Peru Natives create party to protect Amazon from developers

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Alberto Pizango, leader of 350,000 Amazon Natives, faces accusations in Peru ranging from rebellion to homicide, and said tribal chiefs across the rainforest will create a party to help protect traditions, dignity and above all, rights to millions of acres of forest increasingly targeted by oil, gas, lumber and gold extraction groups.

"This is a party that will try to reach all citizens ready to do something to defend life, forests and the Earth," Pizango, 46, president of the Native organization AIDESEP said Aug. 11. It was his first conference with foreign press reporters after coming back in May from a year spent in exile in Nicaragua.

Natives are gathering signatures to register the party in time for presidential elections next April, said Pizango, a Shawi Tribe member. In April, Peruvians will choose who will replace President Alan Garcia for a five-year term starting July 2011. Peruvians do not allow immediate re-election. There is no clear favorite in polls.

Pizango, who returned to Peru after arrest warrants were changed into summons to appear in court, said if the tribes choose him later this month to represent them he is willing to be a candidate.

The party will be called the Alliance for an Alternative for Humanity or APHU, Pizango said. Apu also means spiritual advisor in Peru and is the title used by Pizango and other tribal heads.

Natives face charges

Nearly all the main leaders of AIDESEP and the Awajun Tribe face charges blaming them for the June 5, 2009 deaths that followed a call for disobedience by Pizango.

The calls for disobedience came after the government offered in 2008 to turn down new laws affecting Natives to end a protest that had included a crude pipeline occupation as well as the taking over of gas production platforms by tribes.

Around April 2009 the Natives restarted their protests insisting on the need for Garcia to finally back down on the laws because Natives feared they would be used to strip them of their lands.

The crude oil pipeline stations were occupied again in 2009. Tension built up with many confrontations related to road or waterway blockades that were becoming increasingly bigger and more frequent until June 5.

On that day, 34 people died and nearly 200 were injured, about half of them by assault rifle bullet. According to reports by Natives, police both in land and in helicopters opened fire against nearly 4,000 people with spears blocking transit in an area known as Devil's Curve near the town of Bagua in north Peru. Police later claimed they did not shoot first.

Most of the dead were police. Some were apparently executed in a nearby crude oil pumping station where they were hostages in retaliation over the shooting. Others were killed with their own AKM rifles after losing them in battle.

Who is responsible?

The government in Lima organized a special group to investigate the killings but it ended with a split decision, a majority of the panel blamed Natives who allowed themselves to be manipulated by journalists and others, and a minority, which included the only Native, disagreeing and refusing to sign.

Pizango said a decision as important as one to open fire in an area filled by thousands of civilians protesting must have involved the country's top authorities who should be made responsible.

Natives consider international court

"I have said that there has to be a sanction. Why did it get to that point? The people only wanted to ask for the right to be consulted, the right to live with dignity but the government said no. Then there is culpability. Those who administer the state, in this case the government, have all the power and they favor each other and do not defend the cause of the humble," Pizango said.

His group will go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights based in San Jose, Costa Rica to seek a sanction. However domestic instances must be exhausted first and there are trials pending, he said.

A group of Natives who asked the government for forgiveness over those killings was a manipulation by government because the small group acted on their own, Pizango said.

On Aug. 3, a small group of Awajun Natives led by Octavio Shicaime asked for forgiveness from the government and from police for the June 5, 2009 killings. State news agency Andina reported that his community was going to get 60 free houses.

Shicaime and his group were not empowered by anyone to represent anybody, and his own tribe, which numbers close to 50,000, now considers him and the others traitors, Pizango said.

Rights of Natives

Pizango said Natives are not overly concerned with President Garcia's veto of a law approved in Congress May 19 that had been enacted so local legislation will conform to agreements ratified by Peru with the United Nations about respecting rights of Natives.

Pizango said any treaty with the United Nations is supranational and has more weight than domestic laws. He said Natives control 18 million hectares and would like to expand to 25 million of Amazon hectares.

Garcia's veto "clearly indicates that the government has many interests, that it defends the interests of transnationals and that it does not see for the interest of citizens," Pizango said.

Garcia explained at the time that he did not like the law as it had been written because it could give the impression that Natives had a power to block projects.

He said 350,000 individuals could not be an obstacle to the rights to overcome poverty of a nation of 28 million who could benefit by exploiting Amazon resources that belong to all and not just Natives.

"If the Amazon belongs to all Peruvians, including Natives, then all Peruvians including Natives should decide" whether projects are indeed the best for life and the environment, Pizango said.