China in Latin America
Peru's prosecutor general Pablo Sánchez announced Feb. 7 that he is seeking the arrest of former president Alejandro Toledo on charges of laundering assets and influence trafficking. Prosecutors opened a formal investigation this week into allegations that Toledo took $20 million in bribes from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, with investigators raiding his home in Lima on Feb 4 and carting off boxes full of documents. Sánchez is now asking a judge to approve 10 months of "preventative detention" for Toledo while the case is under investigation. Toledo is currently believed to be in Paris, where he arrived for an OECD conference last week, and Sánchez argues that he poses a flight risk. Toledo is said to have received the money, laundered through offshore accounts, in exchange for giving the firm approval to complete a highway connecting Brazil with the Peruvian coast in 2006.
Ecuador's government on Dec. 19 issued an order for the dissolution of the Quito-based organization Acción Ecológica, for 30 years a voice for the country's indigenous peoples in their struggles against oil and mineral development. The Interior Ministry issued the order, accusing the group of complicity in "violent acts" carried out by anti-mining protesters in the Amazon region. A group of experts from the UN Human Rights Council issued a statement Dec. 30 protesting the order, and calling on Ecuador's government to halt "repressive measures that seek to asfixiate civil society." The statement said: "The government of Ecuador seems to be systematically dissolving organizations when they become too vocal or challenge government orthodoxy."
During the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Forum (APEC) summit in Lima, protesters took to the streets to oppose the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal—just as it appears to be on the rocks with the election of Donald Trump. But as the summit closed, China's President Xi Jinping and his Peruvian counterpart Pedro Pablo Kuczynski signed a series of bilateral agreements to advance "free trade" between the two countries and cooperation in the mineral and resource sectors. Xi especially plugged the Chinese-backed mega-project to build a transcontinental railway through the Amazon basin, and praised Peru for its ground-breaking 2010 free trade agreement with China. "Peru was the first Latin American country to sign a comprehensive free trade agreement with China. It's leading the region on cooperation with China," Xi said through an interpreter in a speech before Peru's Congress.
The mammoth Chinese-owned copper mine at Las Bambas, in Peru's Apurímac region, was prepared to halt operations as protesters blocked roads last month, but the blockades were relaxed after Vice President Martin Vizcarra flew in from Lima to meet with local leaders Oct. 22. Vizcarra pledged a review of community grievances over environmental impacts and recompense to localities for use of roads. Two days earlier, the body of Quintino Cereceda, a protester killed by police Oct. 14, was buried at his community of Choqquecca, signaling a de-escalation of the stand-off. Residents had pledged not to bury the body or turn it over to authorities until President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski came to meet with them. The Interior Ministry acknowledged that Cereceda had been killed by National Police fire.
The Central of Indigenous Communities of Tacana II Rio Madre de Dios (CITRMD), representing the Tacana people of Pando department in the Bolivian Amazon has issued a letter to the ministries of Justice and Environment requesting urgent government intervention to protect "uncontacted" indigenous peoples threatened by oil operations. The CITRMD said "footprints and broken branches" among other evidence were found within the operations area of BGP, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). September letters by BGP to Bolivia's state oil company YPFB, to which it is contracted, noting this evidence, as well as one physical encounters with "originarios." CITRMD is urging BGP and the government to respect "their wish not to be contacted." (The Guardian, Oct. 27)
The first death due to a social conflict in Peru under new President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski came Oct. 14 as campesinos clashed with National Police over the contested mine at Las Bambas. Quintino Cereceda Huiza, 28, of Choqeqa community, was killed and 34 others wounded as police troops opened fire to clear some 200 protesters blocking a newly built access road to the mine in Challhuahuacho district of the Cotabambas province, Apurímac region. Las Bambas, Peru's largest copper mine, was brought online this year by Chinese company MMG Ltd—over the protests of local campesino communities in Challhuahuacho and Tambobamba districts. "The community has never disagreed with the project. They are not anti-mining," protest leader Rodny Cabrera told RPP Noticias. "The issue is that they cheated us, they lied to us. The mining company changed the environmental impact plan. The ore was going to go through a pipeline, not trucks that are polluting the fields. How will people live?" (OCMAL, Peru Reports, Oct. 15, La Mula, Reuters, Oct. 14; La Mula, Sept. 30)
Peru's government announced Sept. 28 that an official delegation will meet with indigenous protesters who have been blockading a main tributary of the Amazon River to protest pollution caused by a recent spate of oil spills. As many as 2,000 protesters have blocked river traffic on the Río Marañon since the start of the month. They have demanded that President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski fly into the rainforest to meet with them. Kuczynski instead said he will send a delegation to meet with the protesters and report back. Protest leaders contend they will only attend the meeting if the delegation includes cabient chief Fernando Zavala. There is also the controversy about where the meeting is to take place. It is now slated for Kuczynski’s hometown of Iquitos, the Amazon riverport which is the major city in Loreto region Protesters want the meeting to take place in the community of Saramurillo in Urarinas district, near where the protests are taking place—10 hours from Iquitos by boat.
Panama has opened the long-awaited $5.4 billion expansion of its inter-oceanic canal, completed after nearly a decade of work and forecast to boost global trade. China's container ship Cosco Shipping Panama was the first to pass through the expanded canal, crossing from the Pacific to Atlantic June 26, emerging at a ceremony attended by thousands of onlookers and foreign dignitaries. The expansion is designed to accommodate the huge "neo-Panamax" ships to move far greater quantities of cargo through the canal—also dubbed "mega-ships." But the Spanish-led consortium that carried out the expansion is demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns. And there are long-term concerns about available fresh water to feed the expanded canal's new locks. The expanded canal is relying on the same water sources as the original canal—which are already under stress. During this year's El Niño-related drought, shippers had to significantly lighten their loads through the canal. Jorge L. Quijano, CEO of the Panama Canal Authority, has been pressuring Panamanians to conserve water to assure the functioning of the new mega-canal. (China Daily, June 27; Radio Australia, June 26; NYT, June 22; Miami Herald, June 20; American Shipper, March 22)