Seizing Native land in Peru, one parcel at a time

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LIMA, Peru - Activists in Peru are mounting various legal challenges to that nation's recently passed package of legislation, called ''forest laws,'' which they say will make it easier for authorities to break up indigenous communities and prevent indigenous people from obtaining titles to their land.

''These measures taken by the current government attempt to take away our collective property and intend to destroy indigenous people, who are people with rights that have existed long before the formation of the Peruvian state,'' asserted Robert Guimaraes, an indigenous leader from the Amazon, regarding the controversial laws that were decreed by President Alan Garcia May 20.

The activists also assert that the forest laws were enacted to please multinational corporations connected to Peru's free trade agreement with the United States.

The two bills that have prompted large protests and constitutional lawsuits, however, were not part of the FTA; they are Legislative Decree 1015 and Law Project 1900-2007-CR. Garcia was able to enact these laws by decree through powers given to him by the Peruvian Congress to negotiate the free trade deal with the U.S.

On the day of the decree, Garcia announced that within a certain period, buyers of any type could purchase indigenous parcels of land as long as ''at least 50 percent of those attending the assembly'' were in favor of selling these lots. This could allow then the sale of property by only 30 or 40 percent of the total community population to sell lands to oil, mining or logging operations, making neighboring properties uninhabitable.

Law Project CR - whose full title is ''Project of Law that Declares in the Public Interest and National Priority the Titling, Registry and Rectification of Rural Lots of Campesino and Native Communities'' - takes control of providing land titles away from indigenous communities and places this authority with local government entities.

These laws, according to Garcia, will ''modernize agricultural activity and foment private investment.'' He has also argued that there are hundreds of thousands of acres of unused land in the hands of rural and indigenous communities that could be made profitable. What the president did not mention in his essays and speeches, however, was who would be enjoying these hypothetical profits.

Indigenous advocates and other activists have been focusing on these issues in press conferences and protests held in various cities, including demonstrations held in front of the offices of the Organization of American States and before the Inter-American Development Bank, which funds the Peruvian government's land title agency, the COFOPRI.

Leaders of the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Forest, known as AIDESEP in Spanish, presented a detailed letter of protest to IADB President Luis Alberto Moreno June 4, the day of the protest.

''The law projects ... have as their objective the dismantling, dismemberment and individualization of the collective property of our lands, even when these same rights are guaranteed by the same country through property title and are duly recorded in the Public Registries,'' the letter stated.

''Far from resolving the problems of poverty in rural and Native communities, this financing will deepen the poverty in our country and will push the displaced indigenous population from their lands by the implementation of LD 1015, a situation that will compel the people to migrate to the cities where they will end up increasing the numbers of unemployed and of those in poverty.''

The letter goes on to assert that the new laws would contradict the IADB's own regulations, specifically its Operational Policy on Indigenous Peoples (OP-765), which includes the ''specific safeguards, consistent with the norms of applicable law including the normative marks regarding protection of lands and ecosystems. This includes respecting the rights recognized in accord with the norms of applicable law.''

As of press time, the IADB's Washington, D.C., office had not responded to Indian Country Today's requests for comment on the institution's response to the protest letter, or whether the bank would continue to fund the COFOPRI. The COFOPRI's actions had already been under scrutiny for unfair practices against Native peoples, according to Carlos Soria, an attorney and indigenous rights advocate for the Institute for the Common Good, a well-known human rights group in Peru.

''President Alan Garcia ... had already signaled that the lands of the Native communities are 'idle' and should be incorporated for production,'' Soria wrote in his analysis of the laws, titled ''Regarding the Privatization of the Native Communities of the Peruvian Amazon.''

''This line of argument,'' Soria continued, ''is favoring the COFOPRI ... which is not giving sufficient priority to the titling of Native communities and when they do grant titles to them, they only grant them for a small fraction of the area applied for by the Native community. It's yet even more grave that COFOPRI is parceling the agricultural land of the Native communities so as to revert the rest of the communal territory to private control with the goal of delivering these to private investors.''

These new laws, according to Soria and indigenous advocate Linda Lema Tucker, violate two articles of the Peruvian Constitution which guarantee the autonomy of the Native communities in deciding the use of their lands, and that the rights to their lands are ''inviolate.''

Tucker also asserted, along with several indigenous leaders, that the decrees violated a section of international law that Peru had signed on to, specifically Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which stipulates that affected communities be consulted before enacting laws affecting their ownership. The AIDESEP leadership and other Native representatives have said they were definitely not consulted about these laws.

For Tucker, an internationally known advocate and sociologist, the origins of the laws go back to the FTA with the United States.

''The decree forms part of a package of laws directly linked with the implementation of the free trade agreement with the United States,'' she said. ''It seeks to protect corporate investment in mining, oil and logging operations in the community lands through the sale and purchase of the land as merchandise. In that way, the transnationals remain guaranteed by the state, while the rights of the rural and Native peoples become compromised.''

While no details about lawsuits that are seeking to protect the land rights of the indigenous communities have been publicized, Tucker has written that the Office of the People's Defender, a national constitutional advocate, is preparing to file some sort of legal action.