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Whose Amazon Is It?

Following the recent violence over natural resource use, Peru has an opportunity to balance economic development with human rights protections.

The tension between natural resource development and the protection of human rights reached a breaking point in Peru this month. In early April, indigenous groups initiated nearly 50 days of protests as a public outcry for laws that violated their right to decide if and how large-scale development happens on their territory. Fatal violence erupted when police and the military attempted to break a road blockade near the city of Bagua, in the northern region of Amazonas and close to the border with Ecuador. The victim count remains controversial. The official death toll is 33, with 24 policemen and 9 civilians killed. Other estimates range from 40 to 250 indigenous people dead.

The government responded to the protests with heavy-handed tactics, calling a state of emergency and calling in the military and national police. (A move denounced by human rights organizations). Also, there has been a national and international outcry at the use of violence by both sides. Public demonstrations and strikes were held in Lima and other cities in Perú, with protests in other major cities around the world. The International Human Rights Commission, leaders of the Peruvian Catholic Church, as well as Peruvian and international NGOs, all made statements calling for investigations and a stop to the violence.

The ingredients for violent conflict have been simmering for several years. The Peruvian government’s aggressive economic development strategy centers on promoting private investment in the natural resources based sectors. Between 2004 and 2009, the oil and gas concessions in the Peruvian Amazon increased their coverage from 15% to 72%. The vast majority of these concessions overlap with indigenous people’s territories, including titled and demarcated communities, communities in process of being titled, territorial reserves and proposed reserves. However, the government did not consult with these indigenous communities before it drew the concession boundaries and awarded the concessions to oil and gas companies.

Adding fuel to the fire is the 2006 US-Perú Trade Promotion Agreement, the free trade agreement (FTA) signed by President George W. Bush and Peru’s President, Alan García. The FTA included a variety of groundbreaking provisions for labor, public participation and consultation, and forest management, which were included after the agreement was re-negotiated in 2007. These provisions were meant to improve forest sector governance and promote legal trade in timber products. The FTA also included language meant to prohibit the weakening of existing environmental laws in both countries.

To make sure the agreement could be certified before President Bush left office in January 2009, the Peruvian Congress granted Peru’s executive branch special powers to enact laws and regulations needed to be in compliance with the FTA. Between February and June 2008, the executive branch used these powers to pass a series of Legislative Decrees meant to attract and facilitate large-scale private investment in the extractive industries, forestry and agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon.

Much attention has been paid to two of the more contentious decrees--Legislative Decree 1064 and Legislative Decree 1020. Decree 1064 removes previous requirements for companies to negotiate with a community prior to moving in, and it reclassifies communal land rights as subordinate to individual and private ownerships, giving favor to individuals, companies, and settlers who invade indigenous territories. Decree 1020 outlines a plan to regulate investment in the Amazon, but protesters say it frees roughly 60 percent of Peru’s forests for potential development.

As with the oil and gas concession awarding process, indigenous communities were not consulted on the content of the decrees. This is despite the fact that Peru has signed onto several international conventions and declarations that commit the government to providing specific protections to indigenous peoples, including the right to free, prior and informed consent on development activities that would threaten their territory or way of life.

Last year, after public protest and indigenous peoples’ demonstrations called the decrees into question, a special investigative Commission created by the Peruvian Congress found the decrees to be unconstitutional. When debate in the Congress on the Commission’s findings was blocked and formal spaces for dialogue appeared to be ineffective, indigenous communities took to the streets to protest.

Since the events in Bagua, the Congress has repealed the controversial decrees, and President Garcia has recognized the lack of consultation and declared that it is time to start over again.

The government has set up a national working group made up by members of the executive branch, the presidents of the regional governments of the Amazonian States, and 10 indigenous representatives. The working group is tasked to prepare a sustainable development plan for the Peruvian Amazon. While the Minister of Foreign Relations has said that Peru has the support of the U.S. Government and Congress to find negotiated solutions to improve the laws, the U.S. itself has said or done very little about the situation.

An unprecedented opportunity for Peru

The “new start” offers the government an unprecedented opportunity to put effective measures in place to protect all of its citizens from the unintended negative consequences of development, and make sure that they receive its full benefits through a participatory process.

At the national level, the government needs to make sure that laws and policies:

  • Provide information: Give citizens adequate access to clear and accurate information about planned development, and that citizens are given an opportunity to understand the full implications of development. The government should conduct analysis and provide maps that show the location of indigenous territories and the overlaps with possible conflicting land uses for example, oil and gas concessions or forest and mining concessions.

  • Allow citizen participation: Give citizens formal opportunities to participate in credible decision-making processes to ensure sure that their views and opinions are reflected in final decisions.

  • Provide access to justice: Give citizens access to effective forms of justice so that if they have a grievance, they don’t feel they need to take the law into their own hands.

Finally, companies operating on indigenous territory should also play their part. Since the majority of oil and gas concessions in the Peruvian Amazon overlap indigenous territories, those operating in these concessions should have a policy regarding indigenous peoples, and an effective policy on community engagement and free prior and informed consent.

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