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Peru's Indigenous Band Together to Protect Their Lands and Water Rights

As a teenager two decades ago, Ruth Buendía saw the Asháninka communities in Peru’s central Amazonian lowlands torn apart by violence as the Shining Path guerrillas kidnapped, killed and terrorized residents. That siege ended approximately 10 years ago. Now, as president of the Ene River Asháninka Association, she fights another threat to her home: a proposal to build a hydroelectric dam that would flood 15 communities of her people.

As mining, oil and gas exploration and palm oil plantations have expanded into Peru’s Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands in the decade since the end of the political violence, Peru’s Indigenous Peoples are locked in a struggle for self-determination about land, natural resources and their way of life. The struggle flared in 2009, when indigenous communities in the northern Amazon blocked a key highway near the town of Bagua, Peru to protest new laws they said would give companies easier access to natural resources on their lands. A police crackdown triggered violence that left at least 30 people dead.

Those events marked a turning point for indigenous rights in Peru. Since then, the country has passed a law requiring that indigenous people be consulted about any new development projects affecting their territory or lifestyle. Nevertheless, communities still battle companies over pollution from existing oil and mining projects, and indigenous leaders worry that some projects—like the Pakitzapango dam proposed for the Ene River—will displace communities. Meanwhile, Peru’s indigenous people continue to suffer from the highest poverty and malnutrition rates in the country and the greatest lack of basic services such as education, health care and clean water. “Indigenous people generally have a bond with the land that signifies a material, cultural and, for many, spiritual basis for their existence, development and ability to support themselves,” James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said in an interview aired by the Spanish cooperation organization Casa de América.

Although rights to land and resources are enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that bond is strained in Peru, which is cashing in on its mineral wealth in an effort to increase economic growth and lower poverty rates. Most valuable minerals are in remote areas where the population is largely indigenous and the poverty rates are highest. With little direct government oversight of mining and oil drilling companies in those areas, conflicts are common.

Of the 237 ongoing conflicts registered in March 2012, more than half were “socioenvironmental” disputes, according to the Peruvian government’s ombudsman’s office. Most of those involved communities located near oil drilling or mining operations, and were triggered either by environmental damage or by accusations that the companies were not keeping their commitments to support the local communities’ development.

In the central highland region of Ancash, which has the largest number of conflicts, Quechua farmers compete for water with a hydroelectric plant on the Santa River. Although heavy rains this year have provided enough water for both farming and electricity, another drought could trigger a conflict like one in 2008, when farmers in the province of Dos de Mayo padlocked the sluice gates on Lake Parón, high in the Andes, saying the hydroelectric plant was draining the lake and would not leave enough water for their crops.

For highland indigenous communities, such disputes are aggravated by recent changes in rainfall patterns that scientists say could be due to climate change. Over the past 20 years, farmers in Dos de Mayo have watched the glaciers shrink on the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca, or White Mountain Range, and they worry that they may be left without water.

Water is also a concern in the northern highland region of Cajamarca, where Quechua communities are protesting a new mine that would destroy wetlands and four lakes. Dairy farmers downhill worry that their pastures will dry up.

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Protests by indigenous communities against large-scale development projects have become more widespread in recent years as the communities have become more aware of their rights, especially those outlined in International Labor Organization Convention No. 169 on the rights of tribal and Indigenous Peoples and UNDRIP. Convention No. 169 calls for indigenous communities to be consulted about any development projects that would affect their territory, while UNDRIP enshrines the right to free, prior informed consent about such projects. Although Peru ratified Convention No. 169 in 1995, it did not enact a prior consultation law until September 2011, and regulations for conducting consultations were finally approved in April 2012.

But the law does not apply to existing projects, such as mines or oil prospecting, so it is unlikely to settle existing conflicts, although it could head off some future disputes.

Achuar people living on a tributary of the Pastaza River in northern Peru near the Ecuadorian border have taken their battle over natural resources to court. In

May 2009, residents of several communities that have long resisted oil drilling in their territory made the trek to a camp set up by Talisman Energy Inc., on the neighboring Morona River. The group was worried that the company’s operations were expanding toward their communities, and leaders wanted to talk with company representatives.

According to video of the events and papers filed in court, the company ferried residents of Achuar communities that supported its operations to the meeting place in a helicopter, and a tense confrontation between the two groups followed. Members of the group from pro-company communities were carrying shotguns, while anticompany people were carrying spears, according to lawyer Julio Dávila of the nonprofit organization Racimos de Ungurahui.

Oil, mining and infrastructure projects also threaten to push indigenous people off their land. An Achuar community moved to get away from Talisman Energy’s operations, and Dávila expects other cases to arise as development projects move ahead in the Amazon. A proposed hydroelectric dam on the Inambari River in southern Peru would displace at least 3,000 people, some of them Quechua, which is one reason why Asháninka leader Buendía staunchly opposes it.

As development in Peru’s Amazon region expands, some experts say the most vulnerable indigenous people are the seminomadic groups that shun contact with the outside world. As many as a dozen such groups live along the borders with Brazil and Ecuador and near the Cordillera Azul National Park in north-central Peru. The government is forming a multisector task force to study proposals for new reserves to protect isolated groups, according to Iván Lanegra, vice minister for intercultural affairs. At a press conference with foreign reporters on April 16, Lanegra said bilingual education, culturally appropriate health care and territorial rights are also on his office’s list of priorities.

Although reserves have been created to protect the territory used by some of the groups, their inhabitants sometimes drift beyond those boundaries, and loggers sometimes operate in the reserves illegally, increasing the risk of violent contact or of introducing diseases to which the isolated people have no resistance.

Indigenous leaders have denounced plans to expand drilling in the Camisea natural gas field in southern Peru into the Nahua, Kugapakori and Nanti reserve for isolated people, and indigenous organizations in northern Peru warn that isolated groups along the border with Ecuador are endangered by planned oil exploration in both countries.