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Fight against President Garcia laws intensify

Natives in Peru recently intensified protests they’ve been holding for 48 days which have shut down the country’s biggest crude oil fields, halted the operation of its only crude pipeline, blocked key Amazon highways and rivers, and disrupted travel to the Machu Picchu ruins.

The protests by Native groups are aimed at getting Peruvian President Alan Garcia to back down on recent law changes that would give his government a freer hand in selling rights over tracts of Amazon land.

AIDESEP spokesperson Edson Rosales said railways – the only access other than foot from the city of Cuzco to the Machu Picchu Inca ruins, the biggest tourist attraction in Peru – was blocked May 27 for a second day by groups including Machiguenga Natives. It was the first time the ruins had been affected.

The biggest Peruvian Amazon city of Iquitos – population 370,000 – was also paralyzed for a second day. Other protests hit many Amazon towns which faced supply shortages, he added.

He said other blockades of waterways, highways as well as pumping installations for the pipeline continued, and reported that Native leader Alberto Pizango remains firm to his original position that the protests will not end until Garcia backs down on legislation changes that threaten Natives ancestral lands.

Dialogue Starts

Pizango, president of AIDESEP, the organization that groups some 350,000 Natives, met May 27 in Lima with Peruvian Cabinet Chief Yehude Simon for the first formal talks session. Previously government officials said Pizango was not a proper representative of Natives and warned the multiple Native groups that their leaders were misguiding them.

While Pizango gained acceptance as representative of Natives, he still faces trouble, partly because he was ordered to appear before the state attorney June 2 to answer charges for “crimes against the state in the modality of rebellion.”

In a new development, Pizango faces accusations of corruption from a former AIDESEP official. Treasury worker Soledad Fasabi appeared on Lima television accusing Pizango of stealing from the organization.

Rosales said the accusations are false and suspicious, adding that Fasabi had already faced internal sanctions.

The government-Native dialogue results from an offer May 20 by Garcia’s office to set up a special committee that was to have government and AIDESEP representatives. Just a few days earlier, the government had publicly insisted on limiting any dialogue with Pizango through a special, little known institution supposedly in charge of rights of minority groups including Afro-Peruvians and Natives.

President Alan Garcia

Rosales said the president created the crisis by enacting laws related to land use in the Amazon, and now refusing to repeal them, claiming the laws can only be changed by Congress, and Congress won’t act. Rosales said Garcia wrongly used his special powers for a free trade accord with the U.S. to pass the controversial laws.

Garcia is far from backing down. In a mid-May speech, he said that calls for rebellion by Pizango were nothing but an attempt by a “small group” to legitimize itself as the owner of resources that should belong to 28 million Peruvians, not just them.

“The lands of the Amazon belong to you, to your sons, to all the nations, to all Peruvians and not to a small group that lives there,” Garcia said.

Peruvian Environment Minister Antonio Brack Egg, the authority responsible for environment protection in Peru, said the country needs to seek hydrocarbons in the Amazon. “Peru imports annually $2.5 billion for crude oil and if we don’t find more reserves its energy security will be compromised.”

Peruvian authorities declared a state of emergency for the Amazon effective May 9 to help police clear the roads and break the protests. On May 16, the government published a decree stating that “the armed forces will intervene to support the work by the national police to guarantee essential services.”

Natives say government lied

The offer of repealing the controversial Garcia laws was made as early as last year to end similar Amazon protests that caused equal unrest. Natives ended the convulsion last year with the understanding that the laws would be repealed, but nearly a year later they are still in place.

Those laws are designed to ease the Amazon trading of territories for lumber, oil, gas, gold and other resources but at the expense of less control which could result in pollution, Natives have said. Natives have shown evidence of pollution in areas such as the Corrientes basin and demanded a stop to new concessions.

Garcia has met with the presidents of oil company Perenco to discuss a $200 million investment this year in northern Amazon explorations, and with top officials from Spain-based oil Repsol YPF to talk about a $2.5 billion investment within five years to develop Amazon crude oil and gas fields.

In April, he welcomed more than a dozen companies in Lima to sign new Amazon concessions for the north and eastern Amazon.

While Lima – home to eight million – has enjoyed an economic boom in recent years, partly fueled by cheaper energy that started coming in 2004 from natural gas wells in the Amazon region of Camisea, Natives have seen very little or nothing, as many still stand barefoot without access to government paid big hospitals, schools and other institutions which are concentrated mostly in Lima and regional capitals. The situation for some communities –such as those in Madre de Dios which are near illegal gold operations – are reminiscent of when thousands of Natives suffered enslavement by rubber businessmen a century ago.

“We want development too, but seated on a table on an equal-to-equal basis,” Pizango said.