A Proxy War in Peru

A rumble in the Amazonian jungle turns into a referendum on colonialism, genocide, and the role of foreign infiltrators in Peruvian policy.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

AMAZONAS REGION — Last Easter, as the rains subsided in the Peruvian Amazon, the rivers and roads opened up and campaign season began. "There are two groups fighting for control of our land," one aspirant told a crowded plaza halfway through Good Friday celebrations in Imacita, a river port deep in the northern jungle. "One represents big business and industry. The other protects the environment and stands up for the poor."

The speaker was Joel Shimpukat, a 44 year-old Awajun Indian schoolteacher. This was his first speech in the run up to October’s regional elections, in which Shimpukat hopes to capture the district mayor’s seat. He alternated between Spanish and his native Awajun for the benefit of a mixed audience, echoing in form and content the bipolar politics that resonate across Peru and most of Latin America. Lambasting the gold mining and oil exploration underway nearby, he finished with a fist in the air: "We must never forget June 5!"

There was little chance of that. Many of those standing in the plaza that night were, like Shimpukat, survivors of the bloody confrontation between natives and police that took place 150 miles upstream the year before. June 5, 2009 marked the 55th and final day of a native uprising that shut down highways, river ports and oil facilities across the breadth of the Peruvian Amazon, staunching the flow of people and goods in over half the country — an impressive strike even by Latin American standards, and one that ended disastrously following a government crackdown.

The blockades were a response to the rapid encroachment of industry into the Amazon, which in recent years has blown up local disputes into regional arguments over environmental preservation and economic development — which in turn have become a sort of proxy war between Latin America’s increasingly polarized left and right. Three quarters of Peru’s Amazon has been leased to foreign oil corporations in the last 10 years, with mining and logging interests close behind. Just across the border in Ecuador, the native Achuar nation is prosecuting the world’s biggest-ever lawsuit against an oil company, Chevron, with the vocal support of President Rafael Correa. Billions of dollars of investment hang in the balance in the Amazon, and both sides consider the stakes to be even bigger than that.

"We are now living a cold war in which foreign governments are participating," Peruvian President Alan García wrote a few weeks after the uprising. "Let’s remember that Peru is a vital center for continental matters. It was necessary [for Spain] to conquer Peru in order to dominate South America … and now the same is necessary for the regressive and dictatorial model that wants to dominate Peru." His strongest critics would say the same thing.

Peru’s problems began in 2008, when García issued a number of land reforms that were widely seen as weakening both native title and environmental regulations. Outraged at not even being consulted — Congress had fast-tracked the reforms, arguing they were necessary to keep Peru in compliance with its new U.S. free trade agreement — native groups eventually coordinated the biggest paro in the country’s history, demanding that Garcia repeal 10 of the most troublesome decrees. But the government refused to negotiate while the protesters remained in place, and so a weeks-long stalemate ended as everyone feared it would: with the deaths of 33 people and 200 more sent to hospital — 82 of them with bullet wounds — following a botched attempt to clear a blockade outside the northern town of Bagua.

The "Baguazo," as local press dubbed it, was an iconic FUBAR that fit neatly into the regional narrative and provoked exaggerations on all sides. First a stunned-looking Alberto Pizango, president of Peru’s Amazon Indian Association (AIDESEP by its Spanish acronym) called a press conference that afternoon to declare that a "genocide" had taken place; he was soon echoed by García’s main ideological rivals.  "What is happening in Peru," said Bolivia’s Evo Morales, "is the genocide of the indigenous people." In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez left it to his minister of indigenous people, Nicia Maldonado, to agree. "We absolutely and categorically condemn this genocide against our brothers," she said.

Then the story took an unexpected turn, when it emerged that 23 of the dead were police. Another high-ranking officer was missing and also presumed dead. "A genocide of police is what it was," concluded García.

Pizango and dozens of AIDESEP leaders were formally charged with sedition and inciting violence; they all went into hiding, and Pizango eventually fled to Nicaragua. Peru’s ambassador to Bolivia was called back to Lima (the one in Caracas had already been recalled over a previous spat two months earlier). "International communism is trying to create chaos in Peru," García insisted — a loaded reference in a country where the communist-inspired Shining Path guerrilla rebellion claimed 70,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s. "Who does it suit for Peru not to use its gas, not to find more oil, to be unable to better exploit its minerals?" he asked, claiming the protesters had been funded and manipulated by "foreign agents." 

Yet there was no question that García’s administration had suffered a PR disaster. Yehude Simon, the prime minister, was shamed into resigning, while Congress repealed two of the 10 laws that provoked the strike, promising to reconsider the rest. Petroperu, the state-owned enterprise in charge of handing out oil concessions, suspended auctions on all remaining Amazon blocks. It seemed Peru’s natives had scored a historic victory.

A year later, however, their mood is far from victorious; grim determination is more like it. Shimpukat’s campaign is shrouded by the arrest warrant still out on him for his role in organizing the Bagua blockade. (When I asked the chief of Bagua’s police why he hadn’t arrested Shimpukat or others like him, he said the situation was "too delicate" for police to enter the jungle communities.)  "For a while," Shimpukat recalled, "the government was circulating pictures of me as one of the so-called foreign agents," a conclusion authorities had apparently arrived at because of Shimpukat’s thick moustache. Most natives don’t have facial hair, but thanks to sporadic intermarriage with Spanish descendants, exceptions do crop up. "Of course there are foreign agents at work here — they are the countries Garcia signs free trade agreements with; they are the mining and oil companies who help themselves to our Amazon."

The government has indeed kept the door open to one of the world’s richest collections of natural resources, and is expecting more than $20 billion in foreign direct investment over the next two years. Petroperu recently announced it would start auctioning the remaining Amazon oil blocks, adding to the 82 foreign companies who already hold concessions here. Peru’s production of gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead already rank in the world’s top six. Upcoming hydroelectric projects in partnership with an energy-hungry Brazil are now set to rival the recent oil and gas boom.

As García likes to point out, this is what fed Peru’s legendary growth spurt over the past decade, climaxing at 9.8 percent in 2008. Peru weathered both its own and Wall Street’s crises with the best-performing stock market on earth in 2009, and the IMF forecasts this year’s growth will top Latin American charts at 6.3 percent.

But aside from Lima’s construction boom, signs of prosperity are hard to find. Corruption certainly swallows its share of the profits, but that isn’t the only reason wages have failed to rise with the GDP. One thing that has risen in tandem with the scale of resource extraction, however, is the number of protests. Five years ago, the national ombudsman’s office in Lima recorded eight "socio-environmental" conflicts in the country; as of March this year there were 126. In 60 percent of them, the government refused to negotiate until violence broke out. Bagua was exceptional in scale, but not in kind.

"The problem," says Ivan Lanegra, an officer at the ombudsman’s office, "is there’s no overall development plan. No one is managing the big picture. The state needs to play a bigger role in regulating these projects and guiding the profits into proper institutions. Until that happens, local communities will continue to feel there’s no one looking out for them."

After Bagua, the government did agree to negotiate with AIDESEP, but halfway through talks, the Ministry of Justice filed a motion to dissolve the group, labeling it a criminal organization. (AIDESEP’s lawyers successfully fought off the charges.) The inquiry into what exactly happened at Bagua has been similarly acrimonious: The special commission appointed to investigate the incident wound up breaking apart and producing two conflicting reports; one, produced by government representatives, blamed the protesters for the outbreak of violence, and the other, produced by the commission’s native members, blamed authorities in Lima.

Both investigations, however, concluded that there was no evidence of foreign intervention having influenced the crisis — an inconvenient finding, given that a conviction that foreign agitators are at work in Peru may be the only point of agreement between the two sides of the dispute in the Amazon.

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