Following his initial success in brokering an agreement in Espinar province, Cuzco (see last week’s article), Energy and Mining Minister Miguel Incháustegui and the new cabinet face a new and potentially more daunting challenge this last week in the Amazon basin. On 9 August, four Amazonian indigenous people lost their lives and another five were wounded following confrontations with police in Block 95 in Loreto region.
Amazon indigenous organisations have been mobilising in support of demands for a more comprehensive response from the government to the Covid-19 catastrophe in their territories. They also are insistent that the government addresses a number of pending social and environmental demands arising from oil extraction and transportation.
The Wampis indigenous organizations, for example, took control on 2 August of Station 5, on the North Peruvian Oil Pipeline (in Datem del Marañón province, Amazonas region) while the Kukama Kukamiria attempted to take over the oil complex at Lot 95, located in Requena province, Loreto region.
In Lot 95, three of the Kukama Kukamiria were killed and four wounded as a result of a disproportionate response by police protecting the Petrotal Company encampment. Days later, a fourth person died while another is in a critical condition.
The health situation facing indigenous peoples across the Amazon basin is daunting. More than 100,000 people have been infected and more than 3,000 have died from Covid-19. This represents some 30% and 3% respectively of an indigenous population of around 330,000 people. Were this occurring in Lima this would mean almost 3 million infected and nearly 30,000 dead. No government would ignore such a situation.
But here we are talking about indigenous peoples, living far away from the attention of the authorities and the media, second-class citizens marginalised from political power and ignored – when not directly threatened – by government policies that tend to see them as an obstacle to ‘development’.
The strategy adopted by indigenous organisations in response has been to shut off and exercise control over their territories to prevent those who may be infected (including workers from mining and oil companies) entering. By seizing oil installations, such as in Lot 95 and Station 5, they seek to force the government to pay due attention to them.
Both indigenous and civil society organisations are now demanding a prompt investigation into the events that led to the deaths in Lot 95 and harsh sanctions for those responsible. The minister of culture, Alejandro Neyra, has visited the area and met with those involved. He promised a thorough investigation. Some members of Congress have also demanded setting up an ad-hoc commission to look into the matter.
Meanwhile, Station 5 remains under the control of the Wampis, who are demanding that Neyra and President Martín Vizcarra talk to them in person.
But beyond such immediate responses, there are major substantive issues relating to oil extraction in the Amazon and the wellbeing of indigenous peoples. Why continue with oil extraction since it contributes to global warming, damages a major carbon sink, and impacts directly on the local environment and the lives of the peoples living in the jungle?
Another is the recognition of the territories of the indigenous peoples and their right to self-government within them, along lines pioneered by the Wampis’ autonomous territorial government, thereby laying the foundations of a plurinational Peru.
These are issues that will need to be addressed if we want to move to a ‘new normal’.
* This is an edited and updated version of an article published by Carlos Monge in the Diario Uno, Tuesday 11 August 2020.