Skip to main content

Newcomb: A deadly clash of worldviews in Peru

For 56 days, thousands of Amazonian Indian people have protested presidential decrees in Peru that open their ancestral lands to oil exploration and other forms of exploitation. Numerous deaths have resulted from violent clashes between Peruvian government forces and Amazonian Indians – reportedly, 35 indigenous people and police have been killed and many dozens are wounded, imprisoned, or have disappeared.

According to a BBC report, Peruvian President Alan Garcia is of the view that all the Amazonian lands within the borders of Peru – which contain oil, gas and timber – belong to Peru.

“This government comes from the democracy,” said Garcia, as quoted by the BBC, “and it’s dedicated to the people, to all the people. I don’t defend sectors of Peruvians, I defend all Peruvians, and the Amazonian land belongs to you, to your children, they belong to the whole nation.”

In the context of the colonization of the Americas, the Latin word for “government” is “domination,” as evidenced in the Latin language version of decrees issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. In the documents, the pope purported to give the Spanish monarchs non-Christian lands they were able to locate in “the Indies.” In keeping with the papal documents, Garcia’s words contain the contradictory meaning, “this domination comes from democracy.”

It did not matter at all, however, that those lands were already in the possession of the original, non-Christian Indian nations because the Indians were portrayed as less than human.

Pope Alexander VI called for the “propagation of the Christian empire,” and for the “subjugation” of “barbarous nations.” As Amy Goodman has reported on “Democracy Now!,” Garcia said 40,000 indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest do not have the right to prevent Peru and multi-national corporations from coming onto and exploiting indigenous lands. To say otherwise, claimed Garcia, would be to take Peru into “irrationality and a backwards primitive state.” These terms are synonymous with the pope’s use of the word “barbarous.”

Pope Alexander VI declared “by the authority of Almighty God,” “we” do “give, grant, assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, appurtenances, all islands and mainland found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered.”

There was only one “proviso” or limitation on the generous donation by the Holy See. None of the islands or main lands that the Spanish monarchs were authorized to seize could be “in the actual possession of any Christian king or prince.” It did not matter at all, however, that those lands were already in the possession of the original, non-Christian Indian nations because the Indians were portrayed as less than human. As recounted on “Democracy Now!,” there is an audio record of Peruvian police yelling in a dehumanizing manner, “Shoot the dogs in the head!” thereby referring to the Amazonian Indians as less than human.

Pope Alexander VI further declared: “we make, appoint, and depute you and your said heirs and successors lords of” the lands so “discovered,” and “to be discovered.” Clearly, Peru as a political state is an heir and successor to the Catholic monarchs of Aragon and Castile, and the Spanish Empire.

In keeping with the tradition of the Vatican documents, Peru is considered to have the modern equivalent of a medieval right of “lordship” (sovereignty) in the Amazon. This includes the right to exploit all of the mineral, hydrocarbons, timber, and so forth, in complete disregard of the land rights, human rights, health and well-being of the indigenous peoples who have been living in sacred relationship with the Amazon for thousands of years.

When Amazonian Indian leader Alberto Pizango said the ancestral territories of the Amazon Indians “were being handed over to multi-national companies” without Indian “consultation or consent,” he was pointing to a phenomenon that is more than five centuries old. It began with the pope handing non-Christian Indian lands over to the monarchs of Spain and Portugal, and to their heirs and successors.

In the context of the colonization of the Americas, the Latin word for ‘government’ is ‘domination.’

The colonizing tradition of the papal bulls has dehumanized and killed Indian peoples with impunity, generation after generation, while enriching those in the most elite sectors of the society, and those holding the reins of governmental (dominating) power. It is a tradition that also enriches multi-national companies.

According to the BBC, “Peru’s constitution makes the state the owner of the country’s mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, and any territory can be explored if it is deemed to be of national interest.” The Peruvian state, however, is maintaining a long tradition of exploiting Indian peoples that have been living in sacred relationship with their ancestral lands for thousands of years. Peru’s behavior is part and parcel of the present day divine right of the state and its multi-national corporate allies, traceable back to the pope’s pretensions and the Spanish Empire.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2008), and a columnist with Indian Country Today.