A deadly conflict in Peru over a rush to drill for oil in Amazon rainforest: how culpable is the US?


A clash between indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest in Peru and government police has broken out in deadly violence, leaving more than 40 indigenous people and nearly two dozen police dead.  At issue is whether multinational oil companies will have access to explore and drill for oil and minerals on ancestral lands under a “free trade” agreement forged between the Bush administration and Peru.  Thousands of indigenous people desperate to save their ancestral lands and way of life began protesting in April.  On June 5 the president of Peru ordered 650 police to use tear gas and guns on the ground and from helicopters on crowds of peaceful protesters blocking a main highway.  The conflict illustrates the economics and geopolitics of oil and minerals, versus the urgent need for better stewardship over Earth’s natural systems.  President Obama should reconsider this agreement in terms of the tradeoff between a short-term economic boon for some Peruvians at the expense of others and the US thirst for oil and minerals, versus the longer-term damage to the Amazon rainforest and the life it supports, its vast ability to sequester and store carbon, and Earth’s climate system. 

post by Anne Polansky

Image from AmazonWatch.org

UPDATE:  A coalition of indigenous and human rights organizations is protesting the Peruvian government’s actions today (June 8) in front of the Peruvian Embassy in Washington D.C.

The Amazon Basin has long been recognized for its rich habitat supporting an enormous proportion of the world’s biodiversity, its ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and to provide a natural home for indigenous peoples, who have lived on their ancestral lands sustainably for thousands of years.  While the devastation of vast swaths of rainforest in Brazil has received much attention, the same problem is about to erupt in the coastal nation of Peru, which possesses approximately 930 million barrels of proven reserves of oil underneath its soil.  To help alleviate poverty and spread the wealth the sale of this oil could bring to the rest of Peru, especially to the bulk of the population that resides near the coast, President Allen Garcia (elected on July 28, 2006 by a 5% margin) forged the US-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA) with President Bush in 2007; it went into effect on February 1, 2009. 

UPDATE 6/9/09:  One of Garcia’s cabinet members, Peru’s Minister of Woman’s Affairs and Social Development,  Carmen Vildoso, submitted her resignation yesterday in apparent disagreement with Garcia’s actions.  Opposition party members of Congress are calling on other cabinet members to follow suit.

The Republic of Peru has three distinct regions: the coastal area (where a full third of the nation’s population clusters around the coastal city of Lima), the mountainous region of the Andes, and the tropical forests of the Amazon basin to the east.  The coastal population especially has been subject to poverty under the leadership of previous presidents.  “Amerindians” (natives of ethnicities “quecha” and aimars) comprise half of Peru’s total population and tend to live inland.  So-called “mestizos” or “cholos”—mixed Indian and white—make up a third.  Only 15% are white. 


Amazon Watch, an international watchdog group that “works to protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin” has been tracking this development and reporting from the perspective of the victims, the indigenous people who live deep in the forest, some of whom are so isolated from the rest of humanity that exposure to intruders can mean death from diseases for which they have no immunity. 

The indigenous population is apparently getting in the way of the free trade pact’s terms, opening up communal jungle lands and water resources to oil drilling, logging, mining and large-scale farming.  The government owns all subsoil rights across the country and Garcia is known for his interest in exploiting its resources to bring economic wealth to all Peruvians.  It has been reported that the areas subject to oil and gas exploration covers approximately 72 percent of Peru’s rain forest, and that oil and mining contracts could affect at least 30,000 indigenous people across six provinces.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Environment Programme recently issued a statement  about the importance of preserving and protecting areas such as the tropical forests of the Amazon Basin.  A new report to mark World Environment Day, The Natural Fix? The Role of Ecosystems in Climate Mitigation, asserts that “boosting investments in the conservation, rehabilitation and management of the Earth’s forests, peatlands, soils and other key ecosystems could deliver significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and avoid even more being released to the atmosphere,” according to the statement.  The report concludes:

• It is vital to manage carbon in biological systems, to safeguard existing stores of carbon, reduce emissions and to maximise the potential of natural and agricultural areas for removing carbon from the atmosphere.

• The priority systems are tropical forests, peatlands and agriculture. Reducing deforestation rates by 50 per cent by 2050 and then maintaining them at this level until 2100 would avoid the direct release of up to 50 Gt C this century, equivalent to 12 per cent of the emissions reductions needed to keep atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 450ppm.

• Peatland degradation contributes up to 0.8 Gt C a year, much of which could be avoided through restoration.

Ironically, the day of the massacre coincided with World Environment Day, June 5. 

This disturbing confluence of interests can be viewed as one that portends the future in a heavily populated, resource-hungry, climate-disrupted world.  More importantly, it serves as another reminder that we must more aggressively attempt to understand the “human dimensions” of the global climate change problem, using resources of the US Global Change Research Program and in other areas of government and the NGO sector, employing economists, sociologists and other social scientists to look at how decisions in one sector of society affect other sectors.   



The violence broke out at the break of dawn Friday June 5 after several weeks of nonviolent protests that entailed blocking a portion of the Fernando Belaunde Highway known as “Devil’s Curve”—which connects the Amazon basin with the highlands and coastal areas— so that oil interests could not enter ancestral lands.  The “Indians,” as they are still mistakenly called, have been effective at blocking the oil and mining interests, carrying homemade spears as symbols of resistance.  The blockades have been active since April 9. 

Finally, the government’s patience ran out, and over 650 police troops were sent in with orders to shoot.  Over the weekend police used tear gas and shot live bullets both from helicopters above and on the ground, killing 40 indigenous protesters and injuring more than 150.  More than 30 are missing.  In a statement Saturday, Garcia said Peru had “suffered a subversive aggression against democracy and against the national police. We should respond with serenity and firmness.”

UPDATE:  A post on CommonDreams.org reports that the Special Forces of the Peruvian Police have been disposing of the bodies of indigenous protesters who were killed, even throwing them into a river from helicopter, an in an apparent attempt by the government to under-report the number of indigenous people killed by police. (Accounts are by Amazon Watch.)

From another perspective, Garcia can be rightfully being accused of violating international law, the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169 on indigenous peoples, which calls for the protection of communal lands and for previous consultation for any activity or sale of them.  The Garcia government is required to proceed with extraction projects only after receiving the informed consent by the affected populations.  However, no consultations in good faith are taking place before contracts are signed.  Roman Catholic bishops in the region have issued a statement calling complaints regarding the lack of informed consent legitimate.

President Obama has said that he is in favor of the free trade agreement. 

AmazonWatch reported Saturday June 6, from Bagua, Peru: 

In the early morning hours on Friday, Peruvian Special Forces staged a violent raid on a group of indigenous people at a peaceful blockade on a road outside of Bagua in a remote area of the northern Peruvian Amazon resulting in 25 civilians confirmed dead and more than 150 injured. Over 600 police attacked several thousand unarmed Awajun and Wambis indigenous peoples including many women and children and forcibly dispersed them using tear gas and live ammunition.

Dramatic photos (available on http://www.amazonwatch.org) of the attack show clearly the police brutally beating and shooting demonstrators at close range. At 2am police began to approach the demonstrators as they were sleeping along the Fernando Belaúnde Terry road. Demonstrators refused to move from the roadblock as police in helicopters fired teargas grenades and live ammunition. Eyewitnesses report that police also attacked from both sides firing live rounds into the crowd as people fled into surrounding steep hillsides, many becoming trapped. As the unarmed demonstrators were being killed and injured some wrestled with police, fighting back in self-defense, which resulted in the reported deaths of nine police officers.

In local radio reports the chief of police claimed that the indigenous demonstrators were armed and fired first. This claim has been strongly rejected by dozens of local eyewitnesses including local journalists who confirmed that Amazonian demonstrators have been entirely peaceful and only bear traditional spears and in no way provoked any violence. A point highlighted by the fact that the blockades have been going on for 56 days without a single incident.

Gregor MacLennan of Amazon Watch who is currently in Bagua gathering first hand testimonies from blockade participants, local journalists and residents stated: “All eyewitness testimonies say that Special Forces opened fire on peaceful and unarmed demonstrators including from helicopters, killing and wounding dozens in an orchestrated attempt to open the roads. It seems that the police had come with orders to shoot. This was not a clash, but a coordinated police raid with police firing on protesters from both sides of their blockade.”

“There have been many accounts of atrocities committed by the Special Forces. Some have reported seeing the police throwing liquid on the cadavers and burning them. Also local residents have given accounts of having seen police throwing bodies of dead civilians into the river in an apparent attempt to underreport the number of dead. We’ve also received accounts that some of those injured were being detained by security forces and denied medical attention leading to additional deaths. There are many people still reported missing and access to medical attention in the region is horribly inadequate.”

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! covered the story this morning and interviewed Gregor MacLennan from Amazon Watch. 

A contributor to yesterdays’ Daily Kos posted on the conflict; the post was “favorited” and received nearly 300 comments. 

A personal account of the “50 days of protests” and the weekend’s “massacre” is offered by Ben Powless, a contributing journalist for an indy media online magazine, Upside Down World.  He writes:

I’m writing this right now from Peru after having taken part in a 5 day Indigenous Peoples Summit held in Puno, Peru in the high Andes. At that gathering we heard from representatives, including Alberto Pizango, elected representative of the Peruvian Amazonian peoples, about the ongoing protests they were waging, and the repression faced as a result, from their opposition to some of the plans the Peruvian government has for ‘developing’ the Amazon region and opening it for oil, mineral, logging, and agricultural exploitation, on the homelands of many Indigenous communities. In response, there have been over 50 days of continuous protest, shutting down parts of the Amazon and the Andes.

Alberto Pizango addresses a crowd of around 3000 Indigenous Peoples from across the Americas gathered in Puno, on Lake Titicaca. He was interrupted repeatedly by cheers from the crowd, “Pizango, we’re with you!”

This morning, the situation took a turn for the worst. The government reacted by sending in police to violently remove the protesters, with different reports claiming as many as 20, 30, or more lives lost in the violent fight that erupted. The protesters had been sleeping at a roadblock maintained over the past few weeks when helicopters arrived and shot at people below, according to witnesses and local journalists. The government has also put out an arrest warrant for Pizango, who spoke today in Lima, for instigating the violence, as if to pretend the intense anger and frustration isn’t coming out of the communities themselves. This is not how World Environment Day should be celebrated.

Even if you don’t speak Spanish, the significance and meaning of this YouTube clip showing the Peruvian protesters will be clear.  The man speaking at the beginning is giving an interview, he is a well known leader and representative of the indigenous population, Alberto Pizango.  He is now being singled out and blamed by Garcia’s government for inciting the violence and faces charges of sedition.  He has reportedly gone into hiding.  Pizango runs the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association, and has accused Garcia’s government of “genocide” for attacking what he called a peaceful protest.

If the embedded link below doesn’t work, click here


UPDATE 6/9/09, 7 am:  The BBC reports that Alberto Pizango has sought refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima, after a warrant for his arrest was issued Saturday, and will be seeking asylum; Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is expected to announce his decision today, June 9. 


The press in Peru is not covering the indigenous deaths, according to Amazon Watch.  The natives are being caste as barbaric; the emphasis is on two dozen police deaths.  And in the US over the weekend there was plenty of coverage in the mainstream media, but the perspective leans towards that of the official government rather than the indigenous peoples. 

A few examples:

From the Wall Street Journal:   (added to this post June 9)

June 8, 2009

The headline:  “Peru Struggles to Defuse Amazon Violence With 50 Dead”

The lede:  “President Alan García struggled over the weekend to defuse a protest by Amazon indigenous groups that left more than 50 police and Indians dead.”

[CSW comment:  At the very least, there are 40+ dead among the protesters, plus 24 police.  The number of indigenous people shot to death remains uncounted, as witnesses have seen bodies in garbage bags being thrown from helicopters into a large river near the protest site.]

The article:

The demonstrations against government plans to develop oil, natural gas and forestry resources turned violent Friday, resulting in the deaths of 23 police, some of whom were stabbed with spears or had their throats slit, the government said. Indian leaders said more than 30 protesters were killed.

[CSW comment:  We note the use of the word “Indians” instead of indigenous people, and the graphic description of the death of the police officers by protesters who do not carry guns and had been engaging in nonviolent, peaceful protest since April 9 without incident.  Blood was shed only after 650 government police were dispatched to the site with orders to shoot to kill. ]

Mr. García tried to restore order over the weekend by sending in troops and declaring a curfew in the northern Peruvian city of Bagua, which has been at the center of the protests.

The president is facing his worst crisis since 2006, when he took office for a second term. The protesters are demanding that the government backtrack on decrees that the indigenous groups say would weaken their traditional communal land system by breaking up land into parcels of private property. The García government has been moving aggressively to grant concessions for oil and natural gas exploration in the Amazon.

Analysts say giving in to protester demands would make Mr. García seem weak and cast a cloud over a recently signed free-trade agreement with the U.S. Following the pact, the government enacted laws that opened up indigenous lands to development, changes that the indigenous groups oppose.

[CSW editorial comment:  Analysts?  These must be political or economic analysts, not social scientists or climate scientists studying the effect of rapid exploitation of oil and natural gas on our environment, our climate system, and the social fabric of Peru.  The phrase “protester demands” implies that the tens of thousands of indigenous peoples were the aggressors, not the victims who stand to lose their lives, their land, and their very way of life going back thousands of years.]

But coming down too hard on the protesters could further radicalize the population in an area where the García administration is particularly unpopular. “They don’t want to go in too gung-ho,” says Julio Carrión, a political scientist at the University of Delaware. With an approval rating of about 30%, Mr. García, a former leftist who converted to investment-friendly economic policies, isn’t in a strong position to challenge public opinion, analysts say.

Members of the García government are blaming the protest on outside agitators, including Peruvian leftist leader Ollanta Humala, who has ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

[CSW editorial comment:  The WSJ fails to mention that “leftist leader” Ollanta Humala ran against Garcia in the 2006 election, and won 47.5 % of the vote, vs. Garcia’s 52.6 %.  The “ties” to Hugo Chávez refer to the fact that Chávez publicly supported Humala in the election; Humala has denied additional ties, according the wikipedia entry for Humala.]

Mr. Carrión says the García government didn’t involve the indigenous population in discussions before it implemented new development rules. “In the U.S., the whole debate and discussion happens before the legislation passes,” he says. “In Latin America, you start by passing a law, and then the discussion begins.”

The leader of the protesters, Alberto Pizango, has gone into hiding after a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges that include sedition, possession of weapons and homicide.

[CSW editorial comment:  Correction, Pizango is seeking asylum with the Nicaraguan government.  As for possession of weapons and homocide, one might look at the actions of the police over the weekend.]

The bitterness on both sides, and the apparent brutality of the killings, could make it difficult to reach a compromise. The government says 10 policemen were killed after they surrendered at an oil-pipeline pumping station.

Analysts said Mr. García may try to salvage the situation by reshuffling his cabinet, including removing Prime Minister Yehude Simon. “There was a chain of errors that led to this unprecedented massacre,” said former Interior Minister Fernando Rospigliosi.

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from the Associated Press:
“9 more police killed in Amazon protests in Peru”

President Alan Garcia labored Saturday to contain Peru’s worst political violence in years, as nine more police officers were killed in a bloody standoff with Amazon Indians fighting his efforts to exploit oil, gas and other resources on their native lands.

The new deaths brought to 22 the number of police killed — seven with spears — since security forces moved early Friday to break up a roadblock manned by 5,000 protesters.

Protest leaders said at least 30 Indians, including three children, died in the clashes.  Authorities said they could confirm only nine civilian deaths, but cabinet chief Yehude Simon told reporters that 155 people had been injured, about a third of them with bullet wounds.

He announced a 3 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew, which took effect immediately in this sweltering jungle region where Simon said authorities had made 72 arrests.

In a statement issued Saturday, Garcia defended the crackdown as an attack on “subversive anti-democratic aggression” that had blocked the flow of oil and gas from the Amazon and prevented food, medicine and gasoline from getting in.

The political violence is the Andean country’s worst since the Shining Path insurgency was quelled more than a decade ago and bodes ill for Garcia’s ambitious plans to boost Peru’s oil, gas and mineral output and spur logging and biofuel development. Garcia compared the “savage and barbaric methods” used to kill police “who had surrendered and been disarmed” with those employed by the Shining Path.

The violence began before dawn Friday when security forces moved to break up a roadblock protesters mounted in early April. About 1,000 protesters seized police during the melee, taking more than three dozen hostage, officials said.

Twenty-five officers were rescued in Saturday’s storming of Station No. 6 at state-owned Petroperu in Imacita here in the jungle state of Amazonas, authorities said, with two officers missing.

Simon said the nine killed were taken more than a mile from the station and slain while an army general was negotiating protesters’ retreat from the facility.

from the LA Times

June 7, 2009

Reporting from Bogota, Colombia, and Lima, Peru—The death toll from a bloody clash between Peruvian police and indigenous protesters over the rights to natural resources rose to at least 31 Saturday, including nine police officers reportedly taken hostage by demonstrators at an oil pumping station.

According to official sources, 22 police officers and nine protesters were killed Friday as security forces tried to clear a highway in the Amazon region of northeastern Peru that demonstrators had blocked on and off for weeks.

Among those killed were nine of 38 police officers reportedly taken hostage at a pumping station operated by state-owned PetroPeru. Most of the other police officers escaped, officials said.

But as the government issued an arrest warrant for indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, whom it blamed for the violence, activists insisted that many more protesters had been killed than listed in the official toll.

Officials declared a 60-day state of emergency in three eastern provinces and a 3 p.m.-to-dawn curfew in Bagua, the epicenter of the violence.

Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas said 73 people had been arrested in connection with the incidents and that today would be a day of national mourning for the victims. She called on protesters to return to their homes and return rifles allegedly taken from police.


The website of the Office of the US Trade Representative has this to say about the Bush-negotiated US-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA) that is at the heart of the conflict: :

The United States and Peru signed the United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA) on April 12, 2006. Peru’s Congress ratified the Agreement in June 2006 and a protocol of amendment in June 2007.

On December 14, 2007, President Bush signed into law the PTPA Implementation Act which approved the PTPA. The PTPA entered into force on February 1, 2009. The PTPA is a comprehensive free trade agreement.

The PTPA will result in significant liberalization of trade in goods and services between the United States and Peru. Under the PTPA, Peru immediately eliminated most of its tariffs on U.S. exports, with all remaining tariffs phased out over defined time periods.

The PTPA also includes important disciplines relating to: customs administration and trade facilitation, technical barriers to trade, government procurement, services, investment, telecommunications, electronic commerce, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental protection

About Peru’s economy from the CIA World Factbook: 

Peru’s economy reflects its varied geography – an arid coastal region, the Andes further inland, and tropical lands bordering Colombia and Brazil. Abundant mineral resources are found in the mountainous areas, and Peru’s coastal waters provide excellent fishing grounds. The Peruvian economy grew by more than 4% per year during the period 2002-06, with a stable exchange rate and low inflation. Growth jumped to 9% per year in 2007 and 2008, driven by higher world prices for minerals and metals and the government’s aggressive trade liberalization strategies. Peru’s rapid expansion has helped to reduce the national poverty rate by about 15% since 2002, though underemployment and inflation remain high. Despite Peru’s strong macroeconomic performance, overdependence on minerals and metals subjects the economy to fluctuations in world prices, and poor infrastructure precludes the spread of growth to Peru’s non-coastal areas. Not all Peruvians therefore have shared in the benefits of growth. President GARCIA’s pursuit of sound trade and macroeconomic policies has cost him political support since his election. Nevertheless, he remains committed to Peru’s free-trade path. The United States and Peru completed negotiations on the implementation of the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement (PTPA), and the agreement entered into force February 1, 2009, opening the way to greater trade and investment between the two economies. (emphasis added)

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