May 21, 2009 / 8:06 PM / 9 years ago

Peru's Garcia tussles with tribes over land rights

By Terry Wade

LIMA, May 21 (Reuters) - Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s push to lure foreign investors to the Amazon basin has run into homegrown opposition, with indigenous leaders saying he has disregarded a U.N. declaration that protects their rights to control land and natural resources.

Thousands of indigenous people have protested in Peru’s Amazon for much of the past 40 days, hoping to pressure Garcia to modify or strike down a series of laws he passed last year that encourage oil, mining and agricultural companies to invest billions of dollars in the mostly pristine region.

The protests, which have already shut Peru’s pipeline that carries oil from the Amazon to the Pacific Ocean, underscore the risks of investing in a country with a poverty rate of 40 percent and a history of discord between wealthy elites in Lima and poor indigenous groups in the countryside.

"Peru isn’t respecting the U.N. declaration on indigenous rights," Alberto Pizango, the leader of the protests and the head of a federation of indigenous and environmental groups called Aidesep, said on RPP radio on Thursday.

The declaration, which is non-binding, was passed in 2007 by 143 countries. Though Peru sponsored the declaration, indigenous leaders complain the government is ignoring their rights to decide how ancestral lands and natural resources are used.

Pizango has gone so far as to announce an "insurgency" in his push to have laws that Garcia passed thrown out.

On Thursday, after politicians complained he was being incendiary and moved to charge him with sedition, Pizango said: "To us, insurgency means defending our natural rights and peacefully resisting excesses committed by the Peruvian state."

"We recognize the government’s constitutional legitimacy, but it doesn’t understand indigenous issues," he said as he called for environmentally sustainable development.


Garcia decreed most of the laws in question last year using special powers Congress gave him to bring Peru’s regulations into line with the requirements of its free-trade pact with the United States.

But critics say Garcia took advantage of the powers and passed laws that weren’t required under the trade agreement.

Garcia’s chief of staff, Yehude Simon, has pleaded with Pizango to hold a round of negotiations in the hopes of reaching a deal that would end blockades of roads and ports that have left jungle towns short of basic supplies.

Argentine energy company Pluspetrol has trimmed output in the Amazon because of the protests, and state energy company Petroperu has halted its crude oil pipeline.

So far Pizango has balked at negotiations, leaving Simon and his cabinet to try to hold talks with other indigenous leaders who have less clout.

The government has also dug in its heels. It has imposed a "state of emergency" rule, which allows it to send in troops to break up protests or impose curfews.

And it has refused to make a concrete offer to get rid of the controversial laws or give tribes more control over lands in an area that makes up 60 percent of the country’s territory but has just 11 percent of its population.

Garcia, a former leftist who now fervently supports foreign investment, has sold dozens of concessions to foreign energy and mining companies since taking office in 2006. More auctions are planned in a country where mineral exports drive economic growth and the government is working to become self-sufficient in oil production.

"The lands of the Amazon belong ... to all Peruvians and not just a small group that lives there," Garcia said over the weekend. "The riches of Peru belong to all Peruvians."

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