One Year since the Bagua Massacre: New Actors Facing a State in Crisis

By  |  16 / June / 2010

This post is also available in: Spanish

“The rainforest is not for sale”, was one of the most-repeated choruses in the marches across Peru commemorating the first anniversary of the Bagua massacre. 34 people died and 200 were wounded when Alan García’s government decided to clear out the Awajun people who were blocking roads in the Amazon in protest of the indiscriminate exploitation of the forest. Thousands of Awajun had been demonstrating for two months and were about to abandon the so-called Curva del Diablo, but before they had a chance to do so they were attacked by rifles on land and by air.

Ten indigenous people were killed at the Curva del Diablo. They later retaliated, causing the death of 23 police officers. The location of one of the protestors, Major Felipe Bazán Caballero, remains unknown. All signs indicate that the minister of the interior, Mercedes Cabanillas, gave the order to open fire. A year later, no one has been found guilty of the tragedy. Shortly after the repression, four of the legislative decrees that had provoked the demonstrations were revoked and, on May 19, parliament approved the Consultation Law, which dictates that locals must be consulted before any projects to exploit community resources are approved. These are two substantial victories for the movement.

But, in addition to their legal triumphs, the indigenous people who make up the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), which brings together around 1,500 communities, obtained the recognition of Peruvian society as new and decisive actors in national political life. This is a symbolic act. On June 5, the father of the missing Major Felipe Bazán, travelled to the Curva del Diablo, near Bagua and the Ecuadorian border, one thousand kilometers northeast of Lima, to embrace indigenous people as they participated in a memorial act, baptizing the site as the “Curva de la Esperanza”.

Days before the anniversary, the president of the AIDESEP, Alberto Pizango, who has been branded a “terrorist” by the government, returned to the country after a year of exile in Nicaragua. As soon as he arrived in Lima’s airport, he was arrested and freed in a matter of minutes, though he cannot leave the country. The fifth indigenous victory was unexpected. Guido Lombardi Elías is a member of congress from the Unidad Nacional party and one of the country’s most prestigious journalists. He presided over the parliamentary investigative commission regarding the events in Bagua and found the indigenous people were in the right.

Despite belonging to the most conservative party in Peru and being closely tied to the Right, on June 4, Lombardi appeared on Canal N television saying, “The motive of the repression was to punish the indigenous people, to teach them a lesson before they left the Curva del Diablo[1]. In his opinion, this is the only reasonable explanation for what took place. He shares his opinion with the head of the investigation. Of course, his words caused uproar in the government, but they are echoed by the many voices that support the position held by the indigenous people. These voices make up a broad range of people that runs from the People’s Defense Office to the right-wing daily El Comercio, via the National Human Rights Committee.

This latter organization complains that there is still no consensus in the Executive Branch or in Parliament that identifies those responsible for the Bagua massacre. The lack of consensus is an indication of “the profound disconnect between the Peruvian State and the Indigenous People of the Amazon, whose rights are ignored and violated permanently by a political system that neither understands them nor includes them in a fair and suitable manner” [2]. Pizango, perhaps in recognition of his victory, arrived in Bagua on June 5 with a speech on peace and reconciliation. Meanwhile, President Alan García, in a show of insensitivity, declared the date “Rum Day”.

A New Country

The demonstrations in memory of the Bagua victims were important in Lima and in the Amazons. But beyond the mere quantity of protestors, the diversity of the social actors involved stands out. Young people, women, union members, workers in the cultural and artistic sectors, agricultural workers, people from the city and the country as well as gays, lesbians and transsexuals all took part in the demonstrations.

A forum was held in Bagua on the criminalization of social protests. Participants met in the country house El Resposo, and then left in a procession to the Curva del Diablo, where hundreds of people kept vigil until they took part in a commemorative act the next day. In his speech, Pizango, who had been in court, greeted the father of Bazán and made a commitment to find out the truth. He recalled that the indigenous struggle began after the free trade agreement with the United States was signed, and he reaffirmed the defense of the Amazon against extractivism. He called for Andean-Costal-Amazonian unity, that is, unity between Quechuas, Afro-Americans and Amazonian peoples.

He explained how the jungle is being privatized. “The privatization process and the concessions of plots of oil, gas, mineral and lumber rich land, have intensified during the last three presidencies: Fujimori, Toledo and Alan García. Fujimori left 15 per cent of the Amazons plotted out and conceded; Toledo advanced a few more points and García has managed to privatize 72 per cent of the Amazonian land in conceded lots which have been turned over to big transnational capital. Many of these lots are superimposed on the land reserved for people in voluntary isolation”, said Pizango in Bagua on June 5.

One of the most important moments of his speech was when he cited celebrated historian Jorge Basadre, saying: “The independence of Peru was not a social revolution, a process of change, but a changing of the guard. The creoles took power, but the system of colonial domination remained intact”[3]. The fact that the most important spokesperson of the Right makes a very similar reading as the most important social leader of the moment, stands out as a symptom of the changes taking place in Peru.

The conservative newspaper El Comercio, the paper that supported the candidacy of Alan García against his nationalist opponent Ollanta Humala, published an editorial on June 4, the night before the first anniversary of the events at Bagua, which is perhaps the best yardstick to measure the situation in Peru. “What did the government, congress and the political class do to prevent this tragedy and to penalize those responsible, who remain unpunished?” asks the daily. Then it goes much further and denounces “the unnerving incapacity of the powers of the State to face up to this social and political crisis, before and after it happened” [4].

“It is undeniable that the events of Bagua made us rediscover another world, the world of the Amazon communities, which had been historically overlooked. This is how we have noticed that we are a nation under construction, with an identity that is far from being inclusive and unifying”, said El Comercio. It went on to indicate that the Peruvian State should be founded anew to include “the ancestral rights of original Peruvians”. But it doesn’t end there. “We are a multicultural nation that is also centralist and should strive to decentralize, to integrate all Peruvians and to respect rural and ancestral communities”.

It is a piece with great political value, because it comes from the Right that has always been close to state power but that is now is feeling the wind of a new political climate and  realizing that if it doesn’t integrate the indigenous people, the State will collapse. President García has claimed that the indigenous groups were being financed by Venezuela and Bolivia. This claim is an error and a lie. El Comercio goes even further: “We must look to the development of other states with similar situations for what can work for us and be applied to our particular reality”. This undoubtedly refers to the constitutional processes of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Women and Indigenous People

The crisis in the Peruvian State is caused by the emergence of new social and political actors, which is expressed in a growing level of conflict. Report 64 from the People’s Defense Office states that in the first six months of 2009 there were 273 social conflicts. 47 per cent of those conflicts were related to social and environmental issues and 71 per cent to mining activity[5]. The conflicts are double those counted in 2008, which reveals that communities are ever more unwilling to tolerate the activity of transnational mining, which contaminates water sources and damages the population’s health.

This increase in social conflict leads some analysts to use the term “Generation Bagua” as a way of illustrating the mark these events have left on a new group of activists. Alberto Pizango is, in some ways, an example of this emerging new type of leader. He’s a professor in his early forties and works as a bilingual teacher in native communities. He’s familiar with two cultures and moves with ease around cities. Mario Palacios, president of the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining in Peru (CONACAMI), which brings together 1,600 communities, is a Quechua speaker with a degree in Education.

These leaders have a different kind of discourse for new ways of organizing, which propose “a new form of democracy, which is community oriented and expressed in the concept “to give orders through obeying”, as stated by Palacios last year in the International Seminar “Land Struggles: Mining, the Amazon and Popular Ecology”[6]. They’re social leaders who have fluid relationships with intellectuals and who participate in debates with other leaders as well as with politicians and the media.

Anthropologist Rodrigo Montoya, who is very close to indigenous movements, explains that the people of the Amazon were never defeated and that in this rebellion, the second in their history, “they have solidified a leadership strong enough to present an alternative not just for indigenous people but for Peruvian society as a whole. And I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that this Amazonian movement is the same as the indigenous movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Chiapas or Guatemala. It is diverse and plural. It is offering the world a horizon, hope, a new perspective; different values, ideas and dreams” [7].

Montoya is a Quechua speaker born in a small town in Ayacucho. He knows the indigenous movements from the inside and maintains that the Amazon movement has been in the works for some time now and has its strongest support in its thousands of bilingual teachers. Another Quechua, Hugo Blanco, agrarian reform activist and former guerrilla, adds that the rebellion of the people of the Amazon represents the sudden appearance of those “least domesticated by modernity”, who are fighting to change the face of the country[8].

The other group which has emerged as a strong actor is indigenous women. The reality for online casino women living in rural areas is terrible: 22 per cent of heads of rural households are women, but 50 per cent of women living in rural areas have no identification documents and only 4.7 per cent have property titles in their name. A new generation of women created the National Federation of Peasant, Artisan, Native and Working Women of Peru (FEMUCARINAP) in 2006 upon recognizing that they had no space in mixed organizations.

Lourdes Huanca is the organization’s president. Her family was evicted by a transnational mining company while living in Monquegua. She learned to study as a Jehova’s witness, then abandoned the religion, participated in the Mother’s Club of her neighborhood and became the only female leader among twelve men in the defense front of her region. She was the leader of the Rural Confederation of Peru (CCP), where she came to understand the importance of creating a platform for women. Later, she became familiar with the Via Campesina, which gave her the inspiration to create FEMUCARINAP.

“For me, being a woman means taking care of my land, my body, my family. And my family isn’t just my husband and my two children but also the hundreds of women who fight together every day to defend our land, water and seeds”, says Lourdes. “Rural women produce on average more than half of the food cultivated around the world. Nevertheless, we, along with our children, have the highest malnutrition rates” [9].

Creating the organization was no easy task. All the founders participated in leadership roles in different mixed social organizations. In the booklet that Lourdes distributes in the “Encounter of Information and Movements”, in Lima, one part reads: “The first year was really tough, because the mixed organizations didn’t understand and they mistreated us psychologically and verbally. They told us we were traitors and that we were betraying and dividing people. All that gave us more strength to face things, and we formed the consulting committee where our friends from the different organizations mentioned and our feminist friends are”.

What we have here is a new organization of female activists who are fluent in Spanish and one or many indigenous languages and who read, write and use the internet. In addition to having strong ties to the planet, they carry Andean-Amazonian spirituality to all their activities. Lourdes is no exception. She is part of the first generation of popular women activists, which is now seeing a younger generation step in. The participation of these women in social struggles and movements has created a new situation that is palpable when working inside the organizations.

“Education in general and bilingual, intercultural education in particular have been and are decisive factors in forming indigenous leaders and, above all, in the emergence of indigenous intellectuals”, says Montoya[10]. This means as much for the Amazonian organizations as for the new women’s organizations, though in this case it has been the difficult experience in the heart of the movement that has prompted them to create women’s groups. The emergence of both indigenous leaders and female leaders from popular groups has come about in the same spaces, though at different times and though different methods. But the repercussions are quite similar.

As historian Manuel Burga attests, a model of nationhood is coming to an end. “The peripheries are emerging, they are looking for a more inclusive nation, in which all the excluded nationalities are not only included but also respected” [11]. We are also facing the end of one type of popular organization. The way in which this “emerging nation” is able to forge its way into Peruvian society will determine the paths of movements in coming years. However, one thing will stand out: it isn’t “one” nation that will emerge but multiple actors who, as the women demonstrate, will test the mettle of the Nation State as well as popular movements.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.americas.org)

Translated by Jenny Marie Forsythe

Resources

Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP): www.aidesep.org.pe

National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining in Peru (CONACAMI): www.conacami.org

Social Movements Meeting, Lima, May 30 to June 2, 2010. Info on www.democraciaglobal.org

Interview with Hugo Blanco, Raúl Zibechi, Lima, May 30, 2010.

Federación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas, Artesanas, Indígenas, Nativas y Asalariadas del Perú (FEMUCARINAP): http://femucarinap.blogspot.com/

Héctor Alimonda, Raphael  Hoetmer y Diego Saavedra, “La Amazonía Rebelde”, Lima, PDTG, 2009.

Rodrigo Montoya, “Con los rostros piontados. Tercera rebelión amazónica en Perú”, Lima, 2009.

Servindi (Servicios en Comunicación Intercultural): www.servindi.org

For more information:

Americas Program Biodiversity Report, June 2010

http://www.americas.org/archives/2528

IDB Megaprojects: Displacement, Destruction, and Deception

http://www.americas.org/archives/2059

Ecuador: The Battle for Natural Resources Deepens

http://www.americas.org/archives/1904


[1] “La verdad del baguazo”, Jorge Agurto, June 6 in www.servindi.org

[2] “Bagua Nunca Más”, Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, June 5, 2010, in www.servindi.org

[3] “Pizango llamó a la paz y la reconciliación e invocó a la Madre Tierra”, June 5 in www.servindi.org

[4] Editorial “Un año después de Bagua…”, El Comercio, June 4, 2010.

[5] See report 64 on social conflicts in www.defensoria.gob.pe

[6] “La Amazonía Rebelde”, op. cit. p. 113.

[7] Idem pp. 119-120.

[8] Raúl Zibechi, interview with Hugo Blanco, Lima, May 30, 2010.

[9] Conversation with Lourdes Huanca in the Encounter of Information and Movements, Lima, June 1.

[10] Rodrigo Montoya, op. cit. p. 34.

[11] “La Amazonía Rebelde”, op. cit. p. 73.