Vision Quest: Who Will Control the Future of the Amazon

David Dudenhoefer

Vision Quest:

Who Will Control the Future of the Amazon?

A complex and high-stakes struggle over the Amazon forests and their resources heats up.

At dawn last June 5, some 650 police and soldiers began clearing a two-week-old blockade set by roughly 3,000 Awajun and Wampis Indians on the main east-west highway in northern Peru, at a spot called the Devil's Curve, in Bagua Province. The blockade was part of an Amazonian indigenous mobilization coordinated by the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP, for its name in Spanish) to demand the repeal of nine legislative decrees that threatened Indian land rights and natural resources. The context of the protest, however, was a 30-year struggle by native communities to gain title to their ancestral lands and an unprecedented increase in oil exploration in Peru's Amazon region in recent years.

The police were equipped with assault rifles, armored vehicles, and helicopters. The protesters had only wooden spears, but when the police started shooting, some protesters wrested rifles from them and returned the fire. By the time the teargas cleared, at least 11 protesters and 13 police officers were dead (some investigators claim that more Indians died, but police removed their bodies from the scene) and nearly 200 protesters were injured. The tragedy continued at an oil pipeline pumping station to the north of Bagua, where a group of Awajun Indians responded to radio reports of the violence by taking 36 police officers hostage. The next morning, as government troops launched a rescue operation, the Awajun killed 10 hostages in an act of revenge.

The brutality of the government crackdown and the Indian response resulted in condemnation around the world. International pressure and continued protests led the Peruvian congress to repeal two of the nine offending decrees two weeks later, upon which AIDESEP ended the mobilization. But most of the issues that led approximately 20,000 indigenous protesters to blockade roads and rivers, occupy airstrips and oil company boats, and shut down Peru's northern pipeline remained unresolved. Peru's 333,000 Amazonian Indians continue to struggle for recognition of communal lands and their right to prior consent as the government facilitates the exploitation of oil, gas, minerals, and hardwoods in their region, which accounts for 61 percent of the national territory and hosts 13 percent of Peru's population.

In a televised interview following the Bagua clash, Peruvian President Alan Garcia said, "These people are not first class citizens, if 400,000 [sic] natives can say to 28 million Peruvians ‘you can't come here.' That is a very grave error, and anyone who thinks that way wants to take us on an irrational and primitive retreat into the past."

Among the injured in Bagua was Santiago Manuin, a 52-year-old Awajun leader who won the Spanish government's Reina Sofia Prize for his environmental activism. Police shot Manuin repeatedly and left him for dead, but he was later rescued by ambulance attendants. After two operations and days in intensive care, Manuin spoke to a journalist from the Peruvian magazine Somos. "Look at history, how indigenous people have been treated, the deforestation, the contaminated rivers," he said. "Is that development? We don't want that kind of development, and Peru shouldn't want that kind of development."

Though the scale of the confrontation was exceptional, the violence in Bagua was hardly unique. According to Jecinaldo Barbosa, a Satere-Mawe Indian who heads the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB for its name in Portuguese), 34 Indian leaders were killed in Brazil in 2008 alone. Various Indian activists were murdered in the Bolivian Amazon last year, and in Colombia, armed groups have killed hundreds of Indians during the past decade.