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An indigenous Rubicon

While climate jargon-fuelled meetings like the recent Bonn talks happen at the global level, examples of local resistance remind us what dealing with climate change is really about. The indigenous peoples' struggle in Peru against the colonisation of their lands by polluting industries is one such example, writes Joanna Cabello

August 31, 2009
5 min read

For more than two months this summer, Peru’s indigenous peoples conducted an indefinite strike demanding the abolition of legislative decrees that threatened to undermine their land and water rights. The Peruvian government introduced these laws in line with the free trade agreement it had signed with the United States. It was done without prior consultation with the indigenous communities, as required by the 169 International Labour Organisation Convention, to which Peru is a signatory.

The new laws mean opening more rainforest to private corporations, a move which the government has said is in the ‘national interest’. This was an excuse for its violent military reaction against the indigenous protesters. The government, however, did not count on the strength of the resistance of the indigenous peoples. Despite the deaths of more than 50 people in clashes (according to indigenous leaders), they have stood firm and forced the resignation of the prime minister – and a presidential pledge to repeal the new laws.

Half of Peru

When people think of the Amazon, they think of Brazil, but more than half of Peru’s territory is covered by the Amazon rainforest – home to 65 ethnic groups, 14 linguistic families and diverse ways of living. Sadly, it has also become home to oil, mining and gas companies extracting the rainforest’s natural resources. Excessive water and soil pollution, the resulting local health problems and the overlap of concession lands with natural protected areas are some of the problems Peru’s indigenous peoples confront daily.

The Amazon boasts the greatest biological diversity in the world. It generates an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. It is crucial for maintaining the climate as it regulates atmospheric gases and stabilises rainfall; it protects against desertification and serves numerous other ecological functions.

And yet, in the last four years, the area designated for oil and gas concessions has increased from about 15 per cent to 70 per cent. In April 2009, PeruPetro, the country’s national oil-licensing agency, signed contracts with international oil companies for 15 Amazonian ‘blocks’ of land.

According to a report from the Peruvian environmental organisation Derecho Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Gamboa Balbín, 2007) there are also 24 blocks of hydrocarbon extraction that overlap with indigenous land. The Spanish multinational Repsol YPF and the Brazilian company Petrobrás are operating in parts of two Matsiguenga communal reserves; the US companies Hunt Oil and Burlington are extracting fossil fuels in the Amarakaeri communal reserve and the Pucacuro reserved zone, respectively.

Such concentrated and continuous investment in dirty industries in the Amazon basin stands in complete contradiction to what investor countries, and the Peruvian government itself, should be doing to mitigate the climate crisis. They are, without doubt, aware that the oil-extraction process releases toxic by-products into local rivers, and broken pipelines and leakage result in oil spillage. In addition, the construction of roads and oil sites opens lands to land developers.

In many cases, oil and gas extraction also go hand-in-hand with corruption. Last year, a scandal revealed that some of the highest-level officials from PeruPetro and the government were soliciting bribes from a Norwegian oil company in exchange for fossil fuel concessions on indigenous territories.

While a handful of people are making a fortune from oil and gas, it is notable that there is barely any state presence or any significant investment in the areas populated by the indigenous peoples. Yet they’re the ones who bear the real burden of fossil fuel consumption. It was Alberto Fujimori, Peruvian president from the 1990s, who kick-started the neoliberal agenda in the country. Successive leaders, both the former head of state Alejandro Toledo and the current president Alan García have fully embraced it. All three governments have wilfully failed to deal with the complexities of the Amazon. While scientists are emphasising its importance as the front line in the battle against catastrophic climate change, the Peruvian government is selling off the forest for fossil fuel extraction.

Intensified conflicts

Peru is just one of many countries now in conflict with its indigenous people over natural resources. Different parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia and North America are also experiencing intensified conflicts over land rights and access to natural resources – which may mark the Rubicon for a model of unsustainable extractive capitalism for the benefit of a few.

Ironically, the global climate negotiations are threatening the indigenous peoples’ way of life by seeking to expand the carbon market and to make the rainforest part of this market-based scheme. The fact that many indigenous peoples have no titles to the land they have lived on for centuries makes them an easy target and vulnerable to displacement. This not only threatens their rights and the Amazon itself, but also means that the last vestiges of an ancient way of living in harmony with nature are being destroyed. This is worth defending, not least for helping the world understand what is involved in moving to a non-carbon economy.

The Amazon is at great risk. Oil and gas companies working in the rainforest have to take much more responsibility for climate change than they do now. Their operations contribute to deforestation through the construction of roads, pipelines, and oil platforms; they cause pollution through oil extraction and transportation; and they are very much responsible for the excessive accumulation of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Companies and governments in the North have accumulated a climate debt with the South. Now, it is payback time. A start would be for the North to stop extracting fossil fuels from the ground – and start investing in clean, community-led and renewable energy.

Joanna Cabello is a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Transnational Institute

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