Peruvian bishops urge negotiation with indigenous groups

Lucien Chauvin

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LIMA, Peru -- Catholic bishops in Peru's jungle dioceses have thrown their support behind indigenous organizations, calling on the government to negotiate with native peoples before passing laws that affect their lives and livelihoods.

In an open letter released Sept. 2, bishops from six dioceses called on the government "to foster effective participation of the interested parties in the design and implementation of the country's development policies. If this is not the case, we warn that the physical and sociocultural survival of indigenous people will be threatened."

The bishops expressed support of indigenous peoples in their fight against laws that change the way native or peasant community lands can be sold or leased, as well as a series of other decrees dealing with farmland, protected areas and water rights. The decrees form part of a package of 99 laws the government passed between March and June as part of its process to implement the free-trade agreement signed last year with the United States.

"An issue as delicate as land needs to be addressed through dialogue with the indigenous peoples. The government simply made a decision and this is the wrong way to do things," Bishop Francisco Gonzalez Hernandez of Puerto Maldonado told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview after the letter was released. "We are not making a utopian environmental demand or one that sees native peoples as needing protection but a call to the government for fairness."

Native federations, led by the umbrella group Indigenous Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon, started a protest Aug. 8 against the two decrees that changed land tenure laws. Deeming their action "peaceful indigenous insurgency," protesters occupied oil and gas installations in the northern and southern jungle.

The government made an effort to negotiate but declared the decrees were not up for debate. In place of negotiation, Peruvian President Alan Garcia ordered a 30-day state of emergency Aug. 18 in four jungle provinces.

The standoff between the government and the indigenous association was ended by Congress, which repealed the two most contentious decrees. However, Bishop Gonzalez expressed fear that the problem is not over and that there are tensions just below the surface.

"President Garcia has said that he will insist on these decrees, which has everyone on guard. The government seems to have a strategy of rushing headfirst into things without contemplating the consequences," he said.

Bishop Gonzalez, whose diocese is in the southern jungle, said he and bishops from central and northern jungle dioceses are willing to facilitate debate and negotiation.

"We are not ideological or tied to one position. We are reasonable and want to find solutions, but we also demand that the rights of indigenous peoples be respected. The government has confused this with opposition," he said.

The government, while toning down its public commentary, continued its hard-line push against indigenous organizations, particularly the indigenous umbrella group.

The Peruvian Institute for International Cooperation, an agency that oversees nongovernmental organizations that receive donations from abroad, ordered an audit of the finances of the Indigenous Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon. But after the Sept. 2-3 investigation, the agency announced it found nothing wrong with the organization's books.

Pro-government media also weighed in, accusing international agencies, such as the British aid agency Oxfam, of encouraging the protests.

Oxfam published a lengthy examination of the 99 decrees, finding that dozens are illegal because they violate constitutional norms or have nothing to do with the free-trade agreement, so should not have been passed as part of the package.

Edson Rosales, a spokesman for the Indigenous Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon, said the government is trying to cover its mistakes by demonizing his organization and its supporters.

"We are only demanding that the government respect our rights that are in the constitutional and international conventions signed by Peru. We do not think that this is too much to ask for, but the government does not want to admit it was wrong," he said.

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