Crisis Averted or Justice Postponed? New Diplomacy Could Determine Course for the Quechua

This week could easily have been marked by conflict on the Amazonian tributary of Rio Pastaza, where members of a dozen Quechua indigenous communities have been anxiously counting down the final fortnight of a 40-day deadline that their leaders gave regional government officials and the Argentinian oil company PlusPetrol to fulfill important promises they made the Quechua nearly a year ago.

Fortunately, the government asked for new talks and a chance to show good faith before the deadline was reached. While the new talks are tentatively set for May 5 in the Quechua community of Sabaloyacu, the government still has not confirmed.

quechuadarrin4Traveling to the Pastaza region two weeks ago with the head of the main indigenous federation on the river, I caught glimpses of the Quechua’s preparations that convinced me a showdown was imminent. The FEDIQUEP oil monitors motored up the Pastaza to watch PlusPetrol’s every move. Key indigenous leaders dispatched to communities to rally residents and handle logistics, while others reinforced solidarity with leaders from the other six main indigenous groups of the province of Datém del Marañon.

Relations between indigenous and mestizo residents were already stretched tight when I arrived, as a group of mestizo teachers in San Lorenzo were trying to force the indigenous Awajún director of education from his post.

More than 300 representatives from seven different tribes marched on the town to support the director and the bilingual, intercultural education agenda that threatened traditional mestizo dominance. As the indigenous gathered, supporters of the teachers painted “Death to the Indians!” and “Incompetent Indians will die!” on walls across from the Catholic church.

The local chief of justice, el fiscal, said tensions between mestizos and indigenous had not peaked so high in years, a condition that augured ill for any political action against an oil company favored by many mestizos. Still, Quechua leaders saw the gathering of so many indigenous brothers as auspicious as they built momentum for their next move – whatever that would be.

As the Quechua’s deadline loomed, one of the most potent words whispered throughout the land was “paro” – suggesting a blockade of PlusPetrol’s access to the river and perhaps an occupation of its facilities and infrastructure. 

 FEDIQUEP’s president, Aurelio Chino Dahua, consistently preached calm and said he hoped things would not go that far, the mere mention of a possible blockade evoked memories of civil disobedience that cost the PlusPetrol millions of dollars and landed two-dozen Quechua leaders and activists in jail in 2008 in a desperate bid to bring attention to PlusPetrol’s environmental and social contamination that has gone largely ignored and even defended, as it was in 2008, by the national and regional governments of Peru.

quechuadarrin2Any mention of paro in Loreto also touches off remembrances of the 2006 strike against PlusPetrol by Achuar and other indigenous groups on the Corrientes River that led to the exemplary Acta de Dorissa, forcing major concessions from the government and the company. Perhaps more readily, the word “paro” also conjures up the watershed indigenous mobilization in Bagua 2009 that provoked a violent reaction by police and troops that left dozens dead and launched the Peruvian indigenous movement on its present and determined course.

“We have to take action now. We can’t let this moment go cold!” said one of the Quechua apus, or community headmen, at a recent meeting with indigenous leaders from Achuar, Shawi, Shapra, Kandoshi, Wampi, Awajún and Quechua communities from the region. The other groups agreed to stand by the Quechua.

Most Quechua leaders, however, were not so quick to call for action, and both sides can now take a deep breath.

For now, the Regional Government cooled passions with a tactical concession, narrowly averting a confrontation in a region already on edge by promising to send top level officials to the Pastaza town of Sabaloyacu next week.

quechuadarrin3They pledged to demonstrate how some of the promised projects are already in the works and give firm dates for the rest of the commitments Loreto Regional President Iván Vásquez made when he signed the so-called Acta de Pastaza last June.

Officials from the regional Agency of Indigenous Issues suggested that Vásquez may go to Sabaloyacu in person as an act of good faith.

He might have to.

Instead of letting the government throw ice on their demands, the Quechua are using the diplomatic reprieve to organize and prepare a careful strategy to force the government to deliver services that come with citizenship and force PlusPetrol to stop polluting and pay damages to the rivers, wetlands, forests and air that the Quechua depend on for survival.

The Quechua have chosen a perfect moment to be patient and deliberate. They have, in fact, taken a long view of their struggle: they chose a 40-day deadline to symbolize the 40 years of oil industry abuses throughout the Peruvian Amazon Region of Loreto.

Patience could be solid strategy for the Quechua right now.

The Loreto Regional Government is beset by a crisis of unprecedented rainy season flooding, while the national government is besieged by social conflicts over extractive industries that reveal how deeply is controlled by transnational companies. Meanwhile, PlusPetrol is finally under investigation by Peru’s Congress for its disgraceful record of community manipulation and toxic contamination on the Marañon, Corrientes, Tigre and Pastaza rivers.

A commission of national government officials has pledged to begin environmental and health testing on the four major rivers where PlusPetrol operates and is blamed for frequent oil spills and toxic dumping.

In a display of arrogance and bad taste that enraged many throughout Peru, one PlusPetrol official testified to Congress on April 12 that they enjoy warm relations with communities throughout the region, even though people on all the major rivers damaged by PlusPetrol’s operations have risked their lives to resist and be heard. Adding fuel to the fury, the officials blamed indigenous vandals for most of the oil spills along its leaky 500 kilometer pipeline – a verbal attack not soon to be forgotten.

If Iván Vásquez does appear in Sabaloyacu next week – an event that seems unlikely — he will have a hard time defending PlusPetrol and an even harder time convincing the Quechua to quietly wait for another set of paper promises.

A paro may be off for now, but for how long?

The question remains: how long should they wait for justice?

Deborah Rivett, Wednesday, 02 May 2012