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PERU
Amazon tribes’ cry heard
Leslie Josephs
8/27/2008
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Peru’s Congress defies President García and repeals law promoting investment on indigenous lands.

In a major defeat for pro-free market President Alan García, Peru’s legislature voted to repeal two of the leader’s legislative decrees that loosened requirements for the sale of indigenous or native lands.

Indigenous peoples of Peru’s jungle had been protesting the decrees from Aug. 9-21, blocking roads, bridges and taking over an electric power plant and an oil pipeline, demanding that the legislature repeal the decrees.

García has special powers to legislate by decree for issues pertaining to the free trade agreement with the United States.

The indigenous groups argued that the government was trying to go over their heads to promote investment, without giving them sufficient ability to approve the sale of their land, mainly for oil projects.

García, who has repeatedly said that Peru is not taking enough advantage of its rapidly expanding oil and mining sectors, signed the decrees in May, which lowered the requirement for community approval of projects on indigenous lands from two-thirds to a simple majority in an community assembly vote.

On Aug. 22, the Congress voted to repeal the two laws, an idea that García has called a “grave and historic error.” Days later, however, he eased his position and said that a two-thirds majority is a viable method to approve projects on indigenous lands in the jungle, but not in the highlands, where he said the decree was originally aimed.

The vote was an embarrassment for García’s government and opened up an already raging debate over Peru’s economic growth. In September, Peru is scheduled to auction off 22 oil blocks, which would leave only a dozen or so lots left unexplored in the country.

The country’s economy expanded 9 percent last year and is expected to grow steadily, but also growing steadily is García’s disapproval rating — his popularity reached its lowest point since taking office in July 2006 in August, registering just 22 percent in a nationwide poll by Ipsos Apoyo.

Many criticize García for ignoring the country’s still-high poverty rate — just shy of 40 percent — and already alienated and ignored indigenous and campesino communities that some argue take a backseat to García’s mission for his version of development.


Forgotten peoples
“Their habitat is being invaded and degraded, and they feel cornered,” wrote Fernando Rospigliosi, a political analyst and former Interior Minister in an editorial in the Peru21 newspaper. “As many have observed, the defeat of these decrees is just the way that the native people of the jungle express their rejection of a situation of being forgotten, of misery and mistreatment.”

Indigenous groups in Peru’s jungle regions cheered the vote in Congress, celebrating in the streets. Some sang the national anthem in their native languages.

But Alberto Pizango, president of the Inter-Ethnic Development Association of the Peruvian Jungle, or AIDESEP, an indigenous rights organization representing some 65 indigenous Amazonian groups, the problem is deeper.

Pizango argues that the government is trying to auction off areas of land expontentially larger than what the indigenous groups own. The real issue is how the government looks at the land, Pizango said in an interview with La Republica newspaper.

“The indigenous peoples don’t see land as merchandise but as something … something that must be passed on from generation to generation,” he said.

Santiago Pedraglio, another Lima-based political expert, agreed.

“The thesis is that for an indigenous community to negotiate over their land is the same thing as city-dwellers doing it with an apartment in Miraflores,” he said in his column in Peru21 referring to the upscale Lima district. “Defenders of authoritarian modernization resist admitting that for a native community, the risk of being left without land is equal to disappearing as a collective with a determined cultural identity, language included. That’s why The questioned decrees sparked fears and suspicions.”

Pizango added that indigenous communities are unlikely to break from the community line and vote to sell their lands, despite government and company promises for development, but he admitted that it has happened.

“In these cases you’ll see that they put the idea into young people’s heads that they are going to get money if they sell their land behind their community’s back,” he said. “And when this happens, the youths are severely questioned.”

“In the long-term they come to lose their identities, lose everything,” Pizango added. How many peoples have disappeared thanks to these policies not belonging to the communities?”

García’s critics argue that he is out of touch with many of Peru’s citizens, mainly those clamoring for a greater share of Peru’s economic boom and those who feel they are being steamrolled to achieve it.

Alfredo Torres, chief of the Lima-based pollster and research firm Ipsos Apoyo says that García must dedicate last three years in office to improving public spending if discontent is to ease.

His aim “should be improving public spending so and how to help people get out of poverty as soon as possible and improve their quality of life, and their family’s education and health care.”

In a statement on Aug. 24, the Red Muqui, an organization promoting community rights in mining zones, applauded Congress’ vote to repeal the laws, but warned that if the government continues to exclude citizens’ choice in the promotion of investment, such conflicts will continue.

The organization slammed a set of 99 legislative decrees, including the two that were repealed by Congreso that affect registered property of indigenous communities or part of national forests. The measures have a direct impact on the environment and water supply.

One of Garcia’s decrees had overrode an earlier law that established community approval for minino projects. —Latinamerica Press.


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