Peru: strike backs indigenous protests

Peru’s largest labor organization, the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP), held a one-day nationwide strike on May 27 in support of indigenous people who have been protesting since April 9 in the country’s northeastern Amazon region against a package of laws they say will open up their lands to mining and drilling without consultation with local communities. The CGTP strike came on the second day of a May 26-27 strike called by the Inter-Ethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Forest (AIDESEP), an indigenous organization which has led the protests in the Amazon region.

On May 27 the CGTP held a march in Lima of some 5,000 workers, mostly from construction, mining and agriculture, from the Dos de Mayo plaza to the Congress building to support the indigenous demands and to push for wage and pension increases and an end to government efforts to criminalize protests. The slogans included: “The people united will never be defeated” and “Let the rich pay for the crisis, not the people.” There were no incidents in the march, which was guarded by 1,500 police agents. But in Iquitos, the capital of Loreto region and Maynas province in the Amazon region, police fired rubber bullets at a CGTP demonstration as protesters burned tires in the Plaza de Armas. From 11 to 16 people were wounded, according to different reports, and about 20 were arrested. The city was largely shut down; schools were closed and transportation was restricted. CGTP members also held strikes and marches in other cities, including the southern cities of Puno and Ayacucho.

Indigenous groups from outside the Amazon region observed the strike calls, as did a number of local organizations. In Cusco, members of the Machiguenga indigenous group blocked the train to the Machu Picchu archeological site starting on May 26; about 300 Machiguenga protested peacefully in Aguas Calientes, near the site, a major tourist attraction. Members of the Subregional Federation of Campesino and Urban Rondas blocked the Fernando Belaunde highway at the town of Chamaya in Jaén province in the northern department of Cajamarca on May 27. (Rondas started as campesino self-defense groups that the military used in the counterinsurgency against the “Shining Path” rebels in the 1980s, but the groups later became independent of the government.) (ADN, Spain, May 28 from EFE; Radio Programas del Perú-RPP, May 27; La República, Peru, May 28)

The laws AIDESEP has been protesting were part of a package of more than 100 decrees that President Alan García signed in 2008 to bring Peru into compliance with a Free Trade Agreement (FTA, TLC in Spanish) with the US; the agreement went into effect earlier this year. Decrees affecting campesino and indigenous land rights provoked massive mobilizations during the summer of 2008, and two decrees were repealed in August. This May the constitutional commission of the Congress ruled that one of the remaining decrees is unconstitutional, and Congress was scheduled to vote on repealing it at the end of May. But García continues to defend the package. “The Amazonian lands belong to the entire nation, not to a small group that lives there,” he said at a public event on May 16.

Since the protests started on April 9 some 10,000 indigenous people, many of them armed with bows and arrows, have carried out actions that included blockades of major roads and waterways and the occupation of an airport. The protesters have closed down a pipeline belonging to the state-owned oil company Petróleos del Perú, SA (Petroperu); it normally carries 40,000 barrels a day. The privately owned Pluspetrol Perú has had to shut down its Block 1-AB field, which was producing 17,000 barrels a day last month. On May 9 the government declared a state of emergency in four regions, granting the army greater powers to repress the protests. The government also charged AIDESEP president Alberto Pizango Chota with conspiring against the state. (Environment News Service, May 26; Bloomberg, May 26)

The Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples, which was being held in Puno, concluded on May 31 with Pizango calling for another national strike on June 3. “If we have to die, let them kill us; we’d rather die struggling so that our children can live with dignity,” he told the delegates, who chanted: “Pizango, brother, the summit is with you.” The delegates announced that they would organize encampments during the first week of July in front of Peruvian embassies in their own countries. (ADN, June 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 31

See our last posts on Peru and the struggle for the Amazon.