Contemporary indigenous rights are heavily dependent on international support. Over the past decades, indigenous groups have worked hard to bring their human rights and indigenous issues before the United Nations and international community. When national and international communities understand the history and context of indigenous land, political and human rights there is often good support.
Recent events in Peru illustrate the type of conflict over land, consultation, and differences in perspective that confront indigenous peoples throughout the world. Over the past several years in Peru, the government pressed ahead with measures to promote quick oil and gas development covering 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon. Nine special bills were passed by the Peruvian Congress, some that set aside the Peruvian Constitution, and were designed to speed up oil and gas development and facilitate the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States.
The kinds of issues the Peruvian indigenous peoples were exposed to are found almost everywhere there are indigenous peoples.
The new fast development plan, however, did not include consultation with the indigenous peoples of Peru. Indigenous peoples of the Amazon did not oppose the development of oil and gas in their region, but wanted to have access to planning and decision making. The Peruvian indigenous peoples wanted development in a way that preserved their claims to land, respected their culture, and which benefitted their future generations and ensured the continuity of their communities.
For the past 80 days, a coalition of indigenous Peruvian Amazonian peoples created a blockade that stopped transportation and commerce in the region. On June 5, the Peruvian government sent troops to clear protesters, and violence erupted where both policemen and indigenous protesters were killed, and many wounded in the conflict. The deaths reached the attention of the Peruvian national press and the international community. On June 11, national protests in support of the indigenous position were held in the major cities of Peru. Many human rights organizations and environmental groups that work in the Amazon alerted the international community and press, and there was a large outpouring of support for the indigenous protestors.
Last week the Peruvian Congress voted to suspend two of the nine measures for rapid oil and gas development, and the Peruvian government decided to initiate negotiations. The leaders of the Peruvian indigenous organizations hailed the change in government policy as a landmark day, and hoped that in the future the government will listen to the voice of indigenous communities and “not legislate behind their backs.”
While the Peruvian Congress and government have the sharp focus of the national and international community upon their actions, the government was willing to make some concessions, which was the 90-day suspension of two acts that were already marked as violating the Peruvian Constitution. The indigenous peoples need full rescinding of the two acts and full discussion about the remaining seven Peruvian Congressional Acts that are still on the books.
During the crisis, the indigenous organizations and communities showed Peruvian national identity and loyalty to the country of Peru. Indigenous leaders lamented the deaths of the police officers, who were fellow citizens. The indigenous peoples were not arguing for separation from the people or state of Peru, but wanted their voices respected, their lands preserved, and their way of life and future as indigenous peoples sustained and recognized through government action and legislation.
The temporary suspension of two doubtful measures is designed to introduce a cooling off period. Now, the Peruvian government and indigenous communities and organizations need to develop a dialogue, one that should have existed already for many years. There are no guarantees that the Peruvian government will accommodate indigenous cultural, territorial and political needs.
The kinds of issues the Peruvian indigenous peoples were exposed to are found almost everywhere there are indigenous peoples. In the past, national governments did not have any checks on the power that was exerted over indigenous human rights, culture and political autonomy. The international civil society has emerged as a place for discussion of indigenous rights, but takes action on a crisis by crisis basis. It has been very difficult for indigenous communities to establish ongoing and institutionalized consensual discussions over issues and rights. The international community should turn its attention to establishing ongoing national and international dialogues over recognition of indigenous peoples and discussions of their rights.