Peruvian indigenous leader Alberto Pizango made headlines today after being arrested on charges of sedition, conspiracy and leading a rebellion. Last summer, Pizango led months of protests which prompted Peruvian President Álan Garcia order police to “use force” to remove a road bock near Bagua Grande. About 50 people were killed, according to Amnesty International.
Official blame for the incident has fallen on Pizango, though indigenous groups refer to the incident as “Peru’s Tiananmen Square.” But behind the conflict which has pitted the Peruvian government against much of its indigenous population is a well-known adversary – the oil industry.
The Peruvian government has sold off vast amounts of previously protected land, and now leases 70 percent of the nation’s rainforest for oil and gas exploration, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Since then, a broad coalition of indigenous groups and human rights activists has continuously fought to see that this number is not expanded.
“For thousands of years, we’ve run the Amazon forests,” said Servando Puerta, one of the protest leaders. “This is genocide. They’re killing us for defending our lives, our sovereignty, human dignity.”
A pattern of conflict now threatens the stability of a fiercely divided nation. Answering to pressure from multinational corporations, the Peruvian government continues to scale back its protected territories. Each time legislation is proposed, opposition forces organize on a huge scale. Protests begin peacefully and almost always end in bloodshed.
Despite this environmental and human toll, the government continues to sell off protected lands. Petroperu, the state oil and gas company, recently announced their intention to open 10 million hectares for oil and gas exploration, almost all in the Amazon. The company also announced it would “start auctioning the remaining Amazon oil blocks, adding to the 82 foreign companies who already hold concessions here.”
Many activists are looking to the United States government for a solution, citing the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement as a catalyst for the rapidly expanding encroachment on indigenous territory.
“Whether or not the U.S. intended it, the reality is that the U.S.-Peru Trade Agreement gave license to the [Alan] Garcia administration to roll back indigenous rights and has contributed to increasing social conflict and human rights abuses in Peru,” said Andrew Miller of Amazon Watch.
Activists contest that the United States could revise existing agreements to include stronger safeguards for indigenous peoples and the environment. But such cooperation is unlikely, considering the the amount of sway held by the oil and gas lobby in Washington.
As residents of the Gulf grapple with a massive oil spill, it is important to remember that the oil industry impacts people across the globe. With the livelihoods of entire communities at risk, the importance of developing alternate energy sources has never been more clear.
By Mary Tharin