As many as 8,000 unionized public tradesmen and other workers marched through the streets of Iquitos to the Loreto Regional Government headquarters on Thursday, July 12th, hoisting before them banners demanding an end to oil contamination on Amazon rivers and a cessation of US driller ConocoPhillips’s oil operations on the headwaters of the Rio Nanay.
At the head of the march, Indigenous leaders from the Corrientes, Tigre and Marañon rivers walked alongside top labor leaders in a show of solidarity as they called on Regional President Iván Vásquez Valera to fulfill his many promises to the people of Loreto.
The massive demonstration, coordinated by the CGTP – Trade Confederation of Peru — was timed to precede the expected arrival of President Ollanta Humala in Iquitos the following day. Humala is reportedly overseeing a rare gathering of his top ministers who, after long neglecting the region, have taken a keen interest in the region’s welfare in light of recent and simmering conflicts brought about by the intransigent oil industry.
Long the lonely struggle of indigenous groups throughout Loreto, the unionists made it clear that they had promoted the issue of oil contamination to a top spot in their region-wide agenda and are taking a page from the indigenous playbook by confronting the government directly.
“Stop the contamination of our Amazon rivers by oil companies. ConocoPhillips out of the Nanay!” read the point banner that led the crush of workers through the streets, snarling morning traffic and strangling the main highway through the city for hours.
Both the size of the demonstration and the public cooperation between labor and Native leaders is relatively new, but long in the works, leaders said.
The government line that oil production is the only route to development is false, said Manuel Coronado Lino, secretary general of CGTP-Loreto.
“Ever since Andoas, when there were actually deaths, no one opened their doors to the indigenous movement here, but the CGTP took up their defense and their struggle together with them,” Coronado told Yale researcher and Alianza Arkana associate Lauren Baker before the march.
“There is a lot of contamination, a lot of spills. And, logically, the authorities are concerned,” Coronado continued. “The indigenous movement has taken on a lot of responsibility and they denounce it and denounce it but sometimes they don’t have much power. So it’s a task of CGTP to support them in denouncing it, not only on paper, but in the streets.”
“We, as labor organizations, have the obligation to support the indigenous movement, who many times are the only ones caring for our natural resources and our environment,” he said.
The demonstrators gathered early Thursday at the famous Plaza de 28 de Julio, the hub of public political activity in Iquitos since the 1970s. Small conjuntos, little bands of drummers and horn blowers, riled the crowd as they started pushing down Avenida Grau just after 9 a.m.
Heavily armored riot police armed with shotguns and teargas grenades hemmed in the crowd at short intervals, blocking traffic, some looking bored, while others filmed the crowd from strategic spots on the route.
Along the way, indigenous activists from the Achuar federation FECONACO, from the Corrientes River, handed out single-sheet statements calling Regional President Vasquez a “liar.” They charge that he has refused to fulfill promises to let them manage their own funds paid in fines and taxes from the Argentinian oil company, PlusPetrol, which operates on and heavily pollutes their ancestral lands.
When the marchers reached Regional Government an hour and a half later, a throng of police blocked the entrance to all but a select group spelled out on a list slated to see the central government ministers. Even international media were denied passage inside.
Keeping their cadre hot, a core group of agitators among the unionists led in a deafening round of chants, face to face with the guards, shouting, “Estamos en esta lucha con un gran hijo de puta!” – We’re in this fight with a big son of a b**ch! – and other such slogans, probably targeting both Vasquez and President Humala, who has sunk in popularity in recent months over his government’s violent handling of numerous social-environmental conflicts throughout Peru.
“If there is no solution there will be revolution!” was one of the favorites that got the chanters jumping up and down and shaking their fists.
Toward the end, some of the syndicalists chanted “Death to the baldy!” in a clear reference to Vasquez, who was quoted in Lima-based newspapers saying variations on, “We’re working on it.”
The CGTP also made its presence known in Lima Thursday, mainly protesting the hotly-contested Conga Gold mine planned for the region of Cajamarca, which is the hole through which Humala’s credibility has drained since late last year.
The growing tensions over oil extraction in Loreto has the Humala government fearing a two-front conflict – highland and jungle – which is why the ministers and Humala have graced the city of Iquitos with a visit this week.
Leaders from groups such as the CGTP and various indigenous federations say they plan to keep up pressure to get a rare audience with the top officials while they are here.
Tuesday, 17 July 2012