Up to 100 Amazon natives have been killed after Friday’s military crackdown on protesters in Peru and the situation is expected to worsen, says a Canadian Indigenous rights activist.
Twenty-two-year-old Ben Powless is working alongside Peru’s national organisation of Amazon Indigenous people, AIDESEP, and fears more lives will be lost, with the government now labelling protesters as “terrorists”.
Many Peruvians – not just Indigenous – are upset by plans to open land in Peru’s Amazon region to oil, gas and mineral exploration, even though much of the land is officially protected.
The Government has recently signed a number of free trade agreements with the United States and Canada, seeking to change domestic laws and encourage foreign investment in the Amazon.
The Government has declared a state of emergency in some Amazon regions, suspending constitutional rights in the areas.
Mr Powless says Government reports are portraying the situation incorrectly.
“What we’ve been hearing from some of the communities is that a lot of the death tolls and the number of people hurt or injured are dramatically different from the Government figures, which put it as low as three to nine Indigenous people who have been killed,” he said.
“But we have heard from some representatives on the ground that there may be as many as 100 people murdered.
“There was an active attempt by the Government here to portray it as a massacre of policemen who went into an area and were killed on their job, when in reality, native participants were sitting in blockades early in the morning [on Friday] when the police attacked.”
Mr Powless says the Government is controlling information on the unfolding events.
“There is a lack of information about what’s going on,” he said.
“A lot of reports aren’t making it out of the communities, the Government has a near monopoly on being able to get their own message out about the situation and convene press conferences, and I have not been able to go into the Amazon region yet as the military has taken control and restricted access.”
He says a group of Indigenous leaders in Lima, Peru’s capital, are planning to go to the Amazon region on Tuesday – and Mr Powless intends to accompany with them.
He says Friday and Saturday’s deadly conflicts appear to have settled down, but more unrest is expected on Thursday when a national strike, called for by Indigenous organisations and unions, will be carried out.
“Today what we’ve been told is that some Indigenous groups have taken over one of the oil refineries as well as one of the airports in one of the regions,” he said.
“The military is basically walking around armed, patrolling, just trying to keep people out of the streets.
“The situation seems pretty calm but if the strike is anything like in the past, it’s been able to successfully shut down roads, restrict all access to Machu Picchu by train – which is the major cultural and tourist destination here – shut down airports, oil refineries and other major areas of transportation.”
Mr Powless says strikers will call for the dismissal of Peruvian President Alan Garcia over his response to the crisis and urge him to take responsibility for the deaths that have occurred as a result of the heavy-handed military action.
Human rights abuses
In the long-term, he says the issue is one of Indigenous rights and liberties.
“The Indigenous groups here, especially in the Amazon region, are fearing for control of their livelihoods and really fighting for control of the land they have lived on, and that they have lived on forever,” he said.
“Any development anywhere usually has to take into consideration the people who live there and who would be impacted – this is something that has been established by the United Nations and the recent UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Ultimately, Mr Powless says achieving this would mean a renegotiation of the laws, which have been pushed through the Government without any oversight from the Indigenous people.
However, Mr Powless says he is not optimistic, particularly due to Government attempts to paint Indigenous protesters as terrorists.
“In the context of a country that has been fighting an insurgent group for over 20 years now and they have a long history of dealing with what they consider terrorism in a very violent, militarised means, for them to start coming out and calling the Indigenous groups here terrorists seems to suggest that they’re preparing to respond to them with more military means,” he said.
“Without serious pressure coming nationally and internationally, letting the government know that they can’t commit human rights abuses anymore, and without people saying that there needs to be negotiation and that they can’t just go in with the military and stop people’s legitimate protests, then I’m not really convinced that the Government is going to step down.”
Mr Powless says this is the biggest incident the Peruvian Amazon has seen in the modern era.