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Indigenous Peoples in Peru Hope New President Keeps His Promise

Recent protests by indigenous communities over mining in the Andean highlands and a hydroelectric dam in the Peruvian Amazon, as well as mixed reactions to a new forestry law, are a sign of difficulties Peru’s new president will face upon taking office on July 28.

Although protesters have won several small victories, indigenous communities remain concerned about the impacts of mining, petroleum and other large-scale infrastructure projects on their communal lands.

They also are watching cautiously to see if President-elect Ollanta Humala, who won a narrow victory in a runoff election on June 5, will deliver on his promise to listen to the concerns of indigenous communities, which are among the most impoverished in the country, and which voted for him overwhelmingly.

“People simplistically accept the idea that development based on megaprojects is the great motor that will pull the country out of poverty,” said Roberto Espinoza, a technical adviser to the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, AIDESEP), the largest umbrella group of indigenous organizations in the country’s Amazon basin.

Projects proposed for the Amazon region include 52 hydroelectric plants totaling 24,500 megawatts, more than 2,500 miles of paved highway, canals stretching the same distance, and seven railroads, as well as more than 50 existing petroleum concessions and 24,000 mining claims totaling at least 39,000 square miles.

“If all the projects are carried out in the next 10 or 12 years, they would forever change Amazonia as we know it,” said Peruvian agronomist Marc Dourojeanni, who combed through records of various ministries to assemble the list.

Three weeks before the June 5 presidential runoff, Aymara communities in the southern Peruvian Altiplano blocked roads in the Puno region, including access to a border crossing with Bolivia, to protest plans for mines in the region. The disputed mining claims included several on Khapía Mountain, a volcanic cone near the town of Yunguyo, which is a sacred place and a source of medicinal plants for local people.

On May 20, the government rescinded the concessions on the mountain and declared Khapía a cultural heritage site. Officials said that meant mining would be prohibited, but community leaders are uncertain, because only designation as a national park – the highest level of protection under Peruvian law – would guarantee that the mountain will remain off limits for resource extraction.

On May 29, the Ministry of Energy and Mines announced a 12-month moratorium on new mining claims in four provinces near the Bolivian border, but protesters want the government to revoke all mining and petroleum concessions in the Puno region.

The communities called a truce for the election, but resumed their protests the next week. They were joined by other demonstrators who objected to plans for a $4 billion, 2,200-megawatt dam on the Inambari River that would create a 146-square-mile reservoir, displacing more than 3,000 people and flooding two sections of the newly paved Interoceanic Highway.

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A temporary concession granted to the Brazilian consortium Egasur for feasibility and environmental and social impact studies expired at the end of 2010, and on June 14, the government declared the concession “extinguished.” Nevertheless, Egasur could apply for a new concession.

Meanwhile, the government is giving a green light to other dams.

In April, President Alan García announced plans to build 20 hydroelectric plants along the Marañón River, a major tributary of the Amazon River in northern Peru, which would generate 12,400 megawatts of electricity, nearly quadrupling the country’s current output.

“It’s crazy. There is no other adjective for it,” Espinoza said of the plan, which would affect between 50 and 60 communities in an area inhabited by as many as 50,000 people, mainly Awajún and Wampis.

Some of those communities already suffer malnutrition because the growing population is putting pressure on natural resources, especially fish in the rivers, Espinoza said. They fear the dams would affect seasonal fish migration, further reducing the food supply.

Two years ago, Awajún and Wampis communities led protests that left more than 30 people dead after a police crackdown on June 5, 2009. They were protesting mining concessions as well as a new forestry law that they said would have made it easier for companies to gain access to natural resources on their lands.

That law was repealed after the protests, and talks led to the drafting of legislation requiring that indigenous communities be consulted about any development projects in their territories. Congress passed that legislation in 2010, but President Alan García sent it back with objections and it has not come up for a vote again.

With the overall consultation law in limbo, the Ministry of Energy and Mines set its own rules for consulting communities on mining, oil and gas, and energy projects, while the Agriculture Ministry created another set of rules for consultation on a new forestry law.

Congress passed the forestry law on June 16, after a series of public hearings around the country. The Confederation of Amazonian Nationalities of Peru (Confederación de Nacionalidades Amazónicas del Perú, CONAP), the second-largest umbrella organization of Amazonian indigenous groups, praised the law, saying it provided for consultation of communities.

AIDESEP, however, objected to the piecemeal approach to consultation, calling for Congress to pass the original measure, which would cover all sectors, including forestry, mining and energy.

If the new government is serious about protecting indigenous communities’ rights, Espinoza said, it must commit to signing the consultation law in its original form and titling Amazonian communities that still lack formal title to their lands.