Under The Guns

In June 2009, the world was made dramatically aware of Amazonian Indigenous Peoples’ issues as police in Peru opened fire on peaceful Native demonstrators who had blocked roads. The roads were obstructed to protest President Alan García’s move to accommodate the U.S. Free Trade Agreement by giving logging, mining, and other concessions to industries on Indigenous territories in the Amazon. The author, who was in Peru when the shootings happened, interviewed some of the protest leaders and here presents their perspective and her own observations.


I was in Peru on June 5th, glued to the radio, listening in shock and disbelief to the government’s justification for its violent repression of a group of Indigenous people at a roadblock in the town of Bagua, only six hours from Lamas, where Sachamama, the Indigenous center I direct, is located. The government was sending helicopters and policemen armed with submachine guns to fire on Indigenous people armed only with lances, stones, and bows and arrows. The reporters repeated President Alan Garcías’ characterization of the Indigenous protestors as “extortionists” who are like the perro del hortelano, “dog of the gardener” (one who is not hungry but prevents others from eating), because they own millions of acres of lands that non-Indigenous people see as unused and unproductive. They are extortionists, the media said, because they prevent making these lands profitable and productive, which can only happen by privatizing them through selling them or giving them in concessions to transnational companies.

My shock was intensified by the frankly racist language used by Alan García himself, as well as by others in his government and by reporters themselves. Indigenous Peoples were characterized as “primitive and ignorant savages” standing in the way of progress for all Peruvians. The Peruvian national newspaper, Correo, called Indigenous Peoples “savages,” “Paleolithic,” and “primitive” and said that their languages have no more than 80 words. The paper held that the protests were (and are) manipulated by “communist excrement.” Correo called for dropping napalm on these “savages.”

The official death toll was announced at 24 policemenProtestors in Bagua came from many communities in the Amazon, united in their opposition to the opening of their land. and 10 civilians. Representatives of various social movements and Indigenous Peoples claim that the real Native death toll was closer to 200. Since June, five members of García’s cabinet have been removed and replaced by new ones. García has apologized about the Bagua massacre and called it a mistake, and two of the most grievous of the new land laws passed have been repealed. However, Alberto Pisango, the leader of the confederated Indigenous People’s organization, AIDESEP, is in exile and faces arrest in Peru, and the official count of the dead at Bagua has not been revised.

Another source of my distress that day was waiting for voices that were never heard, either on the radio or the television reportage. Absolutely no one gave voice to a countervailing narrative about Indigenous Peoples and the Amazon region. No one pointed out that the Amazon Basin is a world center of biodiversity; that its forests perform crucial functions in the water cycle, in neutralization of C02 emissions, and in being a genetic bank; that the opening of the region to transnational capital and the selling of its Indigenous territories has led to well-documented deforestation and environmental disaster; that its fast-diminishing number of Indigenous Peoples represent what the Peruvian writer Roger Rumrill calls an “indispensable knowledge bank, without which it is impossible to imagine a sustainable development of the Amazon basin.”

In 1984, Cultural Survival’s founder, David Maybury-Lewis, said that, “The development of the Amazon basin has wreaked a worse destruction than the 16th-century Conquest. It amounts to a more lethal second Conquest.” What has been happening in the Peruvian Amazon since the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States on December 4, 2007, is a textbook illustration of that contention.

To implement the Free Trade Agreement, AlanGarcía’s government has promulgated hundreds of legislative ecrees that open wide the doors of his country, and particularly its Amazonian region, to multinational companies, transnational capital, and neo-liberalization. Many of these new laws allow García’s government to sell, give in concession, or promise access to Indigenous territories. This was done without consulting the Indigenous groups concerned as was required by older Peruvian laws and international decrees. Seventy-five percent of the Peruvian Amazonian territories have now either been sold, given in concession, or promised to private enterprises.

On April 9th, before the violence in Bagua, protestors seized a petroleum storage facility.García justifies his policies in the name of a progress that will benefit all Peruvians and castigates the Amazonian Indigenous Peoples for selfishly sitting on vast resources that by right belong to everyone in Peru.

And when Indigenous groups protest, as they have been doing for the past two years, the government tends to react with inflammatory and degrading comments and often even more repressive action. Until recently, Peru's judicial apparatus has cooperated with Alan Garcia's government by not taking appropriate legal action against government officials involved in repressing Indigenous dissent, even as it pursues Indigenous leaders involved in the protests. But a light on the horizon appeared on February 11, 2010, when a special court for the region indicted the top two police generals responsible for the events on June 5, 2009: Luis Muguruza and Javier Uribe. Police commander Luis del Carpio and two other officers who supervised the police action were also indicted, in particular for their participation in the attempted murder of Indigenous leader Awajun Santiago Manuin Valera.

To find out what has happened since the Bagua massacre and to learn what Indigenous groups want now, I interviewed nine leaders of the Kichwa organization Consejo Etnico del Pueblo Kichwa (CEPKA) in September. Below are some of their comments.

Misael Sangama Sangama (Regional president of CEPKA)
CEPKA is only seven years old. We have been organizing many communities, working to unify the people. So far we have 20 communities who have joined CEPKA, and other communities continue to invite us. CEPKA has a presence now in five provinces of the State of San Martin, and there are about 200 Kichwa communities that we still need to visit.

Let me now say a few words about the struggle: On April 9, 2009, a national strike was declared by all the Native communities, demanding justice and our rights, because the government is selling territories belonging to Native communities without consulting us. We have been trying to annul the laws passed by the government. On May 7 there was a protest in the streets of Tarapoto denouncing the government laws.

The same day, we took the Fernando Belaunde Terry main road [linking Tarapoto with Moyobamba, capital of San Martin State]. We blocked the road, and more and more people came to join us in the struggle. However, the truckers began protesting against our blockage of the road because it prevented them from doing their business. In the meantime, Native peoples kept coming to join the struggle, bringing provisions. A negotiation meeting was held on May 15 between us, the regional government, and the mayor of the town of Cacatachi. All of us apus [Native leaders] were debating whether or not to suspend the blockage of the road. After having consulted with the rest of the Kichwas present, on the evening of May 15 we decided to open the blockage and let the truckers pass. Meanwhile, in Bagua they continued to struggle. What happened on June 5 is very, very sad. The police fired bullets and bullets; at no time did the Natives have any weapons except stones and lances.

Felipe Cachique Amasifuen (legal advisor to CEPKA)
What is it that we want after Bagua? We have noticed that everything is in the process of being discussed in mesas de dialogo [discussion meetings]. This is being done by the government in order to pacify and divide the Amazonians, and thus to weaken them politically. The government has also ordered studies for supposedly finding in the
future a solution to the Amazonian problems. The government seeks to negotiate with regional Native organizations, which are elite. They do not want to negotiate with the local social groups. What is to be done? We need to always be united. That is, all the Native groups of the Amazon region working as a united front facing the political system of the government. For us, at bottom, the government does not want a fair distribution of the wealth of the country. In order to face the government we need to seek allies.

The goals of CEPKA are to strengthen our cultural identity, our language, our customs, and our cosmovision. For us Kichwa-Lamista, the fundamental goal is also to defend our territories, forests, and water. We also want to promote the bilingual education of our children in Kichwa and Spanish.

Gider Sangama Tapullima (secretary to CEPKA)
Our first objective is that all the Kichwas in the state of San Martin be organized into what the World Trade Organization calls “Indigenous communities” and we call Native communities. The Peruvian government only recognizes as Native communities those that are legally established as such; the rest they ignore. But it is extremely difficult to obtain this legal status. We ask that the government give title to the lands of the Native communities. The government instead has created national parks, regional and municipal biological-conservation reserves, taking Native lands without consulting us. That is why we have been left with so little land. For example, in the state of San Martin the government has created an area of regional conservation, the Cordillera Escalera and the Cordillera Azul, without consulting any of the Native peoples living there. They do not allow any Native person entrance in those zones, which are guarded by armed forest patrols. In fact, the government has given thousands of ancestral acres of forest to the Romero Company [a very powerful Peruvian enterprise] in San Martin. The Romero Company is deforesting the land. They are destroying the planet.
It will not be easy to take those lands back from the government; it will be a battle, but we will obtain this goal.

Simeon Sangama Guerra (Apu of Wayku)
On May 27th, more than 2,000 Indigenous protestors started a blockade of the road between Bagua Grande and Corral Auemado. Since the strike we are indignant. The government has not given any explanation concerning the massacres. The government treats us as third-class citizens. That is why we will struggle to have our own territories for our descendants. We are human beings; they need to respect our rights. As leaders, we ask other countries to help us with workshops and training. We ask that they send us either Indigenous persons or experts in issues of organization as well as forest management.


Misael Salas Salas (former Apu of Solo)
I want to emphasize the theme of forests and rivers. All human beings live from these. We ask that experts come to the communities to train people: workshops on leadership, in protection of the environment. The rivers and the forests have already been given in concession to corporations by the government, but many Native peoples do not know it. If we had funds we could inform them about such things.

Carlos Sangama Cachique (Apu of Naranjal)
The government says that we are savages. Now we are all reflecting on what has happened with the ancestral territories of which the Indigenous Peoples were the owners, where they had their ancestral medicines. For us these territories are our markets. We do not have money, we find there everything that we need. The government wants to prohibit this and that is not good. We think about the children who will come in the future, not about ourselves now. We also about the children of those children behind them.

Lisardo Sangama Salas (Apu of Solo)
Since the strike until now the government has done little or nothing; rather it gives concessions to more Native territories. Those are our markets, our houses, because there we find everything: medicines, edible plants and animals, materials for construction. The forest is also a sacred place where we pray and ask permission and do rituals.

One does not enter into the forest just like that; one needs to take certain plants to purge and purify oneself so as to be in contact with animals and be able to see the spirits. We are struggling to become united as organizations and form a single fist and say “enough” to the abuses of the government. They say that we are criminals and that we destroy the forest. But it is the reverse: extractive industries destroy many acres of forest while an Indigenous person clears one acre to make a chacra [garden], using it for four or five years, and then abandoning it, leaving the forest to regenerate. That way of cutting of the forest is not permanent.

Marco-Antonio Sangama Cachay (president of the CEPKA youth organization)
It is necessary that the government respects the international treaties concerning Indigenous peoples. The agreement No. 169 of the International Labor Organization, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the Peruvian law of native communities No. 22175 are all in place and contain everything that we are
demanding, but the government does not implement them. The implementation of these laws and decrees must be demanded by the communities themselves. The communities are not against progress, if there was a consensus on what is meant by that word.

Frédérique Apffel-Marglin is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Smith College and the director of Center Sachamama in Lamas, Peru (www.CentroSachamama.org).

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