In the summer of 2009, on a highway in Peru known as Devil’s Curve: everything went wrong. For months, indigenous groups had protested new laws by then President Alan Garcia opening up the Amazon to deregulated logging, fossil fuels, and other extractive industries as a part of free trade agreements with the U.S. But the protests came to a bloody head on June 5th when police clashed with activists, leaving at least 32 dead and 200 injured. Now—five years later—53 indigenous activists are on trial for the massacre, including many facing life in prison.
Among those on trial are Alberto Pizango, the president of indigenous rights NGO, Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP).
“If the case should move forward with charges that carry in some cases a life sentence, the future of Peru will hang in the balance,” said Pizango’s lawyer Marco Barreto after today’s oral arguments. “Are we a democracy that protects all of its citizens under the law? Are we to return to the days of the Spanish colonizers, serving up our precious resources to benefit only those who have power and wealth, while destroying our environment and the culture of the peoples that help define our nation?”
Aerial view of Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Six other indigenous leaders are also on trial. With 53 activists, many of them well-known and facing between 35 years to life in prison,
the trial has been dubbed the biggest in Peruvian history. Some of those charged were faraway in their local communities at the time of the massacre.
The violence that day, which occurred just outside the oil-town of Bagua, followed a state of emergency proclaimed by the government in early May. In response, indigenous activists set up blockades on several roads including Devil’s Curve. When police attempted to tear down the blockade, violence ensued ending with 22 dead police officers and 10 civilians. But some have disputed those numbers, claiming police burned and hid bodies of protesters.
Weeks after the bloody melee, the country’s congress threw out the two controversial decree that set off the protests.
“It is tragically ironic that the hosts of a major climate summit are criminalizing people who tried to save the Amazon from destruction,” said Andrew Simms of Global Witness, referring to Peru hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December. In fact, Pizango recently met with government officials about the role of indigenous people at the summit.
“Tropical forests are a key line of defense against global warming, and are worth more in every sense standing than they are cut down,” Simms added. “People who put themselves on the line to prevent deforestation should certainly not be stripped of their rights, their land and thrown in jail.”
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