June 19, 2009 / 4:09 PM / in 9 years

ANALYSIS-Peru's Indian groups gain strength, push for change

By Terry Wade and Marco Aquino

LIMA, June 19 (Reuters) - Peru’s indigenous movement, which was dormant for years, has burst to life and could become a powerful political force like those in Andean neighbors Ecuador and Bolivia.

A coalition of tribes in Peru’s Amazon rain forest led months of blockades that turned into bloody clashes with police and forced Congress to overturn two laws that indigenous leaders said would put ancestral lands in the hands of foreign mining and oil companies.

President Alan Garcia’s cabinet chief, Yehude Simon, said this week he will resign for botching the negotiations with tribes and failing to avert the violence that killed at least 34 people earlier this month.

The political fallout has demonstrated the emerging strength of indigenous political movements in Peru, reinforcing recent gains made by Indian groups across the Andes.

Evo Morales was elected as Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, while Indian protests helped force out two presidents during economic crises a decade ago in Ecuador.

Throughout the region, Indian groups are pushing for greater control over natural resources and a bigger share of their countries’ wealth. Many oppose foreign investment in the mining and energy industries.

"The Peruvian indigenous movement is no longer weaker than others in the Andes," said Miguel Palacin, general coordinator of CAOI, an Indian rights group active throughout the Andes.

"We have very good organizations here in Peru now, with new groups, and we want to take advantage of this to gain political influence."

Peru was roiled by a war between the government and the Shining Path insurgency in the 1980s and 1990s. Maoist rebel leaders recruited indigenous people, and other Indians were organized in vigilante squads to fight the guerrillas in a brutal conflict that claimed nearly 70,000 lives.

Indigenous towns and villages were hardest hit and the violence discouraged Indians from venturing beyond their villages to organize nationwide political networks.

Since the end of the war, indigenous groups have put together networks with sophisticated legal, communications and fund-raising teams, often assisted by international aid groups.

To consolidate its position, analysts say Peru’s indigenous movement could organize into a political party, formally align itself with an existing left-wing party, or field more candidates and become a sizeable bloc in Congress.

Estimates of Peru’s indigenous population range between 15 percent and 40 percent, so to grow politically, groups must move beyond an agenda defending the Amazon and forge ties with unions, environmental groups and peasant associations.


A strong indigenous lifted Morales, an Aymara Indian, into Bolivia’s presidency, where he promises to end five centuries of discrimination that followed the arrival of Spanish conquistadores.

Morales built a political party by organizing coca growers in the Chapare jungle to resist the U.S.-led drugs war. Many coca growers were former tin miners from the Andean highlands where there was a decades-long history of union activity.

Since taking office, Morales has pushed through a new constitution that gives Indian groups more power. He has also told indigenous people beyond Bolivia to agitate for change.

In a declaration he sent to an international indigenous summit in the Peruvian city of Puno in May, he said Indians should work for "definitive independence" and "revolution."

After the deadly clashes between police and Peruvian tribes erupted two weeks ago, Morales accused Peru’s government of "genocide." Peru’s foreign minister said Morales was meddling in domestic affairs and called him an "enemy of Peru."

The spat has widened an ideological rift between Garcia, a free trader and U.S. ally, and the left-wing Morales.

Although he is hugely popular with indigenous voters in the Andean highlands, even Morales is under pressure to do more.

Indigenous leader Elias Quelca said that while Morales is moving in the right direction, he "is barely taking a step toward decolonizing Bolivia," where some 60 percent of the population is Indian.

"We’re indigenous, the original people in this land, the government has to work with us," said Quelca, the Jiliri Apu Mallku, or supreme authority of the CONAMAQ, the largest indigenous organization in the country.

Morales granted indigenous groups seven seats in a new 166-member Congress to be elected in December, instead of the 29 seats they asked for. Peru and Ecuador have a handful of indigenous leaders in Congress.

In Ecuador, where 12 percent to 30 percent of the population is indigenous, droves of Indian peasants armed with sticks and rocks helped topple presidents in 1997 and 2000.

But they have seen their influence dwindle over the last few years after political missteps and internal bickering.

Recent marches have failed to lure enough supporters and faded quickly, along with Indian leaders’ demands for the government to nationalize the oil industry and ban large-scale mining near native communities.

Even so, simmering anti-mining sentiment in Indian hamlets across mineral-rich southern Ecuador could prove to be a challenge for President Rafael Correa and foreign miners exploring for precious metals.

Although Correa is part of a new group of Latin American leftists that include Bolivia’s Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he has argued with Indian leaders.

Correa has even called them "childish" environmentalists who stand in the way of the development of poor communities sitting on top of huge gold and copper deposits.

But Correa, like Garcia, might have to change his tone if Indians mount a strong campaign to block mining projects.

"I have learned that wanting to quickly modernize the country brings conflict," Garcia said this week. "If death and pain occur, we will address it, reconcile our differences, and start over." (Additional reporting by Alonso Soto in Quito and Eduardo Garcia in La Paz; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Kieran Murray)

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