Natives in Peru belonging to groups like the 70,000-strong Awajun nation in the north near Ecuador, and the 50,000-strong Ashaninkas in the center have been showing discontent since April 9, by blocking commercial waterways in a vast region without highways that is vital for Peruvian energy generation.
The one demand shared by thousands of Natives in Peru – who speak multiple unrelated languages – is that urgent protection is needed for their territories because law changes related to a recently signed free trade agreement with the U.S. have put their land at greater risk, said Edson Rosales, spokesperson for the Lima-based AIDESEP, which groups 56 indigenous nations that group 350,000 people in Peru.
Rosales said the waterways blocked are the Napo-Curaray near Iquitos and also the Urubamba, the latter allowing access to the Camisea key natural gas production area. Government officials from the ombudsman office have separately confirmed the river blockades by Natives in some locations as part of protests.
The Natives want all business activity in the Amazon to come to a halt, but are not occupying or blocking any energy installation directly like they did last year, Rosales said. This time it will be more of an attrition strategy. Some 8,000 Natives are taking part in protests.
New Strategy, Same Problem
Rosales said Natives have changed their strategy, and instead of occupying installations, will just block waterways. The impact may be slower than that of the 2008 protests but in time it will be effective.
Huge groups of thousands of Natives occupied private company installations in 2008 which forced them to evacuate personnel out of the Amazon areas in convulsion for several days.
Last year, Natives nearly managed to bring the Peruvian hydrocarbon production to a full stop after thousands of Awajun members blocked crude pumping installations shutting down the only crude pipeline in Peru.
In August of last year, in the first protest over similar demands, thousands of Natives in the south took full control of a key natural gas block area known as 56, also operated by Pluspetrol, which at the time was set to start production. Boats were held in waterway barricades. Pluspetrol demanded that Peru work to make the country viable for investment.
The companies were operating normally as of April 15. “In time they will have to stop too,” Rosales said, adding that all supplies to production centers are delivered by waterway.
The 2008 Native protests ended when government authorities offered to change the laws because they threatened Native territories. Rosales said the government never did, and the laws still stand.
Rosales said the Peruvian Prime Minister Yehude Simon agreed to meet with Native leaders April 20 to discuss the threats to Native territories and an end to the protests.
Ivan Lanegra, representative of the government-paid Peruvian ombudsman office, said the Peruvian government takes care to protect the well-being of Natives and that there are officials who understand Native languages and are monitoring convulsion and ready to help as needed through some 37 regional offices.
While different areas and communities face different challenges and may have different platforms of demands, the one unifying intention of this coordinated Native protest is to get full government recognition of the rights of Native peoples to live undisturbed in their ancestral territories, Rosales said.
He said this is not possible when those lands are given in concession and seismic detonations or water pollution occurs due to oil exploration and extraction. Natives want a suspension of any new oil or gas concession.
AIDESEP is also warning about the potential of confrontation with Peruvian security forces in coming days because of build-up of security forces in places like the Atalaya town (an Ashaninka area) and similar ones in the northern areas of Cenepa in the Peru-Ecuador border.
Part of the problem is the Peruvian state does not recognize private ownership of sub-soil property. A title only allows its holder ownership of surface property.
According to the AIDESEP Web site, the Native Peruvians have a radically different view of land compared to the European-based property concept.
Native Peruvians do not consider that they own the land, but have a vision that the soil where they live has spiritual value. In the case of the Awajun, soil takes the form of a little girl in oral traditions to warn about its fragility.
AIDESEP explains that under this vision a waterfall used by ancestors to meditate hundreds of years ago has spiritual value that cannot be marketed for a power plant.
The Natives’ fight for their land has been their fight for survival in Peru.
“If we did not have territory, then we would be an indigenous population without life, and because of this we would be sentenced to be exterminated,” AIDESEP states.
The Web site states, “Our fight is not isolated. It is part of the fight and demands of the peoples from the Andes and Amazon who are still here in spite of 500 years of oppression and colonial marginalization that is still affecting us.”