Socialist Worker

A new freedom song is ringing for indigenous rights in Latin America

A growing rebellion by indigenous people in the Amazon region has prompted Peru’s government to announce a state of emergency. Mike Gonzalez looks at some of the issues involved

Issue No. 2153

The indigenous peoples of Latin America were once seen as passive and resigned to the exploitation they have suffered for so long.

But the extraordinary battles they have fought and won over the last twenty years have given the lie to this myth.

In Bolivia, indigenous organisations have fought a long war against neoliberalism and brought down presidents and governments.

Their battle continues today against brutal and racist right wing assaults in the provinces of the east of Bolivia.

In Ecuador, indigenous mobilisation has achieved a new constitution recognising their rights.

And in Colombia indigenous organisations have marched and demonstrated in defiance of the repression visited on them by the state.

Until recently, Peru had not figured prominently in this story of struggle.

The current president, Alan García, previously occupied the post in the 1980s before being removed after a series of corruption scandals.

He has clearly not changed. Together with Colombia, his government is the most resolute defender of the interests of multinational capital in the region.

But the recent flurry of decrees imposing a state of emergency on the Amazon region is testimony to long and determined resistance by the indigenous communities of the rain forests.

This is one of the latest areas to be exploited by those keen to make large profits from natural resources of Latin America.

In the race to control oil and gas resources, multinational capital has turned its attention to the still untapped reserves of regions such as the Orinoco river basin in Venezuela, the Putumayo region of Ecuador, the Cauca in Colombia, the eastern provinces of Bolivia.

In Peru, the Amazon region has been largely ignored, until now.

But the rivers of the area, its mines and oil and gas reserves as well as its precious woods have now attracted the attention of global capital, encouraged and invited in by the García government.

In every case, these areas are the ancestral home of indigenous communities which have experienced invasion after invasion, repression and enslavement.

Their struggles of recent years, however, have won them recognition of their rights to own and control their historic territories.

The UN and other international agencies have acknowledged indigenous rights and many of Latin America’s governments such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, have included those rights in revised constitutions. The formal acceptance is reflected in the new multicultural and multilingual parliaments of Bolivia and Ecuador.

But those rights still have to be fought for and defended, as the resistance of the Amazonian peoples of Peru has shown.

The failure to impose the Free Trade Area of the Americas by the US has meant that international capital now negotiates bilateral agreements with each country as a way of trying to recover their ground by stealth.

García has signed just such an agreement. In fact despite the recognition of indigenous rights in its constitution, successive Peruvian governments have dismantled the institutions designed to represent and defend indigenous interests.

The only remaining alternative for the people of the Amazon is resistance.

And the Amazonian peoples’ organisation (AIDESEP) has been particularly inventive and successful in its struggles. It has used blockades and barricades to stop the multinationals and their Peruvian friends from excavating and drilling. It has blocked river traffic and impeded the building of dams which will divert or contaminate the water that irrigates their crops in the delicate ecology of the region.

And their knowledge of the geography of the forest has ensured that unlike their brothers and sisters elsewhere they have not yet experienced similar deaths or injuries.

But recent events have yielded some important lessons. Peru’s prime minister, Yedude Simon, comes from a left background, yet he has repeatedly delayed the talks the indigenous peoples have called for and – along with almost the entire congress – has supported the suspension of all civil rights by presidential decree.

The indigenous resistance is well organised and patient. Multinational capital, on the other hand, has no time to spare in its rush to compete for and control the oil and water that Latin America supplies.

Under cover of emergency decrees, of course, the García government will not hesitate to use violence against the Amazonian communities who are standing in the way of the global market.

Unless, that is, global solidarity exposes what is happening in these remote and forgotten regions.

Keep in touch with events at the website COICA, the organization of the peoples of the whole Amazon region. »

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Article information

Tue 26 May 2009, 18:19 BST
Issue No. 2153
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