LIMA, Peru – Peruvian lawmakers handed President Alan Garcia a significant defeat Aug. 22 by voting 66 – 29 to repeal Garcia’s controversial ‘forest laws,’ which had been the subjects of fierce protest by indigenous communities (and with future actions still possible).
Native advocates and their allies had asserted that the laws made it easier for big companies to purchase their land, against the wishes of the communities, by lowering the percentage of ‘yes’ votes needed to grant a sale, and that in violation of Peruvian law, indigenous communities were not consulted before Garcia issued the decrees May 20.
Protestors also point out that there are oil, gas and other resources in the targeted indigenous areas that are estimated to be worth between $2 to 3 billion, and that the president had this in mind when he signed the most recent Free Trade Agreement with the United States.
When confronted by angry denunciations from many parties in Peru after the decrees in May, Garcia did not budge from his position and, in early August, indigenous communities staged a series of strikes, occupations and blockades.
More than 10,000 Native protestors spanned out across the country – some armed with spears and bows and arrows – to block several large roads and take control of a gas field, an oil pipeline and a hydroelectric plant. Garcia declared a state of emergency for the provinces of Cusco, Loreto and Amazonas, and then issued the order to send soldiers to disperse the protestors.
However, before many shots were fired, federal legislators promised they would overturn legislative decrees 1015 and 1073 if the indigenous leaders would call off the strikes and other actions. Indigenous leaders complied and, two days before the congressional vote, protestors left their positions.
“We have lifted the strike,” said Alberto Pizango, director of the Interethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Forest, known as AIDESEP in Spanish, an indigenous rights organization composed of members of 65 different Native peoples in the country.
“We have faith and expect Congress to follow through,” Pizango added. Legislators from the Commission of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples then introduced the measure to revoke the decrees, which garnered the 66 to 29 vote in the Congress. The next step in the process would be for the president to sign the repeal, if not his objection would constitute a type of veto that would send the measure back to Congress for another vote.
Both the president and indigenous leaders issued public statements immediately after the repeal announcement, before moving on to further negotiations.
“I have the obligation to tell Peru that this is a grave error,” Garcia stated after the repeal. “The only thing that this will accomplish is to keep our rural communities in exclusion and on the margins for another century.”
The Head of the Cabinet, Jorge Del Castillo, attacked the decision as well.
“What has happened here is nothing more than demagoguery,” Castillo opined. “Those who approved this measure are trying to destroy those instruments so that Peru does not become modern.”
Reactions from indigenous leaders were positive, but with some caution over the need for further talks.
“The indigenous people of Madre de Dios [a region] and the Amazonian indigenous movement of Peru are making history,” said Antonio Iviche, president of the FENAMAD federation.
“But we must not lower our guard,” Iviche added. “The government of President Alan Garcia thinks we are ignorant, that the indigenous communities can be manipulated, but with this action we have demonstrated the opposite.”
Pizango sent a letter of request for dialogue to the president, with a list of issues along with those related to land rights and return of land-title control. Indigenous leaders wanted a meeting with the participation of the People’s Advocate (a national-level attorney in charge of constitutional rights) and the Ministers of Mines and Energy, Environment, Health and Agriculture. Pizango and other leaders had already been in contact with People’s Advocate Beatriz Merino Lucero; Lucero had announced in late May that she was filing a motion to annul Legislative Decrees 1015 and 1073 asserting they were unconstitutional. Merino noted that by not consulting with native communities about the laws, the president had violated their constitutional rights.
Environment Minister Antonio Brack will be the liaison between the two sides, Pizango noted, but that the meeting had to include the president.
“We would not say we had lost trust in Brack” Pizango asserted at a press conference in the last week of August. “It’s just that we need to talk to the owner of the circus and not the clowns.”
While Pizango and other indigenous leaders were waiting for a meeting with the ministers, Garcia said in various public venues that he was going to have a dialogue with the opposing side. He also asserted he would be willing to “allow” the keeping of the old 66 percent rule – which was the percentage needed to permit the selling of community lands – if the indigenous would accept having only 51 percent of the vote for the renting or “joint venture” of lands.
While waiting for a specific date for the meeting, AIDESEP announced that they were being investigated by the Peruvian Agency for International Cooperation. APCI sources denied AIDESEP charges that the investigation into international funding of AIDESEP was in reprisal for the vote and the protests. Agency spokespeople asserted that the investigation had been planned far in advance.
In the meantime, indigenous leaders have repeatedly warned that they will stage more protests if their requests are ignored; and AIDESEP and other groups staged a protest in sympathy with Brazilian indigenous Aug. 26 by blocking the road that connects Brazil with Venezuela for three hours. Indigenous advocates are urging the Brazilian Supreme Court to vote in favor of maintaining the territories already owned by Native peoples from Roraima do Sul whose lands are being sought by ranchers and other developers.