I’ve just arrived at the head offices of AIDESEP, the Interethnic Association of Peruvian Rainforest Development, the representative body of Amazonian peoples of Peru, now at the centre of a developing emergency here in Peru. It is really a fight over who controls the Amazon and the lives of those who live there.
I had no idea what to expect coming here. What the place would look like – I half imagined a fortress, half just a normal office. In reality, it was a bit of both, an unmarked house hidden behind a big gate and an electrified fence. The reception area was abuzz with news from the Amazon region, where yesterday at least 30 people were killed in a battle between Peruvian Amazonian peoples and state police forces. I asked for the one contact I had, but he was not to be found. Instead I walked into another meeting where another gentleman had come with similar intentions as myself. After he left, I introduced myself. That’s when the acting director told me he could really use someone to go and photograph and document what was happening, from their side. Someone else asked me to stay around a few weeks and help get the information out and bring people here, figuring this would last months if not longer.
It feels all a bit unbelievable to be at the centre of all this, except that it feels like the centre of a hurricane. The only thing on the national news is the deaths of the police, their funeral, and the order to arrest Alberto Pizango, the president of AIDESEP and widely recognized leader of the Amazonian peoples here. And here we are in the office, an hour before the press conference, trying to get information out, monitor the television and radio stations, writing press releases and answering phones. Now, watching counterprotests on television. It’s impossible to know what to believe on television, least of all the government spokespeople.
The source of the current conflict is long-standing, but comes from recent provocations. Free trade agreements, to be precise, built on a long history of forceful colonization, and confrontational incursions into the Amazonian territories. Recent free trade agreements signed with the American and Canadian governments fuelled the government to go ahead with changes to domestic laws that would seek to advance mineral, logging, oil and agricultural ‘development’ into previously untouched areas of the Amazon. This touched off a over-50-day protest that has shut down parts of the Amazon, as Amazonian groups decried laws that were later ruled unconstitutional (though like Canada, this doesn’t mean they have to be revoked) and that threatened their very livelihoods and futures. The government responded by saying that the resources belonged to all Peruvians, not just the locals, as if human rights were a matter of majority vote.
Then, this. Yesterday at about 5am it seems a number of helicopters and ground forces showed up to remove the protestors at force. Police say that they were fired upon by armed groups. People on the ground say they were sleeping when the police started shooting live rounds, and responded by taking away the polices’ weapons, with 9 police killed in the process. Many reports put the number of Amazonian dead at over 22 as part of this process, but good numbers are hard to come by here. Around the offices, calls have come in claiming much higher casualty numbers, some contacts saying over 100. Many people are using the words massacre, ethnocide, civil war. The army has been reported going house to house, with a vengeance, looking for suspects. Its hard to imagine the situation getting much better immediately, especially with the government officials calling the Indians terrorists, confused, mislead, all on national television.
Now the president is saying there are other interests behind stopping mineral extraction. Like China and Chile as competitors. A blatant attempt to try and portray the Amazonian peoples as pawns, but also an effective way to skirt around the real issues – resource extraction, and the destruction of the places where people live, in violation of their human rights. The military chief is on the air now, saying that no Indigenous peoples have been even hurt, as if the poor police were attacked by superhumans while enjoying a nice helicopter flight over the Amazon. This, after the news program has shown dead bodies of Indigenous peoples, and images have started flowing into our offices from hospitals on the groun. Now the news turns to a special report on how the Israeli security forces defend themselves against their own Amazonians.
to be continued...