[News] Peru and Ecuador: A Common Enemy - their own citizens

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jul 31 12:17:05 EDT 2009

Peru and Ecuador: A Common Enemy

Written by Jennifer Moore
Friday, 31 July 2009

They had been at war twice in the last century, 
but today they've found a common enemy: the 
governments of Peru and Ecuador have singled out 
their own citizens who resist extractive industry expansion.

“Something terrible is taking place,” says Father 
Marco Arana, a member of the executive committee 
of the Latin American Observatory of Mining 
Conflicts speaking at the Third Continental 
Meeting in Quito, “such that the discourse of 
21st Century Socialism coincides with the logic 
and discourse of the most ultra-conservative governments like that of Peru.”

Presidents Alan García and Rafael Correa have 
been polarizing the internal clash over 
development vision in their respective countries 
with that of indigenous peoples, mestizo farmers, 
environmentalists and human rights activists, 
raising concern about possible future confrontations.

A leading metal producer with ambitions to 
exploit agricultural, wood, mineral, and water 
resources in sensitive regions such as the 
Amazon, Peru's most recent stand-off resulted in 
the deaths of at least twenty three police 
officers, five indigenous people and five 
residents from the town of Bagua when state 
forces cracked down on a 58-day protest by 
Amazonian peoples on June 5th, according to 
preliminary figures from the People's Ombudsman 
(Defensoría del Pueblo). 1 Independent 
investigators, however, were prevented access to 
the site by police for five days following the 
incident and local witnesses have testified that 
cadavers of indigenous people were dumped into 
the river indicating that the number killed was 
much higher. 2 At least two hundred more were 
wounded, the majority civilian, and eighty four 
face legal investigations of which eighteen are 
currently imprisoned. Police are subject to an 
internal police probe and an investigation by the 
office of the public prosecutor. 3 Indigenous and 
human rights organizations have asked for a truth 
commission to carry out further investigations 
instead of the national police. The same month, 
the People's Ombudsman registered 128 
social-environmental disputes across the country, 
almost doubled from the same time last year. 4

Despite strong economic growth in recent years, 
García is paying a high political cost for 
favouring big capital investments and aggressive 
free trade policies over the well-being of his 
own people, resulting in recent cabinet changes 
and plummeting popularity ratings. 5

In Ecuador, conflicts have not grown so violent, 
while Correa remains highly popular having just 
won a historic re-election with over 50 percent 
of the presidential vote after the first round in 
late April. However, Correa also faces 
differences with the country's social movements 
over resource extraction on the domestic front 
that some worry could become more serious should they go unattended.

Correa has expressed intolerance for public 
protests, especially those opposed to a new large 
scale metallic mining sector intended to 
substitute for declining oil production. Protests 
against a new mining law in early January 2009 
faced a heavy-handed response. In the 
south-central province of Azuay, locals reported 
that police sprayed tear gas into their homes. In 
the southern Amazonian region, one man was found 
shot and wounded, while others face terrorism 
charges arising from these events.

In areas such as the Southern Amazon, where the 
biggest projects belonging to Vancouver-based 
Corriente Resources and Toronto's Kinross Gold 
are situated, recent election results at the 
local and regional level reflect a certain 
disillusionment with the government with the 
success of competing parties critical of Correa's 
economic development policies. This situation is 
further complicated for the government by key 
indigenous federations that maintain a firm 
stance against extractive projects on their territories.

The indigenous Pachakutik party won the 
presidency of eleven municipalities, as well as 
the prefecture and one national assembly member 
in each of the two south-eastern Amazonian 
provinces in April. 6 As well, President Pepe 
Acacho of the Interprovincial Shuar Federation 
whose organization represents 500 Shuar 
indigenous centres and 50 such associations in 
the Amazonian provinces of Morona Santiago, 
Zamora Chinchipe and Pastaza states, “We have an 
irreversible position...no to any type of 
extractive industry on our territory which 
includes mining, oil, logging and hydroelectric generation.”

Sounding a lot like his conservative counterpart 
García, Correa insists that he cannot let a few 
people stand in the way of national development. 
Instead, he prefers to downplay the significance 
of these tensions while frequently insulting 
opponents and emphasizing promises to 
redistribute mining revenues and implement 
stronger state controls over the nascent sector.

Speaking to Amy Goodman at the end of June on the 
widely respected program Democracy Now!, he 
misrepresented election results saying, “We won, 
overwhelmingly so, in all the mining 
regions...So, clearly the population trusts us.” 
He denied calling protesters “nobodies” and 
concluded, “But three or four people are enough 
to make a lot of noise, to appear in the media, 
and so on. But, quite sincerely, they don’t have 
the popular backing or the representation.”  7

It is true that extractive industry critics have 
been marginalized given the current balance of 
power in Ecuador. However, Peru's experience 
suggests that economic growth does not 
automatically resolve conflicts and that they are 
likely to persist with costly outcomes unless a 
more democratic approach can be found.

Peru: Majority rules and repression reigns

On June 28 shortly after the tragedy in Bagua, 
President Alan García published a lengthy 
treatise called “With the Faith of the Vast 
Majority” in which he disregarded protesters 
concluding that they represent a small minority 
of the population. “They threaten and block 
roads,” he wrote, “because they know that they 
are few in number and that they have lost the 
game.” 8 He calculated that about 50,000 
Peruvians are involved, and purported that 
foreign governments, understood to include 
Presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, 9 have helped spark the unrest.

But Father Marco Arana, a native of Cajamarca, 
Peru where the largest gold mine in Latin America 
has been radically transforming local life since 
the early 1990s, suggests that there is another 
reason why indigenous people, as well as peasant 
and mid-scale mestizo farmers, block roads. It is 
that they lack real political representation in 
Peru and that channels that should work for their complaints do not.

“The result is a very complicated and polarized 
scenario,” comments Arana, “which is exactly what 
should be avoided in order to stem further 
violence and such that democratic and respectful 
solutions can be brought about.” He believes that 
current signals from the government favouring 
dialogue with indigenous groups are merely an 
attempt to “buy time” and that there is little 
indication that such efforts “will be beneficial 
or address the demands of indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous peoples participating in the recent 
mobilization at Bagua protested numerous 
presidential decrees enacted last year by 
President García in order to implement the free 
trade agreement with the United States that 
would, amongst other things, enable sale of their 
lands. The decrees are also consistent with Alan 
García's thesis outlined in a 2007 editorial 
called “The Dog in the Manger,” 10 in which he 
describes indigenous peoples and peasant 
communities as poor, uneducated, and lazy. He 
suggests that they are the main obstacle 
preventing Peru from benefiting from natural 
resources found on their territories.

But strong economic growth has not been 
benefiting Peru's poor. “Companies and the 
government have confused economic growth with 
development,” says Nicanor Alvarado from the 
Vicar's Office in Jaen, not far from the Devil's 
Curve where protests took place in early June. 
“It's meant growth for the transnationals and 
industry, but not for local peoples.”

Between 2004 and 2008, Peru sustained an economic 
growth rate averaging 7.5%, largely driven by 
mining. 11 However, as a recent report from OXFAM 
America underlines, poverty rates in the Andean 
highlands of Peru continue to soar above 70% and 
despite greater redistribution of mining revenues 
to certain regions of the country, institutional 
weaknesses often prevent them from being channelled into local development. 12

Instead of addressing such issues, President 
García has not only polarized the country, he has 
also been criminalizing dissent. Father Arana, 
also founder of the Training and Information 
Group for Sustainable Development (GRUFIDES), 
which helps communities monitor environmental 
impacts of mining on their lands and take 
peaceful action, describes various changes García 
has made to the criminal code including an 
extended definition of extortion. The new 
definition includes any act that could be 
interpreted as extracting economic benefits under 
pressure, such as impeding flow of traffic, 
public services or the construction of 
legally-authorized public works. Sentences have 
been boosted to up to 25 years in jail. Also, 
authorities who “support their people by 
participating in protests can now be disqualified 
from their posts,” adds Arana.

The overall conclusion is that “the protests will 
continue,” says Nicanor Alvarado who accompanied 
the indigenous uprising in Bagua and who has also 
been accused of terrorism as a result of 
participating in a popular referendum concerning 
mining activities in the northwestern department 
of Piura in 2007. He forewarns, “The communities 
who I have been accompanying have a culture of 
defending their territory, their language and way 
of life. They live from the land and they will 
fight to the end, I swear to you.”

The steady rise in social-environmental conflicts 
in recent years as tracked by the People's 
Ombudsman suggests that conflicts are likely to 
persist in many parts of the country. For Alan 
García, his popularity is seeing a reverse trend 
indicating that protesters are perhaps not as 
politically illegitimate as he would like to believe.

Ecuador: A strong state solution?

Although a forty year veteran of oil production, 
Ecuador is at a much earlier stage in the 
development of a new large scale mining sector 
that will affect parts of the country as of yet 
untouched by extractive industry. Similar to 
García, Correa has polarized conflicts by 
defining activists as self-interested political 
opponents instead of human and environmental 
rights defenders. Without the same history of 
large scale mining, however, he has gained 
support from certain sectors by promising to 
reinvest mining profits in social programs and 
local development. But observers see warning 
signs that Correa's current trajectory could aggravate disputes.

At the conclusion of a visit to Ecuador in July, 
investigator Anthony Bebbington from the 
University of Manchester, who is leading a major 
research project into extractive industry 
expansion and social conflict in the Andes, says 
that even those “that don't have a particular axe 
to grind [with Correa],” are concerned that 
“things could spill over and conflicts be 
serious” particularly in the southeast Amazonian 
region. Reflecting on the President's reluctance 
to admit this publicly, he says, “One presumes 
that [Correa] knows what's at play....So in not 
recognizing it, if something spills over he can 
cultivate it and say – like Alan García did – 
that this was something cultivated by darker or 
foreign interests as a way to ignore the 
political implications and to use repressive 
measures to try and diffuse the conflicts.” 
Allusions have already been made to foreign 
conspirators supposedly manipulating rural 
peoples in government propaganda. 13

Considering Correa's arguments around greater 
state control and redistribution of mining 
revenues, Bebbington says these might buy the 
President time, but they will not resolve existing tensions.

Drawing on years of research in Peru, he 
comments, “Unless you have all of your 
organizational, institutional and bureaucratic 
ducks lined up in order to be able to translate 
that money into local development, there's no 
reason that that will happen and there's no 
reason to believe that that approach is going to 
free you from local conflict dynamics.” He 
concurs with Nicanor Alvarado and says that 
despite enormous fiscal transfers to certain 
areas of Peru results “have been immensely 
disappointing both in terms of real investments 
and also in the ways that local politics get 
distorted and new leadership and movements emerge 
to try to get access to those resources.” He is 
not convinced that outcomes in Ecuador will be much different.

But Correa seems to be avoiding other issues as 
well; issues closer to the heart of current 
disputes with indigenous peoples and mestizo farmers.

“For example, how do you align a commitment to 
extractive industry with a commitment to 
indigenous people's territorial rights and other 
collective rights to exercise control over the 
life paths that they want to build? How do you 
align this commitment to constitutional rights 
and to the environment having rights? Those seem 
to me to be important discussions that lay at the 
heart of making Ecuador a healthier democracy,” 
says Bebbington, recalling new gains in Ecuador's 
political constitution approved last September 
which recognizes rights for nature and declares 
the country a plurinational state.

“It seems to me that that conversation is not 
happening. And it's being blocked through this 
argument that we're going to have a state 
industry, and we're going to increase revenues 
that accrue from extraction, and therefore this 
must be a good thing.” It is also being blocked 
by a strong industry lobby backed by the Canadian 
Embassy in Ecuador that is wary of any measure 
that might exclude mining from certain areas.

Risky business

Affected communities bear the greatest risks of 
avoiding such debate, whether through the 
environmental and social impacts of extractive 
industry or when they are subject to severe 
repression for defending their rights like in 
Bagua or as is feared might happen in the 
Southern Amazon. But singling out one's own 
citizens also has political ramifications.

It has yet to be seen what will happen as various 
indigenous, farmer, environmental and human 
rights groups become distanced from Correa. In 
the case of Peru, Father Arana believes that they 
have reached the point at which a new political 
option is essential in order to avoid greater 
“chaos, violence and authoritarianism.”

Now in the process of seeking the thousands of 
signatures necessary to run for president in 
2011, Arana is leading a new movement called Land 
and Liberty. They will aim to advance an economic 
model based upon ecological sustainability and 
plurinationality in which extractive industry 
expansion should be subject to land use planning 
and ecological zoning. They also propose to 
legislate the right to free, prior and informed 
consent for indigenous and peasant communities as 
outlined by the International Labour 
Organization's Convention 169. While many details 
of their program remain unclear and achieving 
such goals will entail serious challenges, they 
are central issues to making peace once again within these Andean nations.


1. All figures based upon research carried out by 
the Defensoría del Pueblo between June 5th and 
June 30th 2009: 



4. The 64th Report on Social Conflicts from the 
Defensoría del Pueblo of Peru: 

5. http://www.coha.org/2009/07/garcia’s-decline-in-peru/

6. “Hacia la segunda fase de la revolucion 
ciudana” Mario Unda, 



9. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8106248.stm



12. “Mining Conflicts in Peru: Condition Critical” March 2009, OXFAM America

13. For example, see “La Mineria en el Ecuador: 
Una Fuente de Esperanza” from the collection “La 
Patria es de Todos” available here: 

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