Empire Strikes First: Peru
The effects of military interventions and other infringements on individuals' civil rights are often felt immediately, with the outcomes - dead bodies and tear gas-filled riots - streaming into our homes on the evening news for a few brief moments. Yet often the problems arise due to policies enacted months or years before, sometimes unforeseen. One such case is that of free trade agreements, which offer incredible economic opportunities for some, but disaster for others. We will reflect on the newly implemented United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement, signed by President Bush just prior to leaving office.
Those who continue to oppose the agreement have a laundry list of concerns: growing child labor and weaker labor rights, unfair competition with subsidized American crops and meat, expansion of factory farming throughout Latin America, and mining that causes deforestation and habitat destruction. Most worrisome of all is the effect on the rain forest: the agreement essentialy provides forty-five million hectares for investors in the lumber, oil and mining businesses. (A hectare is 10,000 meters squared or 2.471 acres.)
The right-wing Peruvian president, Alan Garcia, has little concern for the environmental impact of the agreement or for the lives of the indigenous people who call the forest home. Earlier this year, he sold the rights to explore, log and drill seventy percent of Peru's share of the Amazon to a variety of international oil companies. "There are millions of hectares of timber there lying idle," he said, ignorant of the inherent value of the forest. Worse, some of Garcia's party members have been exposed talking about selling the Amazon to their business associates for reduced cost. This has not benefited the Peruvian people.
Those familiar with Garcia should not be shocked by this: he is the same leader behind a few so-called "massacres" in the 1980s. The Accomarca massacre consisted of forty-seven campesinos (indigenous peasant farmers) shot dead by the Peruvian military in August 1985. More than 200 inmates were executed during prison riots in 1986. One 1987 American report said that Garcia was running a paramilitary group held responsible for the attempted bombing of the El Diario newspaper, and sent its soldiers to train in North Korea. The Cayara massacre of May 1988 claimed thirty casualties and dozens "disappeared" (gone missing and presumed dead). An official inquiry estimated no less than 1,600 forced disappearances took place during García's first presidency. Each incident could easily fill one of my columns.
Garcia is up to his old tricks in his new term as president. On June 5, he ordered police and military forces to stop Amazon Indians from blocking roads in the Bagua Amazon region. The natives had been demonstrating against the passage of the new rules that divide up the forest like pie to hungry orphans. In response to the protesters, Garcia declared a "state of emergency" in the Amazon, suspending many constitutional rights. Helicopters opened fire on the protesters with bullets, tear gas and stun-grenades. As a result of these actions, over fifty Indians have been slaughtered and nearly two hundred disappeared. Witnesses claim to have seen the bodies of the murdered Indians dumped into the rivers.
Alberto Pizango, the leader of a national indigenous organization, had harsh words for the president, "We are going to put the responsibility on Alan Garcia’s government for ordering this genocide." He also wishes to make clear that the Indians do not view themselves as obstructionists, but merely citizens standing up for their rights. "They’ve said that we indigenous peoples are against the system, but, no, we want development... development that adheres to legal conventions, such as the United Nations International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, that says we, the indigenous peoples, have to be consulted. The government has not consulted us."
Not only is the money of American corporations pushing these dreadful actions through, but the tax dollars of average Americans like yourself, your hard work indirectly supporting the butchering of defenseless people and priceless natural resources. Between 2002 and 2007, the United States spent over $79 million on the Peruvian National Police (PNP). What were these funds for? The purchase of additional vehicles, communications equipment, field gear, advanced road interdiction, riot control, "reaction" gear and more tools used in these very assaults.
The helicopters used were Russian Mi-17s, and their upkeep is financed by money allocated for the perpetually failing "war on drugs". In 2004, for example, the United States provided funding for fourteen Peruvian Mi-17 helicopters, likely the very same aircraft used in Bagua. The State Department budgets of 2007 and 2008 again allocated funds for Peruvian fuel, hangars and warehouses. The United States has also donated twenty-four Huey II (UH-II) helicopters to the PNP, armed with M6 machine guns and two MK-40 rocket launchers. Regardless of your opinion on the drug war, killing people in their homes to clear cut forests is not drug-related, and well-intentioned funding has had unnecessarily violent consequences.
For the time being, the indigenous people have won, with great cost to their families. Despite having only wooden spears to defend themselves, they drove out the police and succeeded in getting the government to suspend any drilling. Garcia apologized for his "serious errors and exaggerations". But suspending is not canceling, and the fight is not over: this is not a war of Indians against the government, but a struggle for resources that will effect all humanity.
The side effects of oil drilling are well known. For example, Occidental Petroleum is facing charges in American courts for dumping an estimated nine billion barrels of toxic waste in the Amazon's watersheds between 1972 and 2000. The locals claim the surrounding water is not longer potable or good for bathing, and the fish and animals have become inedible. In the nearby Ecuadorian Amazon, toxic waste dumped after Chevron-Texaco's drilling has been blamed for 1,401 deaths, mostly of children from cancer. Chevron's lawyer has shrugged off the claims, saying it is impossible to make the direct link between cancer and their oil.
The environmental impact may be even more catastrophic. The rainforests, when intact, filter large quantities of warming gases and keep them from building up in the atmosphere. Cutting them down is foolish, and cutting them to reach pollution-belching fossil fuels is doubly foolish. The Hadley Centre, a scientific center studying the impacts of global warming, has warned that producing greenhouse gases at our current rate will cause the Amazon to dry up and burn down. A study they released in early 2009 has dire predictions: "The Amazonian rainforest is likely to suffer catastrophic damage even with the lowest temperature rises forecast under climate change. Up to 40 per cent of the rainforest will be lost if temperature rises are restricted to ... the least that can be expected by 2050." A 75-85 percent reduction in forest is even more likely. Such a defoliation would pump unthinkable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, speeding up melting of ice caps and changing the very nature of the Earth.
In contrast to Peru, nearby Ecuador approaches the rainforests differently. While being a poor country with large oil resources underneath its forests, its president, left-leaning Rafael Correa, has offered to leave his country's largest oil reserve under the soil if other nations will help cover the funds that would have been generated by such oil. Rather than selling fuel, they have decided to sell environmental security. With renewable alternatives on the horizon, this plan seems not only reasonable but canny common sense.
As illustrated, free trade agreements remove tariffs and government regulations to benefit big business, but do little good for the average citizen. Instead, we must push for more of what is called "fair trade". This incorporates policies and standards that include a fair living wage for all factory employees, adequate breaks, overtime with compensation, and a safe work environment with emergency protocols in place. Utilizing labor in other countries may be cheaper, but this "cheapness" is provided because of inhumane working conditions. Why purchase goods and resources from those forced into dangerous servitude when we ourselves would never submit to such treatment? Global economic fairness isn't just a good idea, it's a fundamental human right.