Peru’s indigenous win victory over lands

A man shouts slogans at a demonstration in Lima against the Garcia government on June 11.
Peru’s Congress voted overwhelmingly to revoke two decrees that indigenous groups had said would result in the exploitation of their native lands for oil drilling, mining and logging.

The 82-14 vote on Thursday with no abstentions came after five hours of intense debate. “Today is a historic day,” said Daysi Zapata, vice president of the Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Jungle, in a statement on the group’s Web site. She repeated the group’s call this week to its members to abandon further opposition efforts, including blockades of rivers and roads. “My brothers from Yurimaguas affirmed that they will return to their communities as soon as the legislative decrees are repealed,” she said. “We are thankful because the will of the indigenous people has been heard and we only hope that, in the future, government will pay attention to and listen to the people and not legislate behind their backs.” However, despite praising President Alan Garcia for supporting the revocation of the decrees, Zapata said that had he done so earlier, lives might have been saved.

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She called for the repealing of seven remaining legislative decrees and the immediate lifting of the state of emergency and curfew in the city of Bagua. And she asked the government to stop the political persecution of her group’s leaders, including Alberto Pizango, who faces charges in Peru related to the clashes. He flew this week to Nicaragua where he was granted asylum. The vote came a day after Garcia’s cabinet chief, Yehude Simon, called on lawmakers to repeal the laws which have created tension between the government and indigenous communities in the Amazon. Striking the contentious Forestry and Wildlife Law and a related decree — laws that Congress had voted last week to suspend indefinitely — “will prevent more blood from being spilled,” Simon said Wednesday. “The government must have the wisdom to know when its best to back down,” Andina cited him as saying. He announced this week that he will resign once peace is restored. Simon’s call marked a turnaround, considering that last week, he called the repealing of laws in response to the protest the equivalent of bowing to extortion. Violence earlier this month in northwest Peru left more than 30 dead and more than 50 wounded, according to reports. Indian rights advocates put the number of dead and missing higher, with some groups saying more than 100 were killed or missing. The controversial laws were part of numerous decrees that Garcia passed through special powers awarded to him by Congress last year with the goal of having Peru meet rules set in a free trade agreement with the United States. The decrees made it easier for companies to gain concessions for oil drilling, mining and logging, including on indigenous lands. The forestry law, in particular, removed some 45 million hectares (more than 170,000 square miles) of Peruvian jungle from the government’s list of protected lands. The government is taking three major steps to address protesters’ concerns, Vicki Gass, senior associate for rights and development at the Washington Office on Latin America told CNN. Those include requesting to repeal the controversial laws, ending a state of emergency in the Amazon area and forming a working group with the indigenous groups, she said. The government’s responses have diffused tensions, but “had the government done this process of consultation earlier, we wouldn’t have seen the blockades, and avoided the violence,” Gass said. The real test for the Garcia government will be how seriously officials listen to the concerns of indigenous citizens, Gass said. “These are positive steps, but the question is the process — will they really allow for detailed debate” she said.