Strike in Amazon

By Antonio Zapata

Note: This article was written 15 April 2009 for La República newspaper by historian and commentator Antonio Zapata. It has been translated for the Peruvian Times in order to provide some general background to the ongoing critical dispute in the Amazonian area of Peru.

While the Fujimori case has been the focus of public attention, the strike (by associations of peoples) in the Amazon continues to develop in importance. The protagonists are ethnic groups in the tropical, Amazon forest area of Eastern Peru – communities originarias (indigenous people) – who have maintained traditional ways of life. They have been relentlessly assaulted by a succession of colonization projects – mainly foreign, exploiting natural resources for export.

Historically, rubber was the most important case. It established a pattern that has been repeated up to the current time. The schemes involved could be called “predators of the forest” and an aggression against the peoples who have been living there since ancient times. National governments proceed as if the Amazon forest contained no people, as if it were a blank space and an inexhaustible resource that simply has to be commercialized.

Yesterday it was rubber (the rubber boom was approx.1882-1910). Now there are three main products: petroleum, timber and minerals. In the era of rubber, it was said that it replaced the nitrate deposits lost in the Pacific war. There was a boom that resulted in almost complete extinction of certain ethnic groups, virtually enslaved as rubber workers. The most notorious case was that of the Peruvian rubber baron Julio César Arana, who had oppressed the Putumayo Huitotos almost to the point of extermination, but he was arraigned before a Parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom, where his company was based. The committee was investigating charges of slavery committed by his company in the Putumayo border region (Peru /Colombia).

Now the Amazon is being divided up in the form of large concessions. For example in the case of oil, from 2000 until today, the number of requests for concessions in the jungle area of Peru has increased tenfold. Most are still in their exploration phase, demonstrating the wish of governments in this decade to increase economic activity in the oil industry.

The same applies to mining. In principle, the law does not permit the presence of foreign mining companies in border zones, though this is not without exception (the government has granted concessions). For example, a sensitive area near the Cordillera del Condor has been granted to a mining concern, causing “inconvenience” to our neighbors (Ecuador / Colombia) to the north, who had been conserving their area as a natural forest.

Such policies have been taken to the extreme in the case of timber. It should not be necessary to point out that among the trees being felled, people and animals coexist in a complex and fragile ecosystem. If the forest is cut down, it spells the end for natural and human life that has been there since time immemorial.

Meanwhile, compared to farmland, which is pretty scarce in the selva area, trees in the Amazon are rooted in layers of organic matter that they themselves produce. Widespread logging kills this organic layer and the area becomes a wasteland.

Official policy is contained in a series of decree laws that Amazonian Peruvians see as undermining their ancestral rights. Accordingly they asked for their repeal, which they obtained following a general strike last August. The government gave way and Congress is committed to repeal the legislation. Additionally, they appointed a committee to review the laws, and it concluded by recommending their annulment. But the recommendation was not passed through the full parliamentary process and in the meantime, the government has enacted another law that strengthens the attack on the forest. This is Law 29317, known as the Ley Forestal (Forest Act), which appears to encourage the over-exploitation of the Amazon ecosystem.

The Amazonian people are organized. Perhaps they don’t carry much weight in the nerve centers of the country, but the pueblos originarios of the Amazon remain united around their communities. They have also created modern associations such as AIDESEP, the Association of Inter-Ethnic Development of the Peruvian Jungle, which have greater influence than organizations from the coastal areas and the sierra. The Amazon people are heard at a distance, but they are strong because their message is consistent and they manage their territory well.

The protesters have been leaving their usual jobs and assembling their craft at certain points on the rivers, disrupting river traffic, although they let canoes through. They do not stay long, they appear and dissolve, to create barricades at other points in the river system. This time they are determined to go all the way because they feel they have been deceived. They were promised reforms and then treated with contempt. The government would do well to take things seriously, because the Amazonian people do what they promise.

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