Victory in the Amazon

Thousands of indigenous people from the Amazon jungle of Peru accomplished the unthinkable last week. Their movement to save the Amazon and their communities forced the Peruvian government to roll back implementing legislation for the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement that would have opened up the vast jungle to transnational oil and gas, mining and timber companies.

The decision did not come without blood. Police attacked indigenous roadblocks and sit-ins in Bagua in northern Peru, killing some sixty indigenous protestors members of a 300,000 strong interethnic association of Amazon groups , according to estimates by human rights groups. The Peruvian government claims that 24 police officers and nine civilians died in the violence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur and other human rights and environmental organizations throughout the world have initiated investigations into the massacre.

Peru’s Congress, deep in a political crisis of national and international legitimacy, voted 82 to 12 to repeal Legislative Decree 1090, the Forestry and Wildlife Law and 1064, the reform to permit changes in agrarian land use without full prior consent.

As president Alan Garcia went on national television to admit errors in not consulting with the indigenous groups of the Amazon, Daysi Zapata, representative of the association celebrated the triumph:

“Today is an historic day, we are thankful because the will of the indigenous peoples has been taken into account and we just hope that in the future, the governments attend and listen to the people, that they don’t legislate behind our backs.”

Zapata called to lift roadblocks and other actions throughout the country, while anticipating more battles to come over the repeal of seven related decrees, reinstatement of legislators suspended for protesting government actions against the Amazon people and the safe return of the president of the association, Alberto Pizango, forced to seek asylum in Nicaragua.

Indigenous women fought at the forefront of protests against the displacement of indigenous communities in the Amazon in the interests of foreign-led development plans. A Spanish sub-titled video of an Aguaruna mother provides a rare glimpse of how the Amazon communities view these plans–even if you don’t understand her language, her anguish and anger cut straight to the heart.  Other videos taken by journalists who risked their lives as police fired on demonstrators, quickly circulated in the cyber world, raising global indignation.

Washington’s “New” Trade Policy Leads to Amazon Massacre

The recent clash between indigenous peoples and the Peruvian national police sends a powerful message from the Amazon jungle straight to Washington. The enormous social, political, and environmental costs of the free trade model are no longer acceptable.

In addition to the dead, hundreds remain missing and reports that the police threw the bodies of the protestors in the river to hide the real death toll have begun to circulate. Survival International and Amazon Watch have deplored the violence, the subsequent crackdown on NGOs in Peru, and the role that the free-trade agreement played in the crisis.
In May 2004 the U.S. and Peruvian governments began negotiations for a free trade agreement and signed the  bilateral agreement onDecember 8, 2005. The signing provoked the first round of widespread protests, led by small farmers. Demonstrations against the agreement continued up through the signing of the ratified version by former president Bush and President Garcia in January of this year; four protestors were killed in 2008.

No doubt exists about the connection between the protests, the executive decrees, and the U.S. free trade agreement. In his televised mea culpa, Garcia began by stating that the repudiated measures were designed to eliminate illegal logging and informal mining (by legalizing it in the hands of transnationals, according to critics) and was “a demand of ecologist and progressive sectors in the North American Congress in negociations to pass the Free Trade Agreement”.

The U.S.-Peru trade agreement is held up as a model of the new trade agreement developed through a compromise between free-trade Republicans and Democrats with growing anti-free trade constituencies. To avoid the negative connotations of free trade agreements it was redubbed a “Trade Promotion Agreement” and incorporates environmental and labor standards into the text. These are the standards Garcia says he was complying with when he passed the decrees to open up 45 million hectares of Peruvian jungle to developers.

The Democratic leadership in Congress pushed the new model that looks remarkable=y like the old model, although the majority of Democrats voted against it. At the Pathways to Prosperity meeting, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton hailed the agreement as “good environmental stewardship”– just four days before Peruvian police shot indigenous activists protesting invasion of the Amazon jungle.

The Obama administration has so far avoided comments on the conflict. But neither the battle for the Amazon or the debate over free trade’s role in indigenous displacement and environmental destruction are likely to go away any time soon, despite repeal of the decrees.
A planetary lung and a legendary reserve of culture and biodiversity, the Amazon region embodies conflicting values and views of human progress.

For Peruvian President Alan Garcia, in an editorial in El Comercio, the jungle is currently  just a big waste: “There are millions of hectares of timber lying idle, another millions of hectares that communities and associations have not and will not cultivate, hundreds of mineral deposits that are not dug up and millions of hectares of ocean not used for aquaculture. The rivers that run down both sides of the mountains represent a fortune that reaches the sea without producing electricity.”
Garcia argues that indigenous peoples, just because they were lucky enough to be born in the Amazon, do not have special land-use rights on the land. Instead, the Amazon should be carved up into very large plots and sold to people with the capital to make use of it. The Peruvian government coveted the free trade agreement with the United States because, along with the required changes in national legislation, it opens up the Amazon to foreign investment.

In contrast, the indigenous communities and their supporters seek to conserve the Amazon jungles, and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures, all of which would be threatened by exploitation, bioprospecting and patent law changes under the FTA.

This contest between oil wells and jungles, foreign engineers and Amazon inhabitants has spread to the rest of Peru and the world. On June 11, tens of thousands of people marched in support of the indigenous protests in cities and towns across the country, chanting, “In defense of the jungle–the jungle is not for sale.” Simultaneously, demonstrators hit the streets to show support for the indigenous communities in cities throughout the world.

And it follows similar battles in other countries. In Mexico, hundreds of thousands of farmers marched to protest NAFTA’s agricultural chapter; in Colombia, indigenous and farm organizations marched to oppose a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement; in Costa Rica, nearly half the population voted against CAFTA; and Guatemala, CAFTA protesters were killed in the streets.

Yet somehow these voices never make it into the U.S. trade debate. The assumption that a free trade agreement is a gift to a developing country continues to be enforced by a U.S. government refusal to listen to voices other than national economic elites. Meanwhile, the New York Times echoes accusations that foreign countries or terrorist organizations have duped these thousands of women, farmers, indigenous groups, and workers into opposing progress.

As long as providing clear access and mobility for transnational companies and financial capital is accepted as the sole measure of progress, concerns for the earth and human beings with little economic power and a different view of development won’t be part of the discussion.

We have to rethink the free-trade model and listen to the men, women and children on the bottom of the economic ladder who sacrifice their lives to help save the Amazon jungles they call home. We owe them an enormous debt. The global crisis compels a new vision of sustainable growth and social equity. The Obama administration has noted the need for changes–reviewing trade policy should be at the top of the agenda.

LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .