“I’m scared of companies, of dams. Where will we go? What will we eat? Where will our children grow?”
‘When Two Worlds Collide’, is a new documentary which examines indigenous activism in Peru by focusing on the events that led to, and the aftermath of, the lethal clashes between indigenous protesters and policemen in 2009 outside the Amazonian town of Bagua.
Peru boasts one of the world’s fastest growing economies, largely dependent on the extraction of natural gas and oil from the Amazon and of a long list of minerals from the Andes. Yet this growth strategy has led to dozens of social conflicts around current and proposed extraction sites throughout the country. Although these protests have different motivations, most activists are locals whose lives have not been significantly improved to offset the impact of gas and oil works or mining activity. These are people who have historically been allowed little say in the conversations that define their future, and that of their territories. Bagua, Conga, Las Bambas, and Pakitzapango have all become important sites of protest, local extensions of global calls to rethink our engagement with natural resources.
Bagua originated in the introduction of special legal decrees by President Alan Garcia in 2008. These laws threatened indigenous peoples’ territorial rights, and contravened the responsibilities Peru had toward its indigenous population. Aidesep, Peru’s national indigenous Amazonian organization representing dozens of groups, demanded the retraction of these decrees. Tensions rose as Garcia responded to these demands on live television by saying: “These are not first-class citizens! How can 400,000 natives tell 28 million Peruvians: ‘you have no right to come here?’ That is their huge mistake! Those who think in those terms want to force us to irrationality and primitivism.”
Aidesep called for a national strike, in which indigenous people throughout Amazonian Peru took airports and blocked motorways and rivers, thereby bringing urban centres and extraction sites to a stop. The protest outside Bagua not only brought the area to a standstill, but also threatened a nearby oil pumping station, which was later taken by protesters. The controversy that resulted from the events at Bagua led to the retraction of the decrees less than a fortnight later.
Protesters have become internal enemies, described by sectors of the government as green terrorists. Protests are tackled with legal responses that suspend constitutional rights within an area, acts that were passed to expedite the war against Sendero Luminoso, (Shining Path, a Maoist militant group). The leaders of these protests are being arrested and tried for crimes of rebellion and sedition, and are also pressured by legal and illegal private interests. In 2015, the NGO Global Witness reported that nine activists, including seven indigenous activists, were killed in Peru that year amid disputes over extraction sites.
As the state legally owns the resources in Peru’s subsoil, it has granted extraction concessions to multinational companies that overlap more than half of the titled indigenous territories. At present, three-quarters of Peru’s Amazon, including a fifth of protected natural areas, is zoned for extraction. These are the results of a historical process of state-led dispossession in favour of foreign capital. Indigenous Ashaninka people in the Peruvian Amazon are living in a continuum of violence that links Peru’s internal war and the imposition of extractive activity in its wake. These are people whose rights have been betrayed in favour of an unsustainable economic logic and foreign interests.