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Peruvian Amazon Natives face exile, arrest, hospital bills

A week after Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s government repealed laws that Natives feared were designed to take the lands they’ve lived on for hundreds of years, leaders of 350,000 Amazon Natives were in exile, hiding or in a hospital while their fight to help protect the Amazon appeared far from over.

Garcia has branded top Native leader Alberto Pizango a “criminal.” Nicaragua gave Pizango political asylum last month while local police were getting set to arrest him. Garcia blames Pizango for manipulating Native groups and causing 34 deaths June 5 in clashes with police.

Javier Villa Stein, president of the Peruvian Supreme Court, said even though Pizango, a Shawi Tribe member recognized by most tribes as spiritual leader or Apu, is in Nicaragua, local authorities could still try to seek his extradition.

Other Native chiefs like Awajun military leader Santiago Manuin, who is recovering from eight bullet wounds he took in the June 5 clashes, fared worst.

Manuin was set to go into his third surgery and hospital authorities said he owes thousands. He is among those facing an arrest warrant related to the killing of 25 police. Lima-based La Republica newspaper has interviewed several injured Natives treated for bullet wounds in the same hospital Las Mercedes in the northern city of Bagua, which also lacks money to pay doctors.

The accusations against Native leaders occurs as the Natives, through AIDESEP, which they created to group them, have demanded Garcia to set up an investigative commission with international presence which could determine the real human toll of the June 5 killings, and who caused it. The government says just nine civilians died.

Human rights groups are investigating reports of disappearances. One local human rights group, APRODEH, claimed June 20 to be investigating nearly 100 testimonies of missing people.

Peru assures it is allowing investigations with all freedom. Officials have stressed that not just the church, but also independent authorities such as the ombudsman’s office are helping.

The government crackdown has affected a privately owned local radio station in Bagua, a town some 700 miles north of the Peruvian capital of Lima which was the center of the violence.

The operating license of the radio station was canceled shortly after the clashes on grounds of equipment irregularities that its owners claim are non-existent. Authorities have accused the station – known as La Voz de Bagua – of promoting violence against police through false reports. Radio owners say they just did their job.

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Sentenced to keep fighting

Alberto Chirif, one of Peru’s foremost experts on Amazon issues, recently wrote in a report that the fate of Native communities is to risk their lives to do the environmental job of protecting the Amazon that Peruvian authorities like the environment minister should be doing.

He said accords to force oil company Pluspetrol to put back waters it used in oil production, instead of dumping it into nearby rivers was not a merit of any government official, but of Natives. The Achuar tribes risked their lives to alert of river poisoning and won through protest accords with companies to protect their already polluted waters.

Chirif explained that unless communities risk their lives, they face the fate of weaker groups often unable to organize a defense who lose their lands as a result.

It took the strength of the Awajun, a large tribe with more than 50,000 members, who have managed for centuries to evoke fear in enemies. Their groups have been historically known for their ancient tradition of shrinking enemy heads into fist-sized decorations.

Fierce fighting worked for the Awajun good enough to keep Incas, Spaniards, and in more recent decades, Mestizo settlers in search of land away for centuries.

Daysi Zapata, an AIDESEP leader and member of the small Yine Tribe, said she and members of other tribes across Peru visited the battered Awajun-Huambisa communities as a tribute.

Peru authorities acknowledged June 5 events turned unpredictable when Awajun fighters armed with spears overpowered a group of 10 armed police to steal their rifles and then aim those at police vehicles, including a tank.

Even a helicopter was damaged, though it didn’t fall. The police major who led that patrol has been missing since June 5.

Many Awajuns are army soldiers and several of them are veterans from the Peru-Ecuador conflict.

“We came to pay homage to our brothers. To say how much we respect their courage, their sacrifice and their effort for their heroic defense of land,” Zapata said.