Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The Heart of the Resistance in the Peruvian Amazon - A Personal Journey

Following the tragedy that is unfolding in the Peruvian Amazon, I recall the first time I visited the region about 20 years ago. What I experienced along the banks of the Rio Maranon makes me think that unless the Peruvian Government negotiates a peaceful settlement (and soon), the conflict will get worse, resulting in even more lives lost.

The indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon are fighting a battle that Native Americans in the United States lost in the 19th century and many of us around the world are losing, often without even a word of protest: the right to determine our own social, cultural and economic development.

The right to determine our own future

I was invited to visit the Peruvian Amazon by Evaristo Nugkuaq, a remarkable man I had met in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. He had organised the indigenous peoples of several Amazon Basin countries so that they could better defend themselves and their rights against ill-conceived government development plans, often aided by The World Bank and other international agencies. The son of a feared headhunter, Evaristo had wanted to become a doctor. But he dropped out of medical school and went from tribe to tribe, starting in Peru, convincing them to set aside their differences and unite. His first success was the formation of the Consejo Aguaruna y Huambisa (CAH), a nongovernmental organisation made up of the two once warring tribes. Later came AIDESEP – the coalition of indigenous peoples’ organisations of the Peruvian Amazon; it is AIDESEP that is leading the current strike against the Peruvian government’s attempt to sell off the Amazon to foreign investors. For his work, Evaristo received in Sweden the Right Livelihood Award, often called the Alternative Nobel Prize.

When I arrived in Lima, Evaristo arranged a guide to take me on the three-day journey to Naparuca, an Aguaruna village on the banks of the Rio Maranon, one of the tributaries of the Amazon River. Naparuca was Evaristo’s home; it was also the CAH headquarters.

The journey began with a bus trip along Peru’s barren coast to the city of Chiclayo. In Chiclayo we went to a small warehouse owned by the CAH. It was used to store mostly plantains that the CAH sold to wholesalers to help pay for their economic and social development projects. From Chiclayo we took a truck across the Andes to Bagua Grande, the site of a recent violent conflict between police and protestors. My guide and I were packed in the back of the truck with dozens of other passengers. We had to stand up; it was too crowded to even squat. As we crossed the Andes under a full moon, several men armed with shotguns kept a lookout for bandits.

We arrived in Bagua Grande early in the morning, where we switched to a Toyota pickup, again crowding onto the back, standing up on our long journey along a muddy road, down to the Rio Maranon. Several times along the way the passengers – men, women and children -- had to get out and push the truck to free it from the mud.

At a small town on the banks of the Rio Maranon, a young soldier asked for my passport details. When I asked why, he said, “In case you don’t come out.” I asked him to explain. He said that some French students and their non-Native Peruvian guides had recently been killed by a small group of indigenous people. Their bodies were never recovered. “Why didn’t you tell me this?” I asked my guide. “It’s no problem,” he said. “They entered without permission. You have permission.” Later I was told by other Aguarunas that they had heard the Frenchmen were killed for allegedly molesting several native women.

My guide negotiated with an Aguaruna to take us in his peke-peke (a dugout canoe powered by a small motor) to Naparuca.

By late afternoon we stopped at a village for the night. The Rio Maranon is much too dangerous to navigate in the dark. It is dotted with dangerous whirlpools that can overturn a boat. Every year several people drown because of the whirlpools. We were received graciously by the head man of the village, who fed us and regaled us with stories about how the Agaurunas and Huambisas had run out Werner Herzog’s film crew in the early 1980s because “they disrespected us.” The incident is recorded in a documentary film entitled Burden of Dreams by Les Blank; it is available to purchase online.

In Naparuca I saw how the CAH had organised a health clinic, health posts in every village, along with schools. CAH leaders explained that in the past the government sent only the most incompetent teachers and health workers to the area. These were people who didn’t want to be there, but they didn’t have enough money to bribe officials so that they could be assigned in a town or city. “So we made a deal with the government,” one of the CAH leaders explained. “You train our people to be teachers and paramedics and we will run our own clinic and schools.” The government agreed.

Since its inception the CAH formed alliances with foreign development NGOs. It helped provide some leverage in their dealings with the central government. But even here the fierce independence of the indigenous people did not allow them to just take the money and run. While I was in Naparuca I was told that the CAH had recently turned down a grant of about $60,000 from a British NGO. When I asked why, I was told, “Because they treated us like children. They didn’t respect us.”

This fierce independence, based on honour and pride, has to be taken into consideration if the current crisis is to be settled peacefully. The indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon will never negotiate away their freedom. And their freedom is intimately connected, like an umbilical cord, to their land and its resources.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Put An End To The Bloodshed, Stop Privatising The Amazon

"All the Amazonian countries have made preposterous claims that the great, empty Amazon jungle can finance national development, that it can provide an alternative for overcoming historical, structural problems," Evaristo Nugkuaq explained to me in 1990.

We were sitting in his office, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples' Organisations of the Amazon Basin, better known by its Spanish acronym -- COICA. Evaristo was not only COICA's president, but also its founder.

I had first met Evaristo in the mid-1980s when I lived in Arlington, Virginia. As part of a career change, I was a graduate student at the School of International Service (SIS) at The American University in Washington, D.C. Somehow I had heard that Evaristo was going to address a group of environmentalists. I decided to go. After his speech, we spoke in Spanish for a while. Evaristo invited me to visit the Peruvian Amazon and find out first-hand the challenges indigenous people were facing. Not long after I did just that. It would be the first of several trips to the rainforest near the border with Ecuador. As a result Evaristo and I became friends. Whenever he was in the D.C. area we would get together with my family. Over the years we lost touch, as I began my work in international development.

But back in 1990 Evaristo's warning that ill-conceived government development plans would threaten the Amazon would prove to be all too prophetic.

"These flippant and irresponsible claims," said Evaristo, "which have been the basis for development policies over three decades, are of great concern to us -- not only because of their disastrous consequences for our indigenous peoples -- but also for the threat they pose to the very future of the entire Amazon Basin."

Now, 19 years later, the Peruvian Amazon is up in arms. Evaristo's people, the Aguaruna, have joined other indigenous people to fight for their land and its resources.

According to news reports up to 31 people died, with dozens injured, in clashes on June 5 between Peruvian police and Amazon tribes protesting against government efforts to attract foreign energy and mining companies to the rain forest. Tribal leaders and the Interior Ministry said 22 protestors and nine police officers died.

In response, angry protestors took a group of police hostage near an oil pumping station owned by the government. They threatened to set it on fire unless police called off efforts to break up demonsgrations in the Amazon Basin.

Approximately 54.8% of Peruvians live in conditions of poverty. This figure is up from 48.4% at the end of 2000. Those living in extreme poverty constitute 24.4% of the population, compared with 15% in 2000. Many of them are indigenous peoples. The top 20% of the population controls more than 50% of the country's wealth.

The attempt by the Peruvian Government, under Alan Garcia, to confront this challenge by “privatizing” the Amazon can only lead to further bloodshed.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Change the Political System , One Beer at a Time

Barack Obama notwithstanding (and we have to wait and see whether he surfs the system or he gets wiped out by the bureaucracy), a lot of people around the globe think politicians are a joke. A bad joke granted. If they were on Britain’s Got Talent, Simon Cowell would buzz them so fast they’d get whiplash.

Not only don’t politicians represent us (They represent special interests: the best government money can buy), but they have nothing in common with the bloke who works hard, tries to keep his family together and is lucky if he, or she, has enough money left over at the end of the week to buy a pint at the pub.

Many years ago when I was wandering through Mexico, a politician told a crowd, “The ruling party has screwed you over for nearly 50 years. All I’m asking for is a chance.” The crowd roared with laughter. He was confused. It wasn’t meant to be funny. Then someone in the audience explained it to him: “You want your turn to screw us, right?”

They may have been campesinos, peasants, but they knew exactly what he was talking about, even if he didn’t.

The only way a politician can really represent us is if he or she (Damn, I hate this he or she business. It’s important, I know, but so damn ineloquent.) puts the public before the party. I really don’t give a damn if the politico is Lib Dem, Labour, Tory or with the Drag Queens Unite Party

The political system has to change. It has to become democratic. But that requires some effort on our part.

We (all of us who don’t know each other but nod our heads in greeting on our way to work in the morning) have to take responsibility for our neighbourhoods. We have to decide what kind of life we want to lead, what kind of neighbourhood we want to live in. What kind of country we want. What legacy we want to leave our kids. It doesn’t matter about age, gender, ethnicity, disability or capability. We’re all in the same boat. When it comes to screwing people, politicians firmly believe in equal opportunity.

No one in Westminster or in Congress or any similar seat of power is going to lead us. They can’t. That’s because they have run out of answers. It has nothing to do with party politics. They’ve all run out of ideas. Just not out of hot air.

It’s up to us to lead: the single mom who can’t spend enough time with her kids because she’s got two jobs, the grandparents who are taking care of the grandkids because their parents have given up on life and are drinking or drugging themselves into a stupor, the guy who works in a warehouse in a dead end job but keeps going day after day because he loves his family, the gay couple who manage to stay together despite the stigma and the stares from their so-called Christian neighbours , the Asian family working hard to get ahead but isn’t quite accepted because of their clothes or accent, and the Black family that battles age-old stereotypes every time they step out of their home, even if people do say that some of their best friends are Black.

We have to get together. That’s the first step. We have to talk. Isn’t that what Joan Rivers says? We have to have a beer together or a glass of juice. Even if you don’t drink, I’ll still talk to you. We need to share our frustrations and, more importantly, our ideas and our talents.

There’s a lot that we can accomplish together. But we need to take that first step. We don’t have to storm the Bastille. Just go to your nearest pub, sit out in the garden and talk to someone you don’t know. Get to know each other. That’s a start.

And have a cold one on me.