In recent weeks indigenous people in Peru have been protesting against new laws that will allow the government to grant foreign companies access to oil, gas, and mineral resources on their community lands. Indigenous people have the right to be consulted about these sorts of decisions under international law, but the government says the resources belong to the entire country. This past weekend there were violent confrontations between the protesters and the police resulting in 50 deaths. Both sides are accusing the other of human rights violations.
Oxfam International is calling for the indigenous leaders and the government to stop the violence, negotiate peacefully, and respect international and national regulations on consultation with indigenous people for access to resources on their lands.
I have not ever been to the part of Peru where the worst confrontations took place. But several years ago I met with some indigenous community leaders from a remote community called Sarayaku in the Amazon basin in Ecuador. They were concerned about the government and an international oil company exploring for oil on their community land without their permission. The president called in the army and it was turning into a very tense situation on the verge of violence. The community leaders were struggling to find a peaceful solution that would not result in widespread destruction of their land and waters.
Near the end of our discussion I asked them, “what do you want people to know about your community and your struggle?” One of them looked at me and just said, “We are here.”
It’s a simple statement, heavy with implications. The indigenous people of Latin America are there, they have been there for centuries, but they are overlooked and not consulted when important decisions are made about development, and particularly how to use the minerals, oil, and gas under their lands.
Dialogue, not violence, must be the way forward. The indigenous people are there, and they have the right to drive the development process on their own lands.