Waiting to See What ‘Consultation’ Really Looks Like

It has been two weeks since Peruvian President Ollanta Humala approved Indigenous consultation law requiring extractive companies such as oil, gas and mining ventures to consult indigenous communities before launching operations in their traditional territories.

In spite of the long-awaited good news, the indigenous response from Amazon rainforest has so far been mostly stony silence.

Most groups seem to be containing their enthusiasm and holding off on any victory parties, instead taking a sober or even skeptical “wait and see” position to what some worry is just another empty government promise.

“What we want to do with this law is have the voice of indigenous people be heard, and have them treated like citizens, not little children who are not consulted about anything,” Humala said when he signed the law in Bagua, the site of recent (2009) violence over laws that would open up the Amazon to unfettered oil, gas, mining and timber operations.

I suspect the hush from Amazonian indigenous groups has many roots, key among them the inability of indigenous communities to veto any proposed project. The law, which brings Peru into basic compliance with the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 169  on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, sets the bar at consultation, but not consent.

Indigenous groups can’t say “no” to a development on or affecting their lands, and any impasse or Peruvian Standoff between a company and a community would have to be resolved by the government. And that very same government has, in its first couple months in power, announced an ambitious development agenda to which indigenous communities could stand in direct opposition.

I also fear that, by requiring formal consultation without requiring consent, that the law may further criminalize protest.  If an indigenous groups stands against a development or operations that pollute their lands or waters or otherwise threaten them, the government and company might merely state, “You had your say.”

I asked one of our allies at Amazon Watch what he thought after working with many of the threatened indigenous groups from Northern Peru.

“The Consultation Law is a positive step forward, but the real challenge for the government is whether it will listen to indigenous peoples’ calls for alternative to the current model of development based on the unsustainable exploitation of oil, gas and minerals that contaminates the rivers and forest and irreversibly affects the lives of indigenous peoples,” said Gregor MacLennan, a longtime observer of the scene.

Over the next few months and years, Humala’s administration will have plenty of opportunities to prove its sincerity. There are at least 50 hydroelectric projects (at least six on the Rio Marañon alone), more than 2,500 miles of paved highway, seven railroads and at least 50 petroleum concessions pending or planned for Peru’s delicate Amazon region and carried over from previous administrations, according to a recent article in Indian Country Today.

“If all the projects are carried out in the next 10 or 12 years, they would forever change Amazonia as we know it,” said Peruvian agronomist Marc Dourojeanni, according to the piece.

More to the point, Humala and his energy ministers say they want to give it some gas, so to speak. Energy and Mines Minister Carlos Herrera recently said the Humala Administration aims to more than triple the foreign oil and gas investment of the previous regime – seducing $20 billion in the next five years from Garcia’s record $6.2 billion, according to ReutersAurelio Ochoa, the man Humala put in charge of granting concessions to oil and gas companies, says he plans to “aggressively promote exploratory drilling in Peru,” the news agency reports.

The situation is ready-made for conflict.

Extractive industries already have projects worth nearly $50 billion in the queue in Peru of the next decade, possible a parade of devastation unlike anything the country has ever known.

Ironically – or, not so surprisingly – the very policies that were promised to yank Peruvians out of poverty have created a culture of crisis, a politics of protest among the very countries poorest.  Peru’s marginalized majority or indigenas and campesinos have learned that to be seen and heard, they must stage mass mobilizations of the sort witnessed recently in Puno and before that, in Bagua, where Humala signed the consultation law.

Is Humala set up for failure?

The indigenas in the department of Loreto, at least, don’t seem to be putting their faith in the process.

Last weekend, Wampis communities blockaded the Morona River in the upper Upper Marañon River region to stop exploratory drilling by Canadian firm Talisman Energy in Block 64. Such willingness to mobilize in spite of the soothing rhetoric is sure to test Humala’s sincerity. Similar actions can be expected throughout the region in coming months.

Now, especially with this window of hope and a new consultation law on the books, is a time for strong, proactive indigenous federations of the stripe we’ve been lucky to work with through Alianza Arkana.

Not waiting for the companies to arrive with their agenda of so-called development, federations such as FECONACO of the Corrientes, FEDIQUEP on the Pastaza and ACODECOSPAT on the Marañon have joined hands and taken their agenda to Lima, presenting their collective demands and suggestions for the new administration. The document was formulated at a summer workshop with help from the Rainforest Foundation Norway, and completed while indigenous leaders gathered at the June Forum on Oil Contamination sponsored by Alianza Arkana and supported by allies including Amazon Watch.

It’s exactly this kind of proactive action and collaboration that is needed to ensure the new consultation law is more than a paper promise.

The Amazon and its people are too important to leave wholly at the mercy of a political process that has proven time and again – the Indians will tell you, ‘For 500 years!’ – to deny the rights of indigenous peoples in the pursuit of the riches of their lands.

Deborah Rivett, Saturday, 24 September 2011