Latin American governments are creating a dangerous trend: the State responds to social movements seeking the protection of their lands by imprisoning those who dare protest.
In Bolivia, the Morales administration has been accused of filing criminal charges against indigenous leaders that oppose the construction of a highway that will pass through Tipnis. In Colombia, social movements accuse the Santos administration of criminalizing peasant leaders seeking protection of their lands and seeds. In Brazil, in the midst of the celebration of the World Cup, Rousseff has been criticized for her violent response to indigenous protestors demanding the demarcation of their lands in the Amazonas province.
Last, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, an emblematic case is developing. The history of Baguazo began in 2008 when the administration of Alan García promulgated a series of measures that opened the Amazon to exploitation of hydrocarbons. These measures were issued without consulting the indigenous peoples affected, in particular the Awajún Wapis communities. Because of this violation of their rights, between 4,000 and 7,000 indigenous peoples occupied the highway that connects Jaén and Bagua during 52 days, in order to “request the government to overturn these measures and not violate our land,” according to Sister Mari Carmen Gómez of CEAS in Bagua, during a criminal hearing.
On June 4, 2009, the protesters informed the government of their intention to leave the highway the following day. Nonetheless, in the early dawn of June 5, the national police attacked the indigenous people. In the midst of the confusion created by the State’s sudden action, the tear gas, and helicopters flying over the zone, “the regrettable incidents of the Baguazo occurred: 10 police officers, 5 inhabitants of Bagua, and 5 indigenous people were killed (…) and after five years no one knows who fired the guns” explains Miguel Jugo, of the CNDH, as we pass by the “Devil’s Curve,” the epicenter of the actions.
Today, after five years, the Peruvian State has not clarified what happened in the Devil’s Curve. Nonetheless, it has given an emphatic lesson to indigenous Peruvians who mobilized to defend their land. While the police’s actions remain in impunity, the prosecutor has begun criminal proceedings against 53 protestors, charging them with crimes that range from assault to rioting, which carry a sentence between 35 years and life imprisonment.
The Baguazo leaves two reflections regarding the response of Latin American States to social mobilization. First, the majority of Latin American protestors are fighting for the protection of their lands and natural resources. State response cannot continue to be the use of physical and criminal violence. Rather, it is time for States to think with social movements regarding how to organize their land, what type of economic projects can be undertaken, and how profits will be distributed. Efforts such as those that are being developed in Brazil with river dwelling communities for sustainable agricultural production in the Amazons illustrates creative forms of creating income. If this type of projects is taken into consideration, Peru could generate resources for the communities that live in the jungle and rename the Devil’s Curve as the Curve of Hope.
Second, Latin American States should review the meaning of the right to protest as, to date, they do not understand it. This is why, rather than permitting social mobilization and taking its proposals seriously, they respondto social discontent by sending protestors to prison. In the case of Peru, at the same time that it presents itself as a global leader of the environmental agenda at the COP 20, it is punishing its indigenous people that mobilize against the negative environmental effects of oil exploitation.
At the same time, the Baguazo demonstrates that the criminalization of social protest has direct effects on the right to protest, as it creates a disincentive for protesters, who may be organized or simply angry citizens. Peruvian social movements are living the consequences because they are afraid to take to the streets to demand their rights. In fact, “other indigenous communities in Peru, in similar cases regarding the protection of their land, are afraid to protest because the ghost of the Baguazo is always there,” Juan Carlos Ruíz of IDL told me.
Although the story of the Baguazo has not yet ended, it is important for other States to learn from it and create new mechanisms in order to include the complaints of peasants, indigenous people, and Afro-descendants regarding the protection of their rights and the State’s model of economic development. Otherwise, it will be impossible to guarantee the rights of historically discriminated against groups, because, as a Peruvian indigenous leader told me in Bagua, “indigenous peoples will always ask that our land is protected, as that is our life, our mother, and our only form of subsistence.”
* Researcher in the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society – Dejusticia
This text is based on a previous text published in the Observatory of Environmental Justice – OJA.