ON June 19, 2009 this year, Peru’s Congress or parliament repealed two highly controversial presidential decrees following months of struggle by indigenous peoples and democratic forces within Peru and failure of efforts to violently crush what had assumed the proportions of an indigenous uprising. The decrees were among more than 90 similar proclamations promulgated in the past few years by Peruvian president Alan Garcia under special powers granted to him by Congress to bring domestic legislation in line with the Free Trade Agreement entered into by Peru with the USA in 2007. The decrees opened up vast tracts of Peru’s forests, inhabited by native peoples with traditional rights in the land, to logging, mineral exploitation, mining and other extractive industries which invariably in Peru involve multinational corporations (MNCs).
The repeal by the Peruvian Congress, and offers to resign by president Garcia and by the entire cabinet led by prime minister Yehude Simon, represents a huge victory against capitalist globalisation, a victory not only for the indigenous peoples of Peru but also for people elsewhere in the world struggling for traditional rights in forest and other lands. It also brings into sharp focus the issue of environmental degradation especially of tropical rainforests, and the intimate connection between protection of forests and of the rights of those who live in or near forests and act as custodians of the world’s major carbon sinks which absorb carbon dioxide emissions and therefore form a crucial part of the global battle against climate change.
Yet there is nothing permanent about this victory. The seeds of its undoing remain for, while the decrees themselves have been suspended, they have not been fully withdrawn. Pressures will continue to build from powerful MNCs and from the governments of the US and Canada to somehow enforce the FTA agreements and open up the Peruvian forests and Amazonian region to extractive industries. And the structure underlying the basically unequal trade agreements between the rich North and the developing South American countries remains very much intact.
Indeed, the entire struggle brings up many of the old, familiar issues and conundrums about environment versus development, “national interests” versus interests of its peoples or even sections of its people, local versus foreign control over natural resources, land rights of indigenous peoples or other traditional rights versus “modern” property rights and “rights” usurped by the State.
PERU OPENED UP TO MNCs
President Garcia himself has a rather notorious past. He held the highest Peruvian office earlier too in the ‘80s. Garcia presided over a massacre of inmates in Lima’s prison at a time when the “Socialist International” to which his American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party belonged was holding a conference in the Peruvian capital, left Peru facing an inflation of over 8000 per cent when he left office in 1990, and prepared the ground for over a decade of corrupt dictatorship by Alberto Fujimori. Garcia returned from self-imposed exile and won the 2006 elections against a nationalist, pro-native peoples candidate.
Garcia’s agenda soon became clear. He paved the way for MNCs in Peru by a programme of often forcible displacement of small farmers and indigenous peoples from community lands and opened up Peru’s forests for mining and other extractive industries which he touted as the mantra for Peru’s “development”. He was instrumental in Peru becoming one of only three Latin American countries to sign the US-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Under the new open-door policy for MNCs, Peru started awarding concessions for mining, extraction of petroleum and natural gas, or simply logging to MNCs in open violation of numerous national policies, traditional rights and international covenants that Peru was signatory to. Garcia openly declared that “progress and modernity come [only] from the big investments by the multinationals…, [rather than from] the poor peasants who haven’t a centavo to invest.” In the commodity boom that preceded the economic crash of the capitalist system last year, MNCs made enormous profits.
All the while, these areas were being seriously degraded and rendered virtually inhabitable. Forests were denuded, rivers and underground water poisoned, and agricultural lands badly affected. The government not only provided the MNCs a low tax regime but also offered them highly subsidised water and electricity, and suspended environmental regulations in these fragile ecosystems. The mostly indigenous peoples and other small farmers living in these areas suffered a pincer attack, caught between degradation of their natural environment and consequent deprivation of livelihoods, and rising prices brought about by the massive influx of MNC money into the region.
THE JOINT STRUGGLE
Among the many executive decrees and proclamations of this period, were two controversial ones that lay at the heart of the massive struggle that followed. The first of these removed about 60 per cent or about 45 million hectares of Peru’s forests from the country’s Forestry Heritage system under which both the forests and the rights of its inhabitants were to have been protected. The second decree pertained to mining or other extraction activities concessions which were already de-linked from ownership, i.e., concessions could be granted by government regardless of who owned the land! The new decree allowed companies to change the terms of their concessions, obviously in their favour, directly from the central government and by-passing the local consultative process especially with indigenous peoples which had hitherto been in place.
In fact, the government of Peru is obliged to undertake such consultation according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which has been in effect since 1991 and which was ratified by Peru in 1994 giving it validity under Peru’s Constitution. But more about this later.
These and other anti-people measures were pushed through by president Garcia’s government despite the fact that Congressional Committees had declared several of these decrees to be unconstitutional and had called for debates before formal legislation was passed. But Garcia’s APRA party blocked such parliamentary debates and never allowed legislation to come up preferring to rule by decrees instead.
In response, the various native American or indigenous peoples came together and launched a joint struggle under the banner of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), which brought together 1385 indigenous communities. They held huge protest demonstrations and other actions culminating in a blockade of two major national highways. On May 9 the government declared a State of Emergency and launched a ferocious attack, with president Garcia labeling the protestors “savages and barbarians” and ordering a massive crackdown using armed troops and helicopters. In a major police action on June 5 when troops attempted to clear one of the blockaded highways near the town of Bagua, many tens of indigenous people were killed, even in their homes. The protestors retaliated militantly and several policemen lost their lives in the clashes that followed.
The outcry both in Peru and internationally forced the Garcia government to give in. Within Peru, major Trade Union federations such as the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) and the Unitary Confederation of Workers (CUT), together with the umbrella Social and Political Coordination Committee had earlier held a national day of protest. Students staged massive demonstrations in Lima. Even the chairperson of the ILO Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues formally wrote to president Garcia expressing her “deep concern on the reports [on]… the state of siege decreed by the Peruvian government… in response to the mobilisation of indigenous peoples in the Amazon region against extractive industries concessions in the area without the adequate consultations and respect for their free, prior and informed consent… The chair wishes to recall that the Peruvian government is under the obligation to consult and respect indigenous peoples’ rights as a Party to ILO Convention 169… which calls for the full respect of indigenous peoples’ rights, including the rights related to their traditional lands, territories and resources and to their free, prior and informed consent.”
Even the conservative press and think tanks in the USA which had been advocating a hard-line push for MNC mining and oil and gas exploration interests in Peru now began to advocate a retreat by president Garcia fearing a radicalisation of the Peruvian indigenous people. Indeed, at one stage AIDESEP had even declared their “right to insurgency” which they later withdrew while calling upon the government to retract the State of Emergency. Representatives in Peru’s Congress, acting in concert with president Garcia and prime minister Simon convened a session of Congress to discuss the decrees. Even here though, the official resolution to suspend the decrees was opposed by 14 legislators of the opposition Peru Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Peruana) who demanded a full revocation which was not granted. Indeed, several of these Opposition legislators have since been suspended from Congress so as to maintain government dominance.
Often touted by governments as saviours bringing foreign investment and providing jobs, extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas drilling etc have had a terrible record worldwide. Examples from South America are legion. The oil-rich Niger delta in Nigeria, and the various mines in apartheid South Africa are other examples that show that large corporations are highly exploitative, keep their workers under very poor conditions, often amounting to bondage or with low wages. Where MNCs employ more modern technologies, these highly capital intensive industries provide few jobs to local people often preferring to bring in labour from elsewhere including from the home country. Their record on the environment is, if at all possible, even worse.
In most other regions of the world, the affected local communities are relatively small, isolated and poorly organised, and therefore unable to resist the huge pressures brought upon them by the combined forces of MNCs and host governments.
In Latin America, the comparatively higher proportion of indigeneous peoples in several countries has provided the basis to try and bring about at least some degree of protection. In Peru, for instance, about 40 per cent of the total population of 25 million are believed to be native Americans with a sizeable proportion, and about the same numbers being mestizo or people of mixed-race. These indigenous peoples were ruthlessly expropriated by the Spanish colonisers who did not recognise any traditional rights over land. With this history of colonial expropriation and disenfranchisement, and the growing organised resistance by indigenous people, it is no surprise that in the ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, 13 of the 17 countries who have ratified the Convention are from Latin America.
The roots of the conflict in Peru lies in the refusal of the State to consult the indigenous peoples before gifting away land that they have lived on from time immemorial to be exploited by MNC mining and energy companies who have not only not provided jobs but have also destroyed the environment that sustained these people and their livelihoods.
Peru was among the first Latin American countries to legislatively protect the rights of the indigenous population through its 1930 Constitution which recognised the right of indigenous communities over their ancestral lands while also granting them a reasonable level of autonomy. However, the 1993 Constitution promulgated under Fujimori was a step backwards as regards protecting the rights and interests of the indigenous people and which addressed the issues of land, minerals and other natural resources within the neo-liberal framework with the State playing an active role in handing over peoples’ rights to private corporations. The decrees and legislations passed under president Garcia took these to another level under the US-led Free Trade Agreement.
The problem is in fact continental in scope as similar issues are confronting indigenous peoples throughout Latin America, while the predatory corporations are mostly US or Canadian with a few European companies thrown in for good measure. California based Occidental petroleum, Canadian oil giant Petrolifera, Argentina based Pluspetrol, numerous Canadian mining companies are wreaking havoc in Peru, Colombia, Belize, Ecuador and so on.
Today, the problem this poses goes far beyond Latin America. It is estimated that the Amazonian forests are about half the world’s forested areas and are responsible for absorbing more than 10 per cent of total global emissions of carbon dioxide, the major gas responsible for global warming. Protection of tropical rainforests are among the various measures being discussed round the world to tackle the climate crisis. This is not merely about conservation but involves many interlinked issues. Peru is just the latest example which shows that solutions to these problems are not to be found in the neo-liberal framework but must be sought in participatory sustainable and equitable development.