To quell protests, Peru suspends Amazon investment laws

Indigenous groups say government is just trying to stop efforts to protect jungle from oil and logging development. More protests are planned today.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Peru's Congress is trying to diffuse some of the worst violence the country has seen in a decade.

The legislature voted Wednesday to temporarily suspend laws governing investment in the Amazon jungle that are at the center of mass protests by indigenous groups.

But the suspension may do little to halt protests planned for today and the rising tensions that threaten to morph into a nationwide conflict.

The investment laws were passed last year to help speed up passage of a trade agreement with the US, and, the government maintains, help Peru on its course to development. But indigenous groups say the laws favor multinationals eager to drill and log and rob them of their natural resources.

Their year-long struggle came to a head last week when more than 30 people, on both sides, were killed in the town of Bagua in the northern Amazon after police were sent in to quell the blockades of a highway and oil pipeline. The violence represents some of the worst in Peru since the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency.

No reason to march?

The congressional move will put on hold two of the more controversial decrees, which encourage investment and hand the government more power to sell land in the jungle. The suspension was aimed at opening space for negotiation between the two sides.

"The decrees have been suspended ... there is no reason to cause sacrifices, encourage the population to participate in a march that has no reason and should be called off," said Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas at a press conference after the vote.

But protest leaders, who claim that the death toll is higher than 50, say they will not back down, because the suspension does not reverse what they consider a government attempt to undermine rights to jungles they have inhabited for centuries.

"They have sold our territories and want us to do nothing. Now they think a simple vote is enough for us to go home like nothing happened," says Servando Puerta, an indigenous leader from the northern jungle.

National protests, organized by trade unions, environmentalists, farmers, students, and human rights activists, are called for today in defense of Amazonian indigenous people, but also against the government policy in the Amazon.

Fifty-nine oil concessions in the Amazon

The protests date back more than a year, when Peruvian President Alan García's administration received permission from Congress to pass the set of laws, but protests heated up in April as negotiations stalled and came to a crisis point last Friday.

In the days before the violent clash, the state-run oil company, Petroperu, reported that blockades of its pipeline would soon lead to fuel shortages. It says it was losing $120,000 daily.

The government estimates there could be billions of barrels of oil in the Amazon jungle; exploration is under way on numerous lots throughout Peru's 70 million hectares of jungle. The government awarded 13 new hydrocarbon concessions April 16, one week after the indigenous protest started, bringing the number of concessions nationwide to 91. Of these, 59 are in the jungle.

A pause to divide?

It is unclear how long the suspensions will last. The government maintains that it is doing its part in the negotiations – Roman Catholic bishops and Peru's human rights ombudsman's office have agreed to broker talks – and that protesters should follow suit. But Miguel Palacín, leader of an Andean indigenous group helping organize the protests, says they believe the congressional suspension is just a ruse to lower tensions.

"The government only wants to divide indigenous peoples and undermine our just demands. We are not going to back down until our rights are respected. It is simple, but something the government refuses to see," he says. He says they will push on until the government repeals definitively the decrees.

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