Los Angeles Times | June 19, 2009
Peru revokes Amazon mining laws
President Alan Garcia acknowledges ’errors’ in his handling of his bid to open Peru’s Amazon region to mining, oil and timber development, a step that led to large indigenous protests.
By Chris Kraul
Reporting from Lima, Peru — Peru’s Congress voted Thursday to revoke two laws enacted last year to open the Amazon to mining, oil and timber development, measures that enraged many indigenous groups and led to a bloody confrontation this month.
Legislators acted at the behest of President Alan Garcia, who went on national television Wednesday to acknowledge that he had committed a "series of errors and exaggerations" in pushing economic policies that spawned a wave of protests by indigenous groups, including road blockades and takeovers of two airports.
A government attempt on June 5 to clear one of the blocked roads in the northeastern Amazonian town of Bagua led to a violent confrontation. Officials said 10 civilians and 23 police officers were killed, with one officer missing and presumed dead.
After the vote, Daisy Zapata, president of the umbrella indigenous rights group known as AIDESEP, called on member groups to immediately lift all roadblocks. It was not clear late Thursday whether they had done so.
"We have shown Peru and the world that we are capable of dialogue, of unity, of observing human rights," said Lidia Rengifo, an indigenous leader. "We want an end to blood baths."
Garcia has moderated his rhetoric since the violence, which he had blamed on indigenous residents and foreign agitators. Shortly after the clash, he issued an arrest warrant for Indian leader Alberto Pizango, who said he was being made a scapegoat and has since been granted political asylum in Nicaragua.
Garcia said Wednesday night that he preferred "correction to stubborn obstinacy to see who wins."
Legislators voted 82 to 14 to repeal the two decrees, which were among 90 measures Garcia signed into law last year using temporary power granted by Congress to meet preconditions for a trade agreement. The U.S.-Peru free trade agreement went into effect this year.
Garcia framed the laws as measures that would bring formality and order to rampant illegal logging and mining in the Amazon. They were consistent with his view that opening the country to foreign investment is key to economic growth.
But indigenous groups said the laws sanctioned land grabs, abrogated their territorial rights and were promulgated with no consultation.
The Bagua incident pitched the government into its worst crisis, hurt Peru’s image abroad and raised fears that the Amazonian indigenous communities, with a total population of about 400,000, could become radicalized.
The crisis has also strained relations with neighbor Bolivia. In an interview Wednesday, Prime Minister Yehude Simon accused Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, of inciting Peru’s groups by urging them in a letter to proceed with "revolution."
Simon has tendered his resignation, but there were signs that he would be asked to stay to head a reconciliation effort.
Indigenous groups that have blocked the key Tarapoto-Yurimaguas road connecting northern Pacific ports with Brazil told The Times this week that they wanted several other decrees signed by Garcia in the last year revoked before they reopened the road.
Opposition party leader Freddy Otarola told reporters after the vote that seven other decrees are "unconstitutional" and also should be revoked.
There were scattered signs of continued conflict this week. In the southern Andean province of Andahuaylas, where Indians took over the regional airport, an estimated 1,000 peasants briefly held several local mayors, saying they didn’t support their cause.
Kraul is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Adriana Leon contributed to this report.