Peru: Hundreds shelter in church after clashes with police over destruction of Amazon

Alberto Pizango pic: CAFOD

Alberto Pizango pic: CAFOD

Up to  a thousand indigenous people, including women and children, have  taken refuge in  a  Catholic church in the Bagua Grande area, 1,400km  north of the Peruvian capital Lima,  after  violent clashes with security forces left more than 50 dead, and 150 wounded on Thursday and Friday.  There were 70 arrests. The BBC report that new arrivals are being cheered by crowds of local people outside, many of whom are donating food and clothing.

The protests arose over plans for gas and oil exploration. Indigenous people object to government plans to open up what they consider their ancestral lands. On  Friday,  2,500 Indians - many of them carrying spears and machetes held  a protest over the drilling plans. Hundreds occupied a road near Bagua and  a group  attempted to occupy the airport of Trompeteros, owned by the ‘Pluspetrol’ oil company.  The protestors did not carry firearms on the instructions of their leaders.

Alberto Pizango, an indigenous leader linked to the protests was granted refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy yesterday.

A military curfew has now been imposed in the area, after what Mr Pizango called "the slaughter of our people". Local people say the measures are preventing them from looking for the dead. While the government denies this, human rights lawyers in the region have told the BBC hundreds of people remain unaccounted for.

The indigenous organisations are demanding an independent investigation into the incidents. Indigenous groups of Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia have expressed solidarity with their ‘brothers’ of the Peruvian Amazon.

CAFOD partner Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos, who is president of the Peruvian Bishops Conference,  said: "This was a disaster waiting to happen. The indigenous peoples have been forgotten. We must listen to them. I also think we need to be aware of the worldview of these peoples. We are forgetting that. The indigenous, the natives, think in a very different way from us. What is good for us is lethal for them. They defend the water and the earth because it is life. There's a problem of understanding. This has been a tremendous problem.

"Law and order needs to be re-established urgently. In such grave circumstances, we need to think first of Peru, of the common good. From this perspective, the authorities cannot impose their will on the will of a people, neither can one group hold the country to ransom. They need to come together in the middle, reach a balanced position, to deal with this conflict calmly.

"I am not a lawyer, but I suggest that for the moment the government should suspend the decrees the Amazonian communities object to. Then there can be dialogue, but direct dialogue, involving the real representatives of these people who are taking this action... I insist that these measures should be suspended. And for their part, the natives should suspend their action. The solution is in the hands of both sides.

"There should also be independent mediators. The situation in Bagua is like a knot being tied tighter and tighter. Let's stop this now! Enough human lives have been lost.

"There should be no provocation, on either side. Lives are at stake, the lives of the police officers, the indigenous and the townspeople. Many families are suffering, many have been orphaned. The problem is already going beyond politics and social policy - it's existential. The Amazon peoples are part of Peru, not an island. We have to learn to solve problems peacefully, by talking to each other. There's no other way.

"We have to be serious and recognise that this isn't just the responsibility of the present government. There are just demands of the Amazon peoples from way back that haven't been dealt with, about issues such as health, education, roads, electricity. We have to listen to them and understand their vision of the world.

"The Church has always been ready to do its part, especially in these circumstances where human life is at stake. In this situation we can't talk about winners and losers. I repeat: the issue is Peru and the common good."


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