Photo Credit: Flickr User Distra
By: Natalie J. Kitroeff
Peruvian president Alan Garcia has again outraged human rights groups, members of the political opposition, and indigenous citizens, this time by refusing to sign legislation passed by Peru’s Congress that would have expanded the role of the country’s indigenous community in decisions regarding extractive industries-linked projects on their ancestral lands. By sending the law back to Congress late on Monday, June 21—just days before a two-month recess—Garcia effectively blocked any near-term resolution of the contentious matter.
The bill, known as the Consultation Law, promised to bring the Peruvian government into compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which mandates consultation with indigenous peoples regarding policies that pertain to their lives and livelihoods and, more specifically, their ancestral landholdings. Though Peru has been a signatory to the convention for over 15 years, indigenous and human rights groups maintain that the government has failed to institute the mechanisms needed to comply with its provisions. The sometimes tragic implications of this institutional failure are reflected in the steep rise in social conflicts in Peru in recent years, most graphically illustrated by the violent clash between Amazonian indigenous groups and the national police in Bagua province in June 2009.
Garcia’s refusal to enact the Consultation Law represents both a missed opportunity and another spark that could potentially ignite Peru’s social powder keg. The administration’s emphasis on promoting foreign investment in resource extraction projects has ratcheted up tensions, especially among residents of the barren slopes of the Andes and those living in Peru’s vast Amazonian lowlands. According to a report released by Peru’s human rights ombudsman, as of May 2010 there are 255 social conflicts in the country, only 54 percent of which are “in the process of dialogue.” According to the report, the majority of the current disputes are related to environmental disputes, and some 40 percent of the conflicts have already generated at least one instance of political violence.
These figures reflect the government’s failure to provide effective formal channels for Peruvian citizens to make demands and enforce their rights. In the absence of such official mediation mechanisms, indigenous and other marginalized groups have long resorted to social protest as a means by which to communicate their grievances to the country’s political and social elites. Indeed, the incidence of social conflict has increased even as Peruvian GDP has expanded and poverty rates have gradually decreased, in large part due to the primacy of extractive industries in the country’s export basket. The inability of the regime to respond effectively to each seemingly local and sui generis dispute further exacerbates the problem. Absent effective mediation channels or evident political will to intervene proactively, seemingly resolvable disputes tend to become unstable and often violent. All too often, high-level dialogue fails to occur until after violence has occurred.
The confrontation between indigenous protesters and police in Bagua province on June 5, 2009 is the most dramatic example of this pattern. The clash occurred after several months of peaceful protest by various indigenous organizations in response to a set of decrees adopted by the Garcia administration that would have promoted resource extraction projects on historically indigenous lands. The groups maintained that the laws violated not only their basic human rights but also their right to be consulted on policies affecting ancestral lands, as guaranteed under ILO 169. Tensions exploded when police initiated actions to forcibly remove demonstrators from the main road leading into Bagua. While official figures claim that 23 police officers and 9 indigenous protesters were killed in the clashes, with nearly 200 additional injuries, Human Rights Watch reported that “the number of civilian deaths is still uncertain…[and] some witnesses allege law enforcement agents threw bodies of several protesters into the river.” According to both domestic and international human rights observers, the process of bringing to justice those involved in the attack has also been one-sided, with indigenous protesters receiving harsher punishment than police officers or their superiors—both police commanders and civilian politicians—with oversight responsibility during the standoff.
According to official statements released by the office of the presidency, Garcia rejected the law because it would impede national development and grant too much control over political decisions to indigenous peoples, thereby undermining the sovereign power of the state. In an effort to refute Congress and even the ILO itself— which expressed support for the law in a meeting last week—the office of the presidency released documents explaining Garcia’s objection to the legislation by citing various ways in which it does not comply with the specific stipulations of convention 169. Analysts have noted, however, that in this document the president misconstrues the meaning behind both the ILO convention and the Consultation Law and that the objections are therefore debatable or outright unsubstantiated.
The Peruvian Congress, racked by corruption scandals and constant political maneuverings during its current term, has figured among the institutions with the lowest approval ratings in recent years. Passage of the Consultation Law, therefore, could have provided the legislature’s image a boost. More importantly, it represented a groundbreaking step toward establishing the formal channels for the state to engage in dialogue with indigenous and other local communities prior to the initiation of major projects—a step utterly necessary to stem further social conflict. Garcia’s objections to the law have been criticized by observers as indicative of the leadership’s resistance to granting indigenous groups any sort of institutionalized influence over political decision-making processes. Rejecting this law on the eve of a two-month congressional recess suggests that Garcia is more concerned with avoiding rather than resolving the issue. This response is indicative of the significant obstacles, in terms of both institutional capacity and political will, that continue to hinder Peru’s progress toward overcoming the wide social, economic, and political breaches that hinder its progress toward improved democratic governance.