In a victory for indigenous protesters, Peru overturned two controversial laws last week that were intended to boost the country’s slowing economy by opening the Amazon rainforest to foreign investors. But demonstrations have continued around the country over issues like wages, mining and hydroelectric projects.
The protests against Amazon development turned violent earlier this month when demonstrators clashed with police, leaving 50 dead, including 23 police officers. Peruvian President Alan Garcia has come under fire for his handling of the violence, and his approval rating has plummeted.
Reuters reporter Terry Wade joined Worldfocus from Lima to discuss the social unrest in Peru and its lasting implications for the country’s economy and political landscape.
Worldfocus: Can you describe how the protests originated?
Terry Wade: Protests organized by a number of different indigenous groups started in Peru’s Amazon basin in April, and they were held to try to persuade the government to strike down a series of laws that President Alan García passed last year to help attract foreign investment in the mining, agricultural and petroleum industries.
Basically, the tribes feel that these laws will end up turning their ancestral lands over to foreign companies. For a long time, the tribes were telling the government they didn’t like the laws, and then the government didn’t do anything, so they started to protest. And the protests dragged on for weeks. The government didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to them. The government tried to set up a series of meetings where they could negotiate a solution or settlement; those failed. The government grew increasingly frustrated because roadblocks in the Amazon were preventing basic supplies from moving between cities in the jungle to cities on the coast. So they sent in the police, and that provoked a whole bunch of violence and bloodshed.
At least 34 people died — about 24 are police, according to the government, and 10 were protesters. Tribal groups say that many more protesters died, anywhere from 30 to 40, or even higher. So far, the bodies of people who are presumed missing or people who are allegedly killed — those bodies haven’t been located. So it’s very hard for anyone to know with absolute certainty how many people actually died.
A series of investigations are being conducted by human rights groups and also by the government to find out definitively how many people died in the clashes. Part of the problem is that some of the claims that people make about the disappeared bodies — there’s no way to verify it. I mean, even my colleague, who was in the jungle, you know, they called people to some supposed execution ground or mass grave, and then they went there and there were no signs of any kind of death or conflict. So it’s very difficult to know, or to verify, that missing people actually ended up dying. That kind of thing may take several more weeks to find out for sure, because a lot of these people live in places where there’s not much in the way of telecommunications or infrastructure. Some people may not have basic documents saying who they are, or where they live, and so on and so forth. It’s very rural, and the presence of the state is almost nil.
Worldfocus: Why did the government decide to rescind some of the more controversial laws, and how will this impact foreign investment in Peru?
Terry Wade: The government, for months, had said that these laws couldn’t be rescinded; there were about nine of them that were passed last year. The Congress originally had given President Alan García special powers to sign, essentially, decrees to put these laws into effect. He was given those special powers to help bring Peru’s regulatory framework into compliance with the free trade deal that Peru was signing with the United States at the time. And the government’s position was that these laws could not be rescinded, and they said that doing so could hurt the trade agreement with the U.S., or would cause an increase in illegal logging in the Amazon, and so forth.
But at the end of the day, the government backtracked and struck down two of the laws, two of the most controversial ones. So far, the government has said that it might need to review certain clauses in the trade agreement with the United States, but that it wouldn’t necessarily put it in jeopardy. So, the government ended up backtracking, and essentially doing something that it initially said was impossible.
Peru has been able to successfully attract a lot of foreign investment, for the past decade and certainly over the past five years. The last five years, that was related to a rise in commodities prices. That investment was coming into Peru before these laws were passed, and a lot of investment will probably still continue to come into Peru. A whole other series of laws on the books make it quite attractive for foreign companies to invest here. Depending on where foreign companies are operating in Peru, there’s always kind of a risk, just below the surface, that people in local towns or in small towns up in the Andes, where there’s a lot of poverty, will start demanding more and more things of foreign companies — in terms of building schools or hospitals or creating jobs.
Worldfocus: How does the Peruvian public as a whole feel about the protests and will there be any political fallout?
Terry Wade: This case is quite interesting. Historically, there’s been a big divide between voters in Lima and voters in the countryside, but an opinion poll done after the bloodshed by the leading survey firm here said that more than 90 percent of voters nationwide thought that President García committed a series of errors, and that he should have consulted with the tribes before signing them into law. I think something like 80 percent of voters think the government may be understating the number of people who died in the conflict. So, public opinion is overwhelmingly on the side of the indigenous groups.
A lot of people, especially people outside of Lima, or people who don’t necessarily work in the mining industry, are very frustrated that they didn’t see their salaries increase or that their income didn’t increase during the boom years. Periodically, over the last couple of years, there have been protests demanding that President García do more to spread the wealth. Now that the economy is slowing, those protests might be picking up steam.
The indigenous groups in the Amazon don’t have their own political party. Some of the members of the indigenous groups are aligned with the Nationalist party, which is left-of-center. Other protesters in other regions of the country could belong to smaller parties. But in general, Peru’s opposition, at least in terms of left-wing parties, is fairly fractured. I think what’s most interesting to me is that, politically, the indigenous leaders are very well organized and very savvy, and have fairly clear demands about what they want. So far, they have been able to generate a lot of public support. I spoke with an indigenous leader — there’s a bunch of different indigenous leaders, but I spoke with one last week who said that they’re currently debating whether they should form their own political party or ally themselves with an existing political party.