Mon, Jun 15, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Indigenous peoples’ global fight with big business

As mining and oil firms race for dwindling resources, indigenous peoples battle to protect their land, and often pay the ultimate price

By John Vidal  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It has been called the world’s second “oil war,” but the only similarity between Iraq and events in the jungles of northern Peru over the last few weeks has been the mismatch of force. On one side have been the police armed with automatic weapons, tear gas, helicopter gunships and armored cars. On the other are several thousand Awajun and Wambis natives, many of them in war paint and armed with bows and arrows and spears.

In some of the worst violence seen in Peru in 20 years, the natives this week warned Latin America what could happen if companies are given free access to the Amazonian forests to exploit an estimated 6 billion barrels of oil and take as much timber they like. After months of peaceful protests, the police were ordered to use force to remove a road bock near Bagua Grande.

In the fights that followed, nine police officers and at least 50 Indians were killed, with hundreds more wounded or arrested. The indigenous rights group Survival International described it as “Peru’s Tiananmen Square.”

“For thousands of years, we’ve run the Amazon forests,” said Servando Puerta, one of the protest leaders. “This is genocide. They’re killing us for defending our lives, our sovereignty, human dignity.”

On Friday, as riot police broke up more demonstrations in Lima and a curfew was imposed on many Peruvian Amazonian towns, Peruvian President Alan Garcia backed down in the face of condemnation of the massacre. He suspended — but only for three months — the laws that would allow the forest to be exploited. No one doubts the clashes will continue.

Peru is just one of many countries now in open conflict with its indigenous people over natural resources. Barely reported in the international press, there have been major protests around mines, oil, logging and mineral exploitation in Africa, Latin America, Asia and North America. Hydroelectric dams, biofuel plantations as well as coal, copper, gold and bauxite mines are all at the center of major land rights disputes.

NIGER DELTA

A massive military force continued this week to raid communities opposed to oil companies’ presence on the Niger delta. The delta, which provides 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign earnings, has always been volatile, but guns have flooded in and security has deteriorated. In the last month a military taskforce has been sent in and helicopter gunships have shelled villages suspected of harboring militia.

Thousands of people have fled. Activists from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta have responded by killing 12 soldiers and this week set fire to a Chevron oil facility. On Friday seven more civilians were shot by the military.

The escalation of violence came in the week that Shell agreed to pay £9.7 million (US$15.9 million) to ethnic Ogoni families — whose homeland is in the delta — who had led a peaceful uprising against it and other oil companies in the 1990s, and who had taken the company to court in New York accusing it of complicity in writer Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution in 1995.

Meanwhile in West Papua, Indonesian forces protecting some of the world’s largest mines have been accused of human rights violations. Hundreds of tribesmen have been killed in the last few years in clashes between the army and people with bows and arrows.

“An aggressive drive is taking place to extract the last remaining resources from indigenous territories,” says Victoria Tauli-Corpus, an indigenous Filipino and chair of the UN permanent forum on indigenous issues. “There is a crisis of human rights. There are more and more arrests, killings and abuses.

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