Indigenous Peruvians vow more attacks over control of the Amazon

Clashes with government forces left more than 30 dead last week, sparking concerns about a full-scale revolt. Protesters are fighting laws that would open their rainforest home to energy and agribusiness development.

In a low-slung concrete building packed with poor, angry, indigenous Peruvians, protester Carlos Collado speaks in hard, revolutionary terms. "We are not the assassins the government makes us out to be," he says. "But we will not let our brothers die. This meeting is illegal. But we are here. This shows that we are ready."

One by one, amid the sullen faces, they stood to speak, some in Spanish, others in their ethnic language. Each spewed hatred at the Peruvian government, which they say orchestrated a deadly clash that killed more than 30 and injured more than 150 last week in Bagua, an area in the northern Peruvian Amazon.

"Bagua" has become shorthand for an indigenous resistance boiling over throughout remote swaths of the country, as poor Amazonian Indians engage in strikes and blockades to protest laws that would open their rainforest home to energy and agribusiness development. For two months, they have blocked roads, strung cable across rivers, and taken over jungle oil facilities with spears and arrows. The protests had been peaceful until Bagua – the country's worst political violence since the Shining Path guerrillas were quelled in the mid-1990s – but now it is starting to feel like a revolt.

"These laws are part of the US trade pact with Peru, and they do nothing but let foreign corporations take our resources," says Plinio Kategari, an increasingly well-known political organizer with a native political organization known by its Spanish initials as COMARU. "For 500 years, our people have been kept down. This is our moment in history."

Growth by resource

Peru has logged impressive economic growth in recent years, doubling the size of its economy since 2003, mostly as a result of a push to tap its sizable reserves of silver, copper, zinc and gold, oil, and gas. But many of the indigenous inhabitants of the resource-rich land see nothing more than an extension of centuries of repression.

"The jungle is all we have," says Dina, a mixed-race Peruvian from the remote jungle town of Quillabamba, who gave only her first name out of concern for her security. "It gives us our food and water and medicine. But we see international companies coming in and taking it from us. It has to change."

The clash stands to widen a longstanding divide between white and mixed-race elites who tend to favor a free-market economy and those of historically maligned Indians who lean toward populist forms of government.

Foreign meddling?

Many here believe that the protesters – many of whom speak only indigenous languages – are being misinformed and manipulated by political forces including Peru's Nationalist Party, led by the populist leader Ollanta Humala. In 2006, Mr. Humala, a former military officer who espouses a populist economic platform akin to that of the leftist leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Veneuzuela, narrowly lost a run-off election to Mr. Garcia, who has made a name for himself by inviting private investment and launching massive economic development projects.

Many say the indigenous protesters are being backed by wealthy leftist interests who want to destabilize the Garcia government.

"The natives are peaceful," says Rolando Ugarte, a hotel owner in Lima. "So you have to ask who is giving them guns and pushing them to do this. They are being manipulated." Echoing the belief of many wealthy Peruvians, Mr. Ugarte said the protests are ultimately about a fight over how the country's economy is structured. He and many other Peruvians interviewed for this story say that Venezuela and Humala's party are the powers behind the curtain.

There are also official claims.

Congressman Edgar Nunez, chairman of the Peruvian congress's national defense committee, claims to have evidence that Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chávez is financially backing the protesters through "casas de ALBA," or grass-roots Peruvian organizations named after the leftist trade bloc pushed by Mr. Chavez as an alternative to US-backed regional trade agreements.

Indigenous groups deny the claims.

A week before Bagua, national strike leader Alberto Pizango dismissed allegations that Venezuela or Humala's party were financing the movement. . "Our own people are collecting their resources to make this happen," said Mr. Pizango in an interview, his modest office building brimming with Indian leaders arriving from distant settlements. "This is coming from our people."

Mr. Pizango took refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy on Monday after being charged with sedition by Garcia's government. He's been granted amnesty by Nicaragua, which is led by cold-war nemesis of the US, Daniel Ortega, who's become a close ally of Chávez.

Until now, the normally verbose Chávez has made no declarations about accusations he is backing the protests. Calls to the Venezuelan embassy last week went unreturned. Likewise, Humala has denied the claims and accused Garcia's ministers of killing innocent Indians rather than negotiating over the controversial decrees.

More confrontations to come?

Since Bagua, along muddy oil roads, in gritty shacks and jungle river towns, the strikes seem to be taking on the tenor of full-scale revolt. On Thursday, native groups are planning a nationwide "solidarity" strike that could carry the risk of another violent confrontation.

Meanwhile, as the body count at Bagua inches upward with each news report, tensions are mounting.

As the attendees of the meeting rose one by one to denounce the government and promise "action" in a show of solidarity in the coming days, the distant thump of a helicopter high above the jungle caused several to step out and look.

"It's the military," said one man, shielding his eyes from the sun. "They want to see what we are doing."

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