Nicknamed the cat people, because of their habit of using artificial whiskers, they were contacted by missionaries from the Summer School of Language who taught them Spanish as recently as the early 1970s. Now they are using the World Wide Web to build a campaign to preserve their forests. On 28 June this year they put out a press statement calling for resistance to the Peruvian government’s plans to allow an energy company, Pacific Stratus Energy, to enter their territory to explore for oil.
Their story is being repeated in dozens of other communities across Peru. In recent years the Peruvian government, headed by President Alan Garcia, have tried to take huge tracts of the rainforest and auction them for oil exploration. Almost all the indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon have banded together in a network called Aidesep, the Inter-cultural Association of the Amazon. Aidesep argue that their members, who have lived in the Amazon for thousands of years, should not have the forests stolen from them. The indigenous people are passionate environmentalists, who believe that the Earth is our mother, in Spanish literally “Tierra Madre”, or “Pachamama”. The destruction of the Amazon would lead, in their eyes, to poverty and the destruction of their communities. The destructive activities of oil companies are seen by Aidesep as a threat to the entire human species on this planet because of climate change.
Climate change is a big issue for indigenous people who are already worried about its effects in Peru. The Amazon, like other rainforests, is a vitally important carbon sink; it absorbs some of the carbon which would otherwise escape into the atmosphere and warm our already overheating globe. To tackle climate change it is absolutely vital we conserve all of our rainforests. Of course, taking the forests and using them to produce oil, gas and other fossil fuels is even more damaging.
In Peru, as in many Latin American countries, ownership of resources under the surface of the land, such as valuable minerals and metals, is not seen as belonging to local people but the state. Peru has signed free trade agreements with the US, the UK and the European Union and its current government is keen to use resources to promote economic expansion. Aidesep argue that destruction of the rainforests is too high a price to pay and that, far from leading to development, it will destroy their way of life and lead them into dire poverty.
In both 2008 and 2009, Aidesep used non-violent direct action in national campaigns to successfully resist attempts to sell the Peruvian Amazon. They blocked roads, river traffic – which is economically important in the rainforests – and even closed down the tourist trails to Machu Picchu. In 2009, President Alan Garcia ordered his military police to attack Aidesep protesters at the Devils Elbow, just outside the town of Bagua.
On 5 June 2009 – world environment day – over a hundred people protesting against rainforest destruction were killed by the police at Bagua. Many others were severely injured, including Santiago Manuin Valera, a 52-year-old Awajun indigenous leader, who was shot by eight bullets from an AKM rifle. He was taken to the Las Mercedes de Chiclayo hospital but, despite his injuries, was threatened with imprisonment. A pacifist and environmentalist who had previously been presented with an ecology prize by the queen of Spain, he was only spared from prison and provided with proper healthcare after a campaign of international support.
Typically the British government made no public protest and the British media hardly reported this story. The leader of Aidesep, Alberto Pizango, was forced to go into exile in Nicaragua for nearly a year. When he returned to Peru in May this year he was immediately arrested.