Thursday, 19 August 2010

Peruvian Government Draft Report Buries the Truth about Bagua, Resurrects Racist Stereotypes

David Hill

One year since the tragic events at Bagua in northern Peru, when armed police attacked indigenous Awajún and Wampis protesters, it is clear Peru’s government has no intent to change its hostile relationship with the country's indigenous population. In a move that has provoked outrage in many quarters, President Alan Garcia recently blocked a law, voted by Congress, that would have recognized indigenous people's right to consultation about projects affecting their land – precisely one of their demands when protesting the year before.

It wasn’t just the fact that Garcia blocked the law. It was the way he did it. In a response not unlike last year’s, when he described the protesters at Bagua as "pseudo-natives" committing acts of "savagery" and "barbarism", Garcia returned the law to Congress with several suggested modifications and claims, including one that the "legitimacy" of indigenous organizations should be judged by Peru’s Office of Electoral Processes and another that Peru’s Andean communities are not really indigenous.

If you think Garcia is the only one holding such offensive views, think again. In early December 2009 a draft report written by the government commission appointed to investigate the causes of the violence at Bagua was leaked to the Peruvian press. Two members of the commission, one of whom was Carmen Gomez Calleja, a nun, quickly distanced themselves from the draft, and later refused to endorse the report even after it was finalised and major changes were made.

"Our president, Alberto Pizango, regrets the differences that have emerged between the members of the commission investigating what happened at Bagua," said national indigenous organization Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP). "He agrees with Maricarmen Gomez, who has warned how the draft report contains serious errors such as holding indigenous people responsible for the death of 34 people."

That wasn’t the draft report’s only error. In addition to completely failing to clarify what happened at Bagua or explain why or how so many people were killed, the draft repeatedly makes gross generalisations about "the native", claims they were manipulated into protesting by outsiders, and concludes with a series of "recommendations" to Peru’s indigenous population that are so ignorant, so paternalistic and, ultimately, so offensive that they almost defy belief.

"The native is handicapped by race, by being indigenous, by living in the rainforest," reads one sentence in the draft’s second paragraph. "The current situation in the Amazon means that the native must revise his culture and social, political and religious structures," reads one recommendation. Another: "The natives need to adapt to a globalization model inspired by an authentic humanism." Another line reads: "The natives should abandon their belief that all people are equal..."

Reaction to the draft was scathing:

"The antithesis of a serious work of investigation," said a spokeswoman from Peru’s Institute of Legal Defence.

"Shot through with stereotypes of a culture it knows nothing about," added one columnist from the La República newspaper.

"Not the result of sober investigation. It oozes racism, treating indigenous people as ignorant and incapable," said Bartolomé Clavero, a member of UN’s indigenous issues forum and a regular commentator on Peru.

For Peruvian anthropologist Alberto Chirif, the draft could almost have been written 100 years ago. "Handicapped by race, by being indigenous, by living in the rainforest? Nothing could be further from the truth," said Chirif. "This is an old strategy, used by the rubber barons a century ago who said indigenous people couldn’t testify about the torture they had experienced or the number of people who had died because they were racially incapable of doing so."

Even more extraordinary is what the draft report says about "uncontacted" tribes: that’s to say, indigenous people living in the remotest parts of the Amazon who have no contact with outsiders and are very vulnerable to contact because of their lack of immunity to disease. In Peru, two of the most common Spanish terms for these groups are "indígenas aislados", the term often used in the draft, or "indígenas no contactados", used by President Garcia in his recent letter to Congress blocking the law.

The draft report makes several unlikely, unsubstantiated claims about the aislados. At one point, it says that members of one group, when "they finish studying at university", intend to "kill the people who call them aislados because this misleading term is impeding their ability to develop." At another, it says some aislados, unhappy about being called that, have threatened to kidnap an oil company worker "so they can show the whole world they’re not aislados and deserve help like anyone else."

The leaked draft also makes several unsubstantiated accusations against those working in support of the aislados’ rights. It accuses NGOs of condemning them to live "underdeveloped" lives and causing "injustice that will provoke violence", and anthropologists of being "racist", "romantic", inventing the idea of an "isolated native", violating their rights, committing "scientific fraud" and "ethnocide." Calling them aislado is a "time bomb", states the report.

Just to be clear, the people who NGOs and anthropologists say live "without contact" do just that. Although it is true that has not always been the case – e.g. some groups had contact during the "rubber boom" 100 years ago and then retreated into isolation after so many indigenous people were killed – today sightings of them are rare, encounters rarer still. Contrary to what the draft claims, there are no aislados studying for a degree.

"The report tries to discredit those working in defence of isolated tribes by using an argument that is absolutely mistaken and fallacious," said Beatriz Huertas, a Peruvian anthropologist and the author of one of the few books about Peru’s aislados, called "Indigenous Peoples in Isolation in the Peruvian Amazon". "The fight for their rights is about ensuring their existence and survival on the grounds that they have the right to decide how they live. It’s about respecting their rights to self-determination."

Ultimately, in addition to everything else that is wrong with it, the draft report must be seen as an explicit attack on the aislados and those working to ensure their rights are respected. The reason for this attack is obvious. In recent years, as Peru’s government has opened up more and more of the Amazon to oil and gas exploration, an increasing number of people, in Peru and internationally, have spoken out in defence of those, i.e. the aislados, who are most likely to be affected.

David Hill is a researcher with Survival. Republished from Upside Down World

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