Up to 34 reported killed in Amazon land protest
By CARLA SALAZAR
Indians protesting oil and gas exploration on their lands battled police in Peru's remote Amazon Friday, with authorities and Indian leaders separately reporting nine police and 25 protester deaths.
The violence broke out before dawn as officers broke up a road blockade by some 5,000 Indians in an area called Curva del Diablo — or "Devil's Curve" — in the northern province of Utcubamba.
Protest leaders said police opened fire from helicopters with bullets and tear gas, while national police director Jose Sanchez Farfan said protesters attacked officers with firearms. He said they also set fire to government buildings.
Nine police officers were killed by gunfire and 45 wounded, said Farfan.
Indian leaders said 25 Indians were killed in the clash, accusing the government of "genocide" in attacking what they called a peaceful protest. Another 50 Indians were injured, 14 of them seriously, said Servando Puerta, one indigenous leader.
However, the central government's public ombudsman's office said it could only confirm the deaths of five Indians.
President Alan Garcia, who wants to ramp up foreign oil investment in the Amazon, accused the main Indian leader Alberto Pizango of "falling to a criminal level: to assault a police post, grab arms from police, kill police who are fulfilling their duty."
Pizango denied that Indians killed police, though a report by the environmental group Amazon Watch quoting a witness on the scene said Indians had disarmed police in self-defense.
Indians have been blocking roads, waterways and a state oil pipeline intermittently since April, demanding Peru's government repeal laws they say make it easier for foreign companies to exploit their lands.
The laws, decreed by Garcia as he implemented the Peru-U.S. free trade pact, illegally open communal jungle lands and water resources to oil drilling, logging, mining and large-scale farming, Indians say.
In addition to violating Peru's constitution, indigenous groups say Garcia is breaking international law by not obtaining their consent.
Garcia defends the laws as need to help Peru develop.
Peru's government owns all subsoil rights in the Andean country and Garcia has vigorously sought to exploit its mineral resources. A Duke University study published last year said contract blocks for oil and gas exploration cover approximately 72 percent of Peru's rain forest.
And though Peru's economic growth has led Latin America recently, Garcia's critics say little wealth has trickled down in a country where roughly half the population is indigenous and the poverty rate tops 40 percent.
Indians say Garcia's government does not consult them in good faith before signing such contracts which could affect at least 30,000 Amazon Indians across six provinces. Last month, Roman Catholic bishops in the Amazon issued a communique calling the Indians' complaints legitimate.
Pizango said last month that Indians would view any government security forces as an "external aggression" and would give their lives to defend the land.
Though he later rescinded what amounted to a declaration of insurgency, it is unclear how much influence Pizango, president of the Peruvian Jungle Inter-Ethnic Development Association, has over Indians in the conflict zone.
Garcia declared a state of emergency May 9 and suspended some constitutional rights in four jungle provinces as a result of the ongoing protests.
Because of the protests, the state oil company Petropru stopped pumping oil through its northern Peru pipeline from the jungle on April 26. Company spokesman Fernando Daffos said the interruption had cost it $448,000 in losses.
Also affected is the Argentine company Pluspetrol, which halted oil production in two jungle blocks in the Loreto region of northeastern Peru.