Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Bagua’s Indigenous Protest One Year Later

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A year ago this past weekend 34 people died near a section of road in Peru’s Amazon known as “Devil’s curve.” 

In many ways it was a typical Peruvian protest. The indigenous people who had congregated from all over the region to call for the right to be consulted over energy and mining projects on their land had blocked the road for several days.

Pressure built as essential supplies into the town of Bagua ground to a halt, until finally a Peruvian cabinet ordered police to disperse the protest.

It was at this point that Bagua departed from the normal pattern of protest in Peru and became the worst violent confrontation in Peru since the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru insurgencies of the 1980s and 1990s.

Twenty-two people died in the ensuing clash, and protesters at an Imacita pumping station took hostage and later killed 12 police officers. The violence spilled over onto the streets of Bagua Chica and Bagua Grande.

Given the murder of the police officers, it has been easy for some domestic media to portray Bagua as the work of savage natives, which is a great shame for a country that still struggles to overcome deep racial divisions.

Bagua was not an isolated conflict—despite GDP growth forecasts of 6.2 percent to 7 percent for 2010, a flood of foreign investment and booming construction in Lima and other urban centers, Peru suffers from chronic conflict-itis.

Beatriz Merino, Peru’s ombudswoman, has raised red flags over this many times, citing persistently high numbers of protests, many of them linked with concerns over the environment or extractive industries.

There were 260 social conflicts in April, three times the number in January 2008, and Ms. Merino says at least five of these—including a proposed petrochemical plant near a nature reserve on the coast south of Lima—could ignite at any moment. More than two thirds of conflicts included at least one violent incident, she reported. And as Peru heads toward regional elections in October and presidential and congressional polls in April, the numbers are likely to increase.

In the aftermath of Bagua, President Alan García sacked his entire cabinet (many were reappointed) and embarked on a series of consultations and investigations into Bagua and rights of indigenous communities.  

Congress has passed a new law giving indigenous people the right to be consulted ahead of any projects on their land (the Peruvian state has the rights to the subsoil). The law brings Peru into line with International Labor Organization conventions but has yet to come into effect and it is unclear whether it will confer a right to veto projects. There is also some question as to whether the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (Indepa), the government agency responsible for enforcing the law, will have sufficient resources or power.

Building trust between an administration plagued by corruption scandals linked to hydrocarbons concessions and the community will be a more difficult, long-term project, however.  While there are many mining companies today who observe all the rules and make significant contributions to communities, Peru is littered with the evidence of generations of miners who poisoned rivers, soil and air. Campesinos are wary, with good cause.

As one mining executive of a foreign company told me, “It’s always the same. The locals protest and the government ignores them until they block roads or highways, at which point the government shifts its position, until the next time.”

Mr. García has the extremely difficult task of governing a nation with more than 7,000 indigenous communities, accounting for a third of the population. He often argues that it is wrong for a small group of people to stand in the way of the benefit of an entire nation, which plays well in the capital of Lima. But there is always room for compromise and respecting the rights of communities without surrendering economic growth—surely building a working relationship with communities is better than risking another Bagua.

Naomi Mapstone is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is a journalist based in Lima, Peru.


Naomi Mapstone is the Andean correspondent for the Financial Times, based in Lima, Peru. Formerly the FT's deputy U.S. news editor, she now divides her time between Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

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