Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 1, 2009
Bishops urge Peru to protect Amazonian indigenous, environment
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
LIMA, PERU — In a statement criticizing development policies that they say threaten Amazonian communities and the environment, nine Peruvian bishops from the Amazon region urged the government to overturn a series of presidential decrees issued in 2008.
The bishops echoed the grievances of indigenous communities in the northern Peruvian Amazon.
The communities have been protesting since April 9, blocking roads and rivers to pressure the government to overturn the laws and set up a task force to address their grievances. In mid-May, police broke up a roadblock on a key bridge, sent naval vessels to unblock rivers and declared a state of emergency in several Amazonian districts.
The regional president of Loreto, the largest Amazonian region in Peru, refused to enforce the state of emergency, saying it violated the indigenous communities’ right to protest.
In their statement, the bishops said Peru’s Amazon region is “rich in ancestral cultures and biodiversity” and called it “the source of life and hope for humanity.”
They criticized the government, which “in the name of a biased concept of development . . . allows the deforestation of great expanses of primary forest” for palm oil and sugar cane plantations.
They also criticized pollution from mining and oil drilling, as well as “indiscriminate logging with no control.”
Under Peruvian law, most forests and all underground resources, such as minerals, oil and gas, are state-owned, but the government can grant private logging, mining, oil and gas concessions.
Fifteen per cent of Peru’s tropical lowlands were under concession for oil exploration in 2004, a figure that had jumped to more than 75 per cent by last year, according to Carlos Monge, a researcher at the Lima-based think tank Desco.
Many concessions overlap indigenous communities, and several include areas that the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon has asked the government to set aside to protect nomadic indigenous groups that still shun contact with the outside world.
Some of the laws the bishops are asking the government to overturn would make it easier for companies to operate on indigenous peoples’ lands.
The government’s attitude is “there are resources there, and these communities are an obstacle,” Monge told a press conference of foreign journalists. “It is the fight for the last frontier.”
Most of the controversial laws were issued in 2008 by presidential decree, instead of being debated and approved by congress. A congressional commission recommended that they be repealed because they were unconstitutional, but congress has not discussed the recommendation.
The government moved to break up the protest after demonstrators shut down pumping stations on a pipeline that carries oil from northern wells to the Pacific coast and blocked rivers leading to other oil fields.
“We cannot compromise the country’s energy security,” Environment Minister Antonio Brack told foreign journalists.
Alberto Pizango Chota, president of the interethnic association, said the indigenous people were taking “more radical measures” because “it is the only way to make the government understand” the seriousness of their demands.
Pizango said the indigenous people are fighting for civil rights that have been denied since the Spanish conquest.
Rubber tappers and loggers enslaved Amazonian indigenous people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the region’s communities are now threatened by deforestation, logging and pollution, he said.
“The government has always seen us as third-class citizens,” he said. “This is a subtle second colonization, a subtle genocide. It means death for our people.”
Peru’s Health Ministry has found high levels of several heavy metals in the blood of the Achuar people living along the Corrientes River in northern Peru. Experts say the metals, which can cause neurological problems, probably came from water pumped into streams and the river as a byproduct of oil drilling.
While the government promotes oil concessions for the country’s development, Pizango said: “In 38 years, the only development in that area is that the people are condemned to die with lead and cadmium in their blood. Their rivers and lands are polluted. We don’t want that kind of development.”