Peru Government adopts conciliatory tone after Amazon clashes

In a conciliatory move, after two months of telling indigenous communities that the government would not review legislation aimed to open up the Peruvian Amazon to more foreign investment, Peru’s Premier Yehude Simon asked Congress to repeal the controversial decrees by June 18.

“I understand that the members of Congress are upset,” said Simon. “But I ask them to understand, to support us not as persons, but as a country, as Peru.”

“It’s better to take a step back in order to take two forward,” said Simon, who until Monday was still using a hard line with indigenous leaders by refusing to pursue talks while the blockades and demonstrations constinued. “Some people think that we should call in the army and apply the full weight of the law. But we already have 24 policemen and 9 civilians dead. We don’t want this episode to repeat itself.”

There was also a cabinet shift last week, with former minister of Housing, Nidia Vilchez, moving to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to replace Carmen Vildoso, who resigned in protest of the government’s handling of the Bagua blockade.  Vilchez was replaced in the Ministry of Housing by Francis Allison, mayor of the Lima district of Magdalena and a keen supporter of President Garcia.

Although tempers continued to rage within the ruling Apra party, the Fujimori party and Unidad Nacional against dialogue and any softening on the pro-investment laws, their members in Congress have grudgingly accepted to toe President Garcia’s new line of dialogue. Their unchecked epithets and disdain had led the protest marches and blockades to not only continue in the north-central Amazon but to spread to key areas of social unrest in the Andean highlands.

On Monday, after a two-hour meeting with indigenous leaders in the central jungle town of San Ramón, Simon signed a 12-point agreement, agreeing to ask Congress to repeal decrees the natives claim are promoting unchecked development in their territory.

Under pressure, Congress had suspended the controversial decrees for 90 days last Wednesday, hoping to stave off nationwide protests that were held the following day. Indigenous leaders, however, immediately rejected the suspension as inadequate and demanded that the decrees be repealed.

The pact signed this week also specifies that the government is to end the state of emergency and curfew in the Department of Amazonas, where the June 5 deadly clashes occurred. In return, indigenous leaders promise to lift a blockade on the Yurimaguas-Bagua road that has cut off access into the central Amazon except for a few hours every day.  The Public Ombudsman’s office has recommended that the state of emergency be lifted in all the Amazon territories as a minimum condition to make the dialogue process viable.

The agreement reached between the government and the native leaders “does in no way weaken the government,” said Simon, in comments to Radio Programas,  RPP. “Citizens are not going to say that the government is backtracking, or has surrendered. Rather, people will say that at last there is peace. There are no losers, and no winners. And this is an agreement for peace and for life.”

“There has been a misinformation campaign and now no one can convince the natives that the decrees are not harmful to their interests,” added Simon, who reiterated that the conflict is part of a wider plot designed to instigate a coup d’état.

Also on Monday, in addition to the pact, Simon asked indigenous communities for forgiveness for the deadly clashes between police and indigenous protesters last week.

“I must resolve the problems we have with our Amazonian brothers and bring our country to peace,” said Simon. “Only then will I be able to say that we have fulfilled our obligations and present my resignation. As a Christian, I assume responsibility and ask forgiveness for what is incumbent upon me. And I have faith that the natives will also ask for forgiveness.”

According to indigenous leader Lidia Rengifo Lázaro, “this is the first time we hear a government official – let alone the Premier – call us brothers. We have always been looked on as different, as the last wheel on the vehicle.” (ed. the low man on the totem pole.)

For almost two months now, the Interethnic Association for the Development of Peru’s Jungle, or Aidesep, and other Amazon groups have demanded the repeal of several Executive decrees enacted last year to provide attractive investment conditions for the Free Trade Agreement signed with the United States, as well as other laws they contend infringe on their own territorial rights. Decree 1090, also known as the Forestry and Wildlife Law, is one of the most contentious, as it allows land to be sold if determined to be “of national interest.”

This decree, and several others written by the Executive last year, have been declared unconstitutional by two different Congressional commissions and the Public Ombudsman’s office, on the grounds that there was no prior consultation held with the indigenous communities who will be affected by the laws, contrary to the ILO’s Convention 169 on indigenous rights.

A major strike in August last year was discontinued after governmental promises to remedy the situation. When subsequent efforts were ignored, peaceful protests began in late March and had continued for over six weeks until the Executive ordered the Minister of Interior to quell the unrest. Violence erupted before dawn on June 5 on a remote jungle highway in the Bagua province of Amazonas department when army helicopters, soldiers strategically positioned atop hills, and police began to hurl and fire tear gas grenades into the crowd of 5,000 protesters. The tear gas caused panic and angered the protesters, who responded with violence. Police accused protesters of firing first, but the tribesmen denied having guns and said they only carried their traditional spears.

In the worst crisis since President Alan García took office in 2006, the violent confrontation left six natives, four Bagua residents and 11 police dead, as well as one officer missing and hundreds of people injured.

In retaliation for the clashes earlier in the day, 12 additional policemen were later killed by natives at state-owned Petroperu’s pumping station No. 6. The officers’ throats were pierced with spears shortly after news of what had happened in Bagua reached the pumping station.

“Although the authorities have the right and duty to guarantee law and order, they should do so with proportional use of force, complying at all times with their obligations to respect human rights,” reported Amnesty International, who also called on the leaders of the indigenous organizations to send a clear message to demonstrators that the taking of hostages and the killing of law enforcement officers are unacceptable.

“These natives are genocidal, not the government nor the police,” said García, who accused the indigenous communities of impeding progress by opposing gas and oil exploration on their lands, and blamed their opposition to his plans on “elemental ignorance” and manipulation by outside agitators — widely understood to mean Venezuela and Bolivia.

“We always ask the government to guarantee law and order, and that is fine,” said García. “But these people don’t have crowns. They are not first-class citizens, 400,000 natives can’t tell 28 million Peruvians you don’t have the right to come here.  No way. That is a serious error, and those who think like that are completely irrational.”

The violent confrontation – and claims that police have dumped bodies of natives in a local river to cover up the total number of deaths – prompted calls last week for Simon and Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas to hand in their resignations.

But Cabanillas, who is expected to be Garcia’s choice to head the ministry of defense in July, said that she has no intention of resigning. She has also denied any responsibility for the heavy-handed response and steadfastly insisted that reports from police who survived the clash and claimed that they were thrown into Bagua unprepared and ill-equipped are nothing short of “speculation.”

According to policemen interviewed on TV news show Cuarto Poder, the policemen who took part in “the most ill-planned police operation in Peru’s history” were obliged to use their personal cell phones to contact each other as they were not equipped with radios or walkie-talkies.

“They think the Ministry has to set up an operative plan, but the Ministry isn’t the police,” said Cabanillas. “Specific decisions made on the ground and at a given time, such as strategy and tactics, should be taken by those taking part in the operation, not those back in Lima.”

According to former Interior minister Fernando Rospigliosi, the fact that Cabanillas ignored intelligence reports and sent in troops without any type of plan whatsoever “goes beyond political responsibility and constitutes criminal negligence on Cabanillas’ part.”

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