrest among a broad range of popular forces has coalesced into the Communitarian Front in Defense of Life and Sovereignty, formed on June 4. Among other actions, the new coalition has called for a national general strike if the Law of the Jungle is not repealed by June 11.

Catholic clergy have rejected the repression and reiterated their support for indigenous demands. In a joint-letter the Ombudsman's Office and high-ranking clergy called on the government to privilege peace and negotiation over repression and violence in resolving the conflict. In a previous statement the priests expressed their discontent with the "attitude taken by the government, foreign and national businessmen and a large sector of the media" against "the just demands of Amazonian indigenous peoples." (These conservative sectors have ridiculously dismissed the protests as the work of presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.)

La Lucha Sigue

The outcome of this current crisis is highly uncertain. Indigenous are calling for García to resign, while a chorus of groups (newspapers, unions, opposition figures) are at least demanding that García sack cabinet members, particularly Prime Minister Simon and the Minister of the Interior. The police union issued a statement lamenting the death of both the officers and their "Indian brothers," while placing the blame for these deaths squarely on García.

One thing, however, is certain: The recent repression laid bare García's naked slavishness to foreign capital investment and his double-talk of feigning negotiation and dialogue, while implementing an evidently well-planned counter-insurgency operation. Much of the national media has obediently obliged with a fear-mongering campaign. Under the government's current plan, oil and gas concession blocs alone would cover 72 percent of Peru's Amazon, according to a recent study by Duke University.

Will energy, agribusiness, lumber, and mining corporations gain exclusive benefit to one of the largest repositories of fresh water, biodiversity, and other resources? Will the indigenous succeed in protecting their lands – a final frontier – from the rule of global capital? The answers to these questions will depend on many things, including indigenous people's ability to sustain protests and their growing allegiances with other sectors as well as the government's willingness to use brute force.

Indigenous peoples in Peru have reconfigured – perhaps irreversibly – popular anti-systemic forces in the country from their weakness and dispersion of recent years. In the immediate future, however, the next weeks will be crucial for determining the outcome of the crisis. International solidarity with the Aidesep struggle will be central in deterring the predatory advance of the government and capital. The defense of Amazonia, as Peruvian clergy pointed out, “is not of the exclusive concern of Peruvian citizens but of all humanity."


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).
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