Catholic Bishops in Peru’s Amazon call for protection of ethnic communities

A call for real and inclusive dialogue with indigenous communities and the repeal of several Amazon development laws was made this week by the bishops of eight Catholic vicariates in Peru’s Amazon region. In a public statement, the bishops urge President Alan Garcia and Congress to repeal two laws and seven decrees that they claim seriously endanger the rights and welfare of the indigenous and riverside communities in Amazonia.

Also late this week, following heated debates, Congress approved to accept the multipartisan recommendation to consider repealing the legislation package.

But between the bishops’ public statement and the vote in Congress, a Peruvian Navy gunboat and a Perenco oil company boat broke through a blockade on the Napo River, in the northeast jungle, where native communities are protesting pollution of their waterways. At the same time, on the Curacay River, five Navy launches and a helicopter forced open the blockade set up by the communities at San Rafael.

Coincidentally, close to 500 Andean and Amazonian community and organization leaders have been in Lima for a preparatory meeting prior to the 4th Summit of the Indigenous Peoples and Nations of the Continent, to be held May 27-31 in Puno. Some 50 of the Amazon leaders gathered in Congress the day of the vote, threatening a hunger strike in the Congress building if their claims were not heard.

What Congress has approved, however, is an amended and watered-down version of the multipartisan proposal first presented in December 2008 and it is not likely to appease the protesters. Additionally, Congress has voted to wait for 15 days for a report on whether the legislation is constitutional or not, and this “only delays the solution to the problem,” said Ada Cuevas, executive director of Caaap, the Amazon Center of Anthropology and Applied Practice, working in the Peruvian jungle for the past 35 years.

The bishops consider the new legislation, fostering private investment and commercially-focused development, to be a primary cause of the most recent political unrest among Amazonian communities, who have been participating in protest strikes and river blockades since early April, led by Aidesep, the Inter-ethnic Defense Front of the Peruvian Jungle. Some community leaders from Yurimaguas have planned to march to Lima if necessary.

Statement from The Bishops of Amazonia on the Strike of the Amazonian Peoples

As Pastors of Catholic communities in Amazonia, we wish to address public opinion to express our position on the strike led by the Amazonian peoples.

1. The Amazon region is rich in ancient cultures and in biodiversity. It is the source of life and hope for humanity. We thus consider it one of the best gifts given by God because Peru is one of the eight mega-diverse countries on the planet. Amazonia has 31 of the 114 life zones or ecosystems in the world, 95% of the forests in the country, and holds an important potential as a water and hydro energy source. This demands from all of us, Peruvian men and women, the responsibility to “till the land and keep it” (Genesis 2), for our own benefit and that of future generations.

2. Thus, as proclaimers “of life, we wish to insist that, in the intervention of natural resources, the group interests that irrationally destroy the sources of life, damaging entire nations and humanity itself, not predominate.” (Aparecida Document 471*).

3. From this standpoint, we are witnesses of how, in the name of a biased concept of development, the State permits the deforestation of large tracts of primary forests for the benefit of national and international companies in order to invest in plantations for oil, sugar, and others.

4. Nobody is unaware of the irresponsible pollution of the rivers with lead and other heavy metals and toxic substances resulting from the mining industry (formal and informal) and the extraction of petroleum. We are, also, witnesses to the indiscriminate and completely uncontrolled felling of lumber.

5. We can affirm that the demands of the indigenous and riverside populations, who wish for an integrated development, are not met and that the State does not recognize their use and occupation of those lands for generations. In practice, the right of the Amazonian peoples to be heard is not taken into consideration, despite being included in the Political Constitution of the State and in the International Treaties on Human Rights, which include Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In the report by the Committee of Experts of the Application of ILO Conventions, published in February 2009, the Peruvian Government is urged to take the necessary steps, without further delay, to establish the appropriate mechanisms for the participation of indigenous peoples and exhorts it to consult them before adopting measures that affect them directly or indirectly.

6. We must express that “the Church…. especially values the indigenous peoples for their respect of nature and the love of the mother earth as a source of food, common home and an altar to human sharing.” (Aparecida Document 472*).

7. The events that we are currently living through in Amazonia show us the intentions of disposing of, in an inhumane and cruel manner, the possessions of the riverside and Amazonian populations because they do not have, in their own country, the necessary legal protection to defend their just demands. As a result, they are condemned to being uprooted from their lands and to become salaried workers planting sugar cane, oil palm, and in mining and hydrocarbon extractions.

8. The legislation that the State has enacted in 2008 (particularly the two Laws and seven Legislative Decrees) do not contribute to the integrated development of the Amazonian population. To the contrary, they lead to serious threats of greater poverty in the region.

9. We do not wish for violence, and thus urge the Government and Congress to show intentions of dialogue and to seek fair and peaceful solutions to the problems that the Amazonian people have been facing, so that they are not led to despair, which could increase social conflicts.

10. We appeal to the press to fulfill their role of providing truthful information to the public opinion, contributing to the right that citizens have of being informed of the events in Peru’s Amazonia.

11. Facing this delicate panorama, we urge the Constitutional President and the Congress of the Republic to repeal the legal mechanisms mentioned and contribute to formulating new laws with the participation of the indigenous populations. Likewise, we call on these Amazonian peoples and their leaders to unite to seek together the Common Good. We consider it necessary to meet for authentic dialogue, a meeting made up of all the social players for the peaceful and harmonious solution to the conflict that has been created.

In conclusion, we reaffirm with the Bishops of Latin America, the need to “seek an alternative, integrated and supportive development model, based on the ethic that includes the responsibility for an authentic ecology of nature and humanity, based on the Gospel of justice, solidarity, and in the universal destiny of assets…” (Aparecida Document 474c*).

Dated May 5, 2009 Signed by:

Mons. José Luis Astigarraga, C.P., Bishop of Yurimaguas
Mons. Alberto Campos, O.F.M., Bishop of San José de Amazonas
Mons. Santiago García de la Rasilla, S..J., Bishop of Jaén
Mons. Gerardo Zerdin, O.F.M., Bishop of San Ramón
Mons. Gaetano Galbusera, S.D.B., Bishop of Pucallpa
Mons. Francisco González, O.P., Bishop of Puerto Maldonado
Mons. Julián García, O.S.A., Bishop of Iquitos
Mons. Juan Tomás Oliver, O.F.M., Bishop of Requena
Mons. Rafael Escudero López-Brea, Bishop of Moyobamba

*The final document at the 5th General Conference of Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, CELAM, held in Aparecida, Brazil, May 13-31, 2007.

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