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International solidarity protests against Peruvian forest laws

NEW YORK – Thousands of demonstrators on two continents have joined the struggle to defend the rights of indigenous peoples in Peru, who have been staging road and pipeline blockades for more than 50 days.

Advocates are fighting against a series of Forest Laws that facilitate the seizing of indigenous land by various corporations as part of a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and that criminalize protest and provide immunity to military who kill demonstrators.

This year’s demonstrations follow actions staged last year when Peruvian indigenous leaders shut down parts of the country and lifted the strikes weeks later after being promised concessions. The concessions, according to spokespeople, did not materialize and the Inter-ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon or AIDESEP renewed the struggle in April with the help of 40,000 indigenous peoples. As the blockades and counter-measures unfolded, some allies have responded with protests of their own. One of the more highly visible actions took place in New York City May 23 in front of the Peruvian Mission to the United Nations.

Indigenous leaders from the U.S., Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and other countries were in New York to attend the eighth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Egberto Tabo, general coordinator for the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, read from a statement entitled “Solidarity with our Peruvian brothers and sisters.”

“As indigenous leaders from the five continents, we are profoundly concerned about current events in the Peruvian Amazon. This past May 9 the Peruvian Government declared a State of Emergency in various districts. … The State of Emergency is nothing more than a disproportionate response to the legitimate complaints and demands for indigenous rights. … and is worsening conflicts, criminalizing social protest and putting at even greater risk indigenous peoples rights.”

Tabo said COICA, and the 63 other organizations that signed the petition, received support from the UN Permanent Forum. The signatories had a list of requests and denunciations aimed at the Peruvian government. According to the statement, the protestors requested the lifting of the emergency decree and they denounced government press releases sent to Peruvian media that avoided addressing the main concerns of the demonstrations, as well as demanding that the government respect the International Labour Organization treaty 169 “…which has constitutional status in Peru. … and which both establish that Native peoples should be consulted regarding all actions that impact them.”

“It is clear that the development of the Amazon is being carried out ignoring the wishes of the indigenous people and that the Amazon is seen as having natural riches that should be sold to the highest bidder,” Tabo said. “We cannot continue to allow a group of transnational companies to divide up the Amazon, as if it were just a business without consideration given to the territory of ancestral peoples, or without taking into account that this is the ‘lungs of the world’ and the greatest source of fresh water on the continent. We will not permit the continuation of this exploitation.”

Among the signers of the statement were the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia, and the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, the Council of All the Lands of Chile and the National Network of Mayan Peoples of Guatemala. The list included indigenous and allied groups from Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Argentina, the U.S., Peru, Kenya, Papua, Suriname, Algeria, South Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Canada (Assembly of First Nations), Venezuela, Brazil, Nepal and India. The U.S. featured several organizations including Amazon Watch, Diné CARE, Environmental Defense Fund, Hawaii Institute for Human Rights, Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Xicana Indigenous Woman’s Network.

Tabo presented the statement to a representative of the Peruvian Mission who gave no comment upon receiving the document.

In the week after the New York demonstration, allies and sympathizers in Los Angeles, Calif., as well as Lima and Puno, Peru held events to call attention to the struggle of the indigenous peoples of Peru. While UN Permanent Forum officials did not issue a formal response during the New York protest, Chair Victoria Tauli-Corpuz released an official statement June 2, after the meeting.

“The Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues expresses her deep concern on the reports received during the Eighth Session of the UNPFII, regarding the current situation in Peru. According to the information received, a state of siege was decreed by the Peruvian Government on 8 May 2009 in response to the mobilization 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. Furthermore, Peru led the negotiations on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and was one of the countries which actively supported the adoption of the Declaration, 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.”

According to comments made by AIDESEP President Alberto Pizango in the first week of June, further protest actions in Peru will continue. (One of the protest issues involves criminal charges filed against Pizango for his involvement in the blockades.)