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Peruvians defy land grab laws

Riots by indigenous groups in Peru have led to the repeal of controversial land laws, supported by President Alan Garcia, that sought to ease corporate access to the Amazonian jungle. According to two new legal decrees, foreign oil, logging and mining companies could be sold whole swathes of aboriginal territory without first consulting the inhabitants. Saul Puerta Peña, of the Peruvian indigenous association AIDESEP, helped to organise the 14-day protest, which took place in August. He says that while the menace has been driven back there is still a long way to go before the rights of native Peruvians are recognised.
I’m an Amazonian leader and I am leading the fight against the Peruvian government after it tried to sell our land to foreign investors. I don’t really speak Spanish. I'm Awajun and my native language is Awajun. I come from San Ignacio, a village in northern Peru, right in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

These native lands are the entitled properties of the Amazon people, and to sell them off without even consulting us is a violation of our ancestral rights. This is why we rioted on August 9. Well, how would you feel if all of a sudden some authority came to tell you that you had to get out of your house because a rich company wanted to settle there, and you had to find yourself another place to live?

The national nature reserves in the very heart of the Amazon jungle, where the uncontacted tribes live, are supposedly "protected" by the state – but even these places are not safe from the large corporations.

Amazon Indians think that, yes, we can handle things. We can handle the fact that food prices are rising – we can handle almost everything. But now they want to sell off our territories, and that's way too much. We will never allow that. We live there. Our lands are ancient and we will give our lives for them. We will not accept eviction, even if they send soldiers and policemen.

The Awajun, my people, are very strong. My village is known for being rebellious. We have resisted invaders of all kinds – the Incas, the Spanish, colonists and loggers. That’s one reason why we are not worried.

Another reason is that there is much we can do to stop corporations from coming and exploiting our resources. If they do come, we will close everything – schools, shops, health centres – and we will not allow entry to anyone. Or we can riot again. We don’t want to riot, but they are stealing from us and killing us. Every Amazonian person feels the same way.

I helped to organise the riots that took place in August. As the delegate for the Amazon River communities I met various communities to inform them of what was going to happen – and to encourage them to protest. I told them that they should riot against the laws created by the government that would allow it to sell off our land. That's the way we did it and still do it. We informed people and, if they accepted, they let us carry on. That's the reason why the August protests were a success.

I participated in the protest in Amazonas city. We knew that there would be police officers and army soldiers, but we indigenous people are not afraid of confrontation. For us fighting is a natural thing – even though we have no weapons or firearms. We can fight to the death if necessary, which is why confrontation between indigenous people and the armed forces can be really dangerous.

Two very positive things came out of our protest. The first is that within 12 days of the riots the two land decrees, so damaging to our lands and rights, were repealed in congress. The second is that the riots have strengthened the Amazon population. The people are grateful because now the government understands our needs better.

But what is not positive is that the government now sees us as an obstacle. They say it explicitly. We are an obstacle to investment.

The Peruvian government, with its policies of foreign investment, is a favourite with the international companies and extractive industries. The authorities do not seem to respect the rights of indigenous communities and when it comes to our land they do not consult us first. What they do is they prepare information workshops in native communities; then, once they have made a presentation – in Spanish – they claim that the Amazonian people have granted entry to big business.

But the truth is that Peru’s indigenous people can hardly understand Spanish. They need an interpreter who speaks their own language. They do not understand when authorities or businessmen say that they will come to carry out oil exploration or seismic tests. They certainly do not understand that in order to make these explorations, foreigners will set up camp in the jungle and damage the flora and fauna for ever.

We have a lot yet to achieve. It might sound incredible, but no commission has been prepared for evaluating the socio-environmental impact of logging in the Peruvian Amazon. Foreigners ranging free in the jungle are threatening the remote and uncontacted tribes whose very lives depend on isolation. We hope to create a special programme that will protect the rights of these remote Indians.

What we at AIDESEP seek is simple: sustainable development according to our world-view and respect for our land and the environment. We don’t want to be manipulated any more. We are tired of complaining as our land is stolen.

We are now working on this in a peaceful way, emphasising the dialogue. The rioting and fights served their purpose but they are over; now we must continue to engage the attention of the government.

We have international plans too. We recently had a meeting with COICA, a collection of indigenous communities from the Amazon basin, made up of nine countries. With them we are preparing an agenda to take to Washington DC. We intend to report that in Peru there is no right to prior consultation, and that 80% of the Peruvian Amazon region has been granted to foreign companies.

We also plan to wage an international campaign in all the countries whose large companies are investing and exploiting our resources without respecting our rights. It is the weakness of our authorities that they are really exploiting, and we want to tell the world what is going on.

• Saul Puerta Peña was interviewed by Gabriela Mendoza Mendizábal. For more information on what's happening in Peru, go to the Survival International website.

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