PROTESTORS SPEAK OUT FOR INDIGENOUS PERUVIANS
BY JACQUIE SIMONE
As indigenous Peruvians and the government clash over natural resources in the Amazon, human rights activists, environmentalists and community members gathered outside the Peruvian Consulate in New York City June 10 to protest the government’s killing of civilians.
About 50 people stood on the sidewalk outside the consulate on East 49th Street and held signs denouncing the violence as well as the free trade agreement with the United States that stimulated much of the conflict. After about an hour, the group marched to the office of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who voted for the Peru Free Trade Agreement in December 2007. The New York demonstration was one of several protests worldwide supporting the indigenous Peruvians in their struggle to preserve the natural environment.
“We have to keep in mind that we all belong to this planet,” said Ana Maria Quispe, a dietician originally from Peru. “We all have to be united against all these crimes that are happening in the world just because some people in power have their own interests.”
Recent reports of escalated violence in the Peruvian Amazon are the culmination of several weeks of protests by indigenous peoples to preserve their ancestral lands. Since April 9, indigenous communities have been blockading roads, rivers and railways and taking other nonviolent measures to protest new laws that encourage an increase in extractive industries, such as logging, oil drilling and mining.
On June 5, Peru’s police forces attacked indigenous protestors who were engaging in a nonviolent blockade of a road outside Bagua in the northern Peruvian Amazon. Although estimates vary, there have been reports that police killed at least 54 civilians in the clashes that began June 5. Peruvian citizens have submitted online video footage of violence against indigenous people, many who were unarmed. Local reports of police throwing civilians’ dead bodies into the river make it difficult to ascertain an exact number of fatalities.
Many demonstrators voiced concern about continued violence under Peruvian President Alan Garcia.
“It is important because this is not the first time genocide is happening,” Quispe said. She believes that not enough Peruvians or Americans are aware of the issues underlying these problems, which motivated her to help organize the demonstration. She and other coordinators led chants in English and Spanish.
The chants and signs mainly focused on the 2007 free trade agreement between the U.S. and Peru. Leonard Morin of Tradejustice NY Metro, an anti-free trade group, helped coordinate the demonstration.
“This whole massacre goes hand-in-hand with implementing the free trade agreement and the Peruvian government being able to remove people from their ancestral lands so that the extractive industries can take advantage of the resources and land,” Morin said.
Since free trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia are up for ratification, Morin said that he is hoping that Americans will speak out against these agreements in light of events in Peru.
The current conflict is considered an environmental and human rights issue, since the indigenous peoples are fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest and other natural resources.
Christine Halvorson, a demonstrator who works with the Rainforest Foundation, said that the abundance of rainforest wood and other resources used on building projects in New York City is cause for New Yorkers to pay attention to the Peruvian situation.
“The jungle is the lungs of the world. We are in this process of global warming, and we need to support and protect our forests and our Amazons,” Quispe said.
Demonstrators were generally more concerned about humanitarian than environmental aspects of the conflict. On June 5, the police shot crowds of protestors from helicopters, which killed up to 54 civilians and injured over a hundred. Fourteen police officer deaths were reported, and indigenous peoples held several police hostage before killing 10 more. Alberto Pizango, a leader of the national indigenous organization AIDESEP, is accused of sedition, conspiracy and rebellion. He sought refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima June 9.
Despite the widespread sympathy with the indigenous Peruvians, there have been reports of protestors torturing and killing police officers as well. Most of the New York demonstrators did not support violence by indigenous peoples, but they understood why the largely nonviolent campaign was provoked to violence as a defense measure.
“I don’t condone it, but I don’t condone what’s happening to the indigenous people in Peru either, just for profit,” William J. Gilson, a member of Veterans for Peace, said.
During the demonstration, a representative from the Peruvian Consulate distributed papers presenting the government’s stance. The document states that the origin of the conflict was a request by indigenous peoples to repeal the June 28, 2008, “Forest and Wild Fauna Law,” otherwise known as Legislative Decree No. 1090. The government states that the indigenous peoples were invited to debates and meetings concerning this law, and also that representatives from AIDESEP were welcomed to discuss other internal problems in May 2009, but that indigenous leaders ceased their participation in the dialogue. The government also emphasizes the need to clear the blockades, since the protests are depriving communities of food, gas, medicine and other necessities.
Still, the demonstrators were adamant that the free trade agreement and government’s violent measures against the indigenous people are unjustified and should be stopped.
“There are people who were killed on both sides, both indigenous protestors and police,” Rainforest Foundation’s Halvorson said. “Any loss of blood over these kind of issues is a real concern.”
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