Peru’s Humala Graces Amazon Indigenous with Three-Day Goodwill Tour

In a deft move worthy of the most cynical public relations firms, the government of Ollanta Humala and its media cohorts have attempted to hijack the story of oil-related suffering on the Pastaza River by spinning the story as a natural disaster.

After Peruvian First Lady Nadine Heredia arrived last week in a surprise visit to Alianza Topal, a tiny Quechua indigenous community in one of the Peruvian Amazon’s poorest and most indigenous provinces, the regional daily La Region reported that Heredia was there to accompany government medical teams delivering “humanitarian aid” to residents “affected by flooding in the region.”

Aerelio_marchThe article – clearly vetted by official minders — makes no mention of the fact that the medical teams were sent to Alianza Topal there to fulfill recent promises of Humala’s top ministers to treat and assess the health of residents affected by oil contamination after residents rose up in protest last month, threatening to blockade the river and interrupt the flow of oil.

It makes no mention of the last 16 years in which Argentinian oil company PlusPetrol has been allowed by all levels of the Peruvian government to operate on the cheap, spilling and dumping oil and other toxins and skillfully dividing leaders, communities and peoples against each other with strategically placed cash.

And it makes no mention of how the people of Loreto, the indigenous communities along the Pastaza, Tigre, Corrientes and Marañon rivers, have suffered the ill effects of oil production for 40 years without sharing in any of the benefits that accrue to Lima and to the countries where the multinational oil corporations divide the spoils.

While such a picture of the First Lady visiting the friendly natives speaks a thousand words, it’s what it doesn’t say that interests me. But I’ve also been reminded recently that I need to look more on the bright side of such things.

So, in the spirit of bright sides, here goes.

Signs_for_MinistersTaken outside the context of conflict and environmental crimes that made the Alianza Topal visit such a crass stunt, the rare arrival of a Peruvian First Lady to such an isolated Amazon community would otherwise be great news. Peruvian presidents rarely pay any attention to the country’s largest and richest region, except to make sure the resources keep flowing out and the money keeps flowing into Lima.

In fact the last president, Alan Garcia, characterized the indigenous people of the Amazon as “perros del hortelano” – dogs guarding the garden. To explain the metaphor, it refers to a dog jealously guarding the bounty that it will neither use nor share. Garcia also publically referred to the indigenous peoples as “backwards” and “savages.”

So, to satisfy my bright-side colleagues, at least Ollanta Humala is paying attention to the region and not calling indigenous people dogs or savages.

To go one step further – not giving an inch on the public relations stunt, but trying to see the big picture here – Humala made an unusually earnest effort last week to recognize the hardworking people of the region with his three-day visit: first by sending his wife into the communities; then by overseeing a group of government ministers parsing out the details of a regional anti-poverty plan on his visit to Iquitos; and finally by attending the Expo Amazonica in Pucallpa, where he promised a new era of development for the region based on improving local products and promoting the region’s unique offerings to the world.

If I look at it that way, el jefe peruano promised to ease the pain inflicted on the region’s people by multinationals – as long as they all play nice.

“This is something the people as well as the companies should understand. In order for them (the companies) to work in Peru, they must respect our citizens, our water and our environment,” Humala told the Expo Amazónica audience Sunday, a message broadcast nationally live via TV Peru.

“In the same way,” he said, “our citizens will cultivate a climate of peace so that, in this time of crisis, Peru can continue being the fastest growing country in the world.”

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I would just join his critics in asking him, with all due respect, to “put your money where your mouth is.”

While the rhetoric is encouraging, one must take into account the public relations strategy at work: in terms of good PR, the Humala Administration is getting ahead of a crisis.

The simmering conflicts in the Amazon represent latent threats to Humala’s image, already damaged by his administration’s handling of other social-environmental conflicts elsewhere in Peru, namely the pitched battles over the U.S. Conga mine project in Cajamarca that has cost five lives in recent weeks.

His tour is one of “crisis management,” and his goal is spin.

Oil_longOkay, since I can already hear my gentle colleagues snickering at my skepticism, I give him this: let’s just call Humala’s visit a step in the right direction, a break with the past, a sign of hope.

At the same time, though, we should never forget that behind the front page image of the grinning First Lady — surrounded by simple indigenous residents joyfully painting traditional designs on her face — is a people who have been abused by an oil company with full government complicity, a people who have suffered years of government neglect and contempt before the President appeared to make new promises, and a people who have shown that they are willing to do whatever it takes to protect their land and their culture.

Let’s never cease holding power accountable. Let’s never get complacent. Let’s never believe the spin without seeing results and change first.

Deborah Rivett, Thursday, 19 July 2012

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