Peruvian indigenous groups protest President Garcia’s communal land rights decree

An indefinite strike ran for a fourth consecutive day Tuesday as indigenous rights groups continued to occupy Argentine-operated Pluspetrol gas lots and a power station, demanding the repeal of presidential decrees they say are promoting unrestricted oil exploration while stripping their full rights to control communal lands.

“The indigenous peoples and their communities have determined that this protest will be indefinite and will go on until the government addresses our demands,” said Alberto Pizango, the President of the Interethnic Association for the Development of Peru’s Jungle, or Aidesep. “Otherwise they will take on other measures and radicalize their struggle across Peru’s Amazon.”

Aidesep and the indigenous peoples are demanding that Peru President Alan García revoke the controversial communal land rights decree N°1015 as well as 37 other decrees promulgated as part of the Peru-U.S. free trade agreement they say violate their territorial and ancestral rights.

“We are not violent, all we want is to pacifically dialogue with the government,” said Pizango.

“I say that it won’t turn violent,” Pizango said. “It won’t turn violent because we, indigenous peoples, are not violent. But our rights have been violated. We believe that the indigenous peoples will pursue the protest until the government understands that these rights have been violated and we sit down for dialogue.”

CNR radio reported that indigenous protesters belonging to over 65 different tribes and ethnic groups seized drilling platforms, a helicopter port, a Pluspetrol boat, and buildings in southern Peru and that more protesters took over the El Muyo hydroelectric power station owned by Oriental Electric Corp., and closed part of an oil duct in northern Peru.

And, early on Monday, after hundreds of armed protesters entered the Pagoreni A and B zones of Block-56, the Argentinean-owned Pluspetrol was forced to shut part of one of its natural gas lots and evacuate its personnel, state news agency Andina reported.

The Argentine company, along with other developers which include Repsol of Spain and the U.S.-based Hunt Oil, runs the Camisea Gas Project consortium, known as Block-88 and considered one of Latin America’s key energy infrastructure projects. The gas fields are located in Peru’s south-eastern Amazon basin and thought to hold some of the largest undeveloped gas reserves in South America.

But for Aidesep and other environmental groups, Peru’s $1.6 billion Camisea Gas Project is possibly the most damaging project in the Amazon Basin.

According to Amazon Watch, a non governmental environmentalist group, approximately 75 percent of the Camisea project, which includes two pipelines that cut through an “Amazon biodiversity hotspot described by scientists as the last place on earth to drill for fossil fuels,” extends over the Kugapakori-Nahua state natural reserve for indigenous peoples that have chosen to live in isolation.

“In violation of both stated company policy and international laws such as ILO Convention 169 and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, employees of Veritas, a contractor working for consortia member Pluspetrol have made contact with these communities, pressuring them to abandon their ancestral lands. Pluspetrol also facilitated helicopter transport of missionaries to remote areas to contact isolated indigenous groups,” Amazon Watch said on its Web site.

And, the government “lacks the capacity to adequately supervise or monitor the project, or to ensure its revenues fund sustainable development,” reported the non-profit environmental group Friends of the Earth Peru.

Worse still, “the gas is to be exported, rather than used to enhance Peru’s energy security.”

The protest comes three months after the promulgation, without congressional approval, of Legislative Decree N°1015 last May.

The decree, which simplifies the process for private investors to obtain permission from indigenous communities to set up business, overturns an earlier communal land rights law approved by Congress in 1995 that required the “consent by a two-thirds majority vote by all members of the community” for communal lands in Peru’s highlands and jungle.

Now, instead of requiring a vote representing 66 percent of the entire community, investors need only to persuade a simple majority of those in attendance at a community assembly, according to the decree published in the official gazette, El Peruano.

Although the decree’s title proclaims it as a stimulus measure for agricultural production and competitiveness, critics contend it opens a loophole for mining development and oil exploration in the high Andes and Amazon region.

“We want to contribute to the country’s development,” Pizango told Radio Programas radio, “but that will be done when they understand us and respect the indigenous peoples’ rights to develop within their cosmovision because these are two different visions of development.”
“García’s government has been the most aggressive by calling us ungrateful junkyard dogs,” added Pizango in comments to CNR Radio. “Development as conceptualized from the point of view of businessmen is totally different from the concept of development that we manage from our communities. We want development to respect our land.”

Aidesep and the indigenous rights groups it represents also argued that the decree ignores United Nations Convention N°169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, to which Peru is a signatory.

According to the UN convention, governments must “consult the peoples concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions, whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly.

The first round of negotiation talks, headed by Environment Minister Antonio Brack, is scheduled for Friday, said Felipe Pacuir, a legal consultant Aidesep.

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