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Economist de Soto angers Peru Natives, experts with documentary

Hernando de Soto, a renowned Peruvian economist, has upset Natives as well as the foremost local experts on Peruvian Natives and Amazon issues with a documentary critics see as another attempt to strip Peruvian Natives of their lands so they can be transferred to oil and lumber companies.

Alberto Chirif, one of the top experts on Peruvian Amazon issues, has written that de Soto’s recent documentary is “irresponsible” and possibly “criminal” as it aims to take the validity out of Peruvian indigenous community existing ownership titles by calling those documents “pieces of paper without function. … only valid within community borders.”

He said de Soto’s arguing in his documentary, “The Mystery of Capital Among the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon” appears as a first step toward the taking of those lands. He said de Soto’s position mirrors that of Peruvian President Alan Garcia and could be well motivated by his political ambitions.

Melissa Mussio, de Soto’s secretary, recently said de Soto rejected Indian Country Today’s request for an interview to further evaluate whether his position would be for the benefit of Native Peruvians. She replied to a written request saying he will not be available, even in coming weeks.

De Soto has provoked the negative reactions from Chirif and other local experts, as well as Peruvian Native organization AIDESEP officials because his recent documentary is seen as biased towards the government position which argues that the Amazon should be developed by big companies despite Native opposition because the future oil and lumber revenue is needed.

“The real mystery of capital is who financed the documentary, whether government or private companies,” wrote Chirif, who is considered a leading Amazon expert due to the decades of work he has done in the Amazon. De Soto, on the other hand, is well-known for a thesis repeated in several publications which argues that the lack of individual ownership titles in urban areas is behind worldwide underdevelopment. One example is a book published earlier this decade named “The Mystery of Capital.”

Another local expert on Amazon issues, Rodrigo Montoya, added that de Soto failed to include the opinion of Native leaders, top experts on Native issues and other well known experts in his documentary which makes his work “superficial.”

Montoya said de Soto’s approach is overly simplistic with use of interviews that were convenient for his position and that de Soto lacks any knowledge or respect for Native Peruvian beliefs. He said those communities and Natives he interviewed are not representative of all communities.

For example, de Soto argues land titles should be given to Native individuals to ease the exploitation of land, but Montoya said that approach ignores the Native American beliefs – “the territory is in first and last instance a mother” – and that vision’s implications influence the type of activities carried out in the soil.

“De Soto does not say a word about the 1,228 forestry concessions with 7.8 million hectares nor the 81 oil blocks which include 56 million hectares,” Montoya said. He also said de Soto should not try to make Peruvian Native leader Alberto Pizango, who recently returned from being in exile in Nicaragua, look like a violent leader stuck to archaic values.

Margarita Benavides, an anthropologist from the local Institute of the Common Good, said de Soto shouldn’t try to treat the concepts of community property and private enterprise as mutually exclusive.

Benavides said many Ashaninka communities for example have community ownership of land yet are also involved in private activities including enterprises in forest management and handcrafts production.

She also said de Soto shouldn’t try to play down the importance of agreements signed between Peru and the United Nations centered on respecting the rights of the indigenous.

De Soto shares the same name of one of the leading Spanish conquerors who plundered through Inca and North American lands nearly five centuries ago and directly or indirectly caused the death of thousands of Natives through uneven warfare as part of his efforts to find gold.