Peru – indigenous peoples fight back against imperialism

For 58 days in April, May and June, some 3,000 indigenous peoples from 356 communities in the north and central part of the Peruvian department of Amazonas peacefully occupied oil installations and blocked roads and waterways in protest at their exclusion from decisions about the use of their historic lands. On 5 June, heavily armed police attacked them at a section of the Fernando Belaunde Terry highway in Bagua province known as ‘Devil’s Bend’. By the evening of 6 June, up to 70 civilians and police had been killed and some 115 wounded in the bloodiest single attack on indigenous peoples by the state since President Fujimori’s death squads and forced sterilisation campaign in the 1990s.


More than 70% of Peru’s Amazon rainforest was divided into concessions for oil and gas extraction between 2003 and 2008. The latest protests are against 11 presidential decrees applying the 2006 US-Peru Free Trade Agreement which affect hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, and fast-track large-scale farming, logging and the private acquisition of land in the Amazon. The legislature revoked two of the eleven decrees in August 2008 after locals blocked highways, waterways and a state oil pipeline. In Congress, President Alan Garcia simply boycotted debates on reports recommending the removal of the remaining nine.

To force negotiations over investments, indigenous people have resorted to seizing police, guards or even plant managers. By May 2009 there had been 268 officially recorded conflicts between state and indigenous peoples, compared to 83 in 2008. In May, protesters blocked the Napo river to stop boats from Perenco, an Anglo-French oil company and a major gas supplier to Britain, from moving into a proposed indigenous reserve in northern Peru. Perenco intends to build new platforms and wells involving massive airlifts, admitting that contamination of soil and water will be the consequence. Garcia sent the navy to break the blockade. Only two weeks after the Bagua massacre, Perenco got the go ahead to drill for oil in this site of international biological importance.*

Attempt to decapitate the indigenous leadership

During the 5 June attack, the police gassed, beat and shot protesters as they retreated. Local indigenous leader Santiago Manuin was shot repeatedly as he approached police trying to persuade them to stop firing. Residents from nearby Utcubamba and Bagua, hearing radio accounts of the attack, ran angrily to the blockade with sticks and stones and a few machetes. They gathered at El Reposo crossroads, where they were also shot and gassed. In Utcubamba a mass of people surrounded the police station in protest.  Around 11pm the police began shooting into the crowd, killing and wounding many. In Bagua police attacked protesters; 47 people were admitted to hospital by the evening of 6 June, most with bullet wounds.

The police prevented anyone looking for the dead or wounded until they left Devil’s Bend on 6 June. Journalists later found five bodies, shot in the back, beaten and burned in a crude attempt to conceal the murders. Some bodies were thrown into the river, others were taken away. The up to 70 dead included 23 police officers. Garcia sent police reinforcements to Bagua and imposed a state of emergency in Bagua and Utcubamba provinces, lifting it on 23 June. On Sunday 7 June Garcia  accused the protesters of ‘barbarity and savagery’, saying that their opposition to oil and gas ‘development’ impeded ‘progress’ and was due to ‘elemental ignorance’ or manipulation by unnamed foreign (meaning Venezuelan) interests.

The leader of Peru’s national Amazon indigenous organisation AIDESEP, Alberto Pizango, went into hiding on 6 June after a warrant was issued for his arrest and four other leaders on trumped-up sedition charges. Seven congressmen and women have been suspended, the local radio that covered the violence at Bagua has had its licence withdrawn, and moves are afoot to clamp down on NGOs. The coordinating body for Andean Indigenous Organisations has called for solidarity with the Peruvian Amazon peoples with pickets in front of all Peruvian embassies and consulates until the repression ends and the free trade agreements with the USA are derogated. It has also called for Garcia and his government to be put on trial in an international court for genocide. Panicked, the Peruvian Congress voted on 10 June for a 90-day suspension of two decrees.  On 11 June, riot police fired tear gas to keep protesters away from Congress as thousands marched in favour of the Amazon people.

On 22 June the country’s central highway was blocked by mine workers from the La Oroya mine, Junin. 3,500 struck after work was suspended due to lower exports and in solidarity with the victims of the police attacks. In the southern districts of Apurimac, a general strike continued for 11 days and road blocks were set up by the workers in Cusco. Apurimac is the site of a huge planned iron ore project pumping iron ore slurry to the coast, inevitably with huge damage to the forest and massive water demands. On 23 June the military was sent to Apurimac, Cusco and Junin ‘to assure the function of public and private services’.

The National Front for Life and Sovereignty declared a three-day strike from Tuesday 7 July against Garcia’s  economic policies.  The government offered workers who stayed at work 20 soles ($6.6). Thousands of police were deployed in Lima and next day over 156 demonstrators were arrested, mainly in Lima. The strike had 100% support in the southern provinces of Huancavelica, Puno and Cuzco; it took place in the midst of a serious government crisis that forced Garcia to advance a planned cabinet shuffle.

The Bagua bloodbath represents an attempt to destroy Peruvian indigenous movements. Garcia speaks of 400,000 people preventing 28 million Peruvians from benefiting from the wealth of the Amazon, as if the vast majority of the Peruvian people could ever benefit from imperialism. Following Bagua this majority has turned against Garcia, but the bourgeoisie is preparing for a yet harder fight. April showed the first monthly GDP decline since mid-2001. Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Peru’s imprisoned ex-president Alberto Fujimori, has emerged as an early leader in the campaign for the 2011 national elections. Already 21 parties have registered for the presidential elections while others seek the 145,000 signatures needed to stand – including former Prime Minister Simon and former armed forces minister Antero Flores Araoz.  


Alvaro Michaels

FRFI 210 August / September 2009