Protests for Healthy Water Policy in Peru Link Highlands and Jungle: May 31 to be Day of National Solidarity

From the Andes to the Amazon, indigenous and mestizo groups across Peru plan to mobilize on May 31 to resist industrial development projects that they say would destroy vital natural water sources and threaten community survival.

Organizers say the simultaneous marches and blockades will send a clear message to national leaders in Lima and erect a symbolic bridge between regional resistance movements, including ongoing protests against a U.S. owned mine in the highlands of Cajamarca, Newmont Mining’s so-called Conga gold mine, and a rapidly mounting movement against another giant American company, ConocoPhillips, which plans to dig some 48 exploratory oil wells at the headwaters of the Nanay River, the principal source of drinking water and main fishing grounds for the half-million residents of the jungle city of Iquitos.

ConocoPhillips’s consortium partners include Canadian drillers Gran Tierra and Talisman Energy. Talisman has recently made headlines as Achuar indigenous leaders have ordered the company out of their Peruvian territories.

“This is more than a protest against an oil company seeking to destroy a watershed for profit,” said Jorge Tacuri, indigenous attorney and one of the organizers of the Amazonian front against ConocoPhillips. “This is a critique of the destructive development model being forced on our region and our people.”

The movement against the ConocoPhillips-led group, which has so far been limited to demands for government transparency by the recently formed Committee in Defense of Water, was just last week registered by the Peruvian public ombudsman as the newest “social-environmental conflict” in the country.

In its just-released report on social conflicts for April, the Defensoria del Pueblo expressed concerns about the “suspected negative environmental impacts in the zone of the headwaters of a watershed, of high biodiversity and the source of water for the city of Iquitos.”

In Cajamarca, events leading to the May 31 march will include a pilgrimage to the sacred lakes and series of wetlands and streams that Newmont plans to destroy in order to extract gold.

The massive resistance to Conga in Cajamarca has hamstrung Newmont’s operations since October and has spawned a national solidarity movement. It has also shined an unwelcomed light on the Peruvian government’s subservience to multinational companies.

Consejero_Regional_5-14-12_crop_lrTying the Amazon and Andean protests together has strategic potency already penetrating the government. Last week the Regional Congress of Peru’s largest region of Loreto — a political jurisdiction equivalent to a state in the U.S. — heard from oil company officials and civic groups opposed to ConocoPhillips’s plans on the Nanay.

“We don’t want an Amazonian ‘Conga’ here,” insisted Representative Mauro Lopez, echoing the concerns of several at the table.

“This is not the only way to development,” said another representative. “There are alternatives,” he said.

Their and the other representatives’ concerns voiced at the May 14 assembly of the Loreto Consejo Regional warranted a two-page spread in the regional paper of record, La Region – a clear indication of the public scrutiny ConocoPhillips can expect as it tries to operate on the Nanay.

At the neighborhood level, residents of San Juan — one of the largest areas of Iquitos — are holding an assembly on the ConocoPhillips issue on May 24, following the important Nanay port town of Santa Clara into the resistance.

In addition to the opportunity to stir the conscience of more residents of Iquitos and enlist more neighborhoods and civic groups to their cause, core members of the Committee to Defend Water in Iquitos hinted that the real power of the May 31 march and actions in Iquitos may be in the awaking of a sleeping political giant.

The Frente Patriotico de Loreto, a militant progressive political collective dating back to the 70s, is reorganizing and remobilizing around the Nanay issue after years of self-imposed dormancy due to infighting and lack of a unifying cause. The organization has – or at least once had – political pull throughout the giant Amazonian state of Loreto and into the streets and halls of government in Lima.

The Frente called its supporters to march in Iquitos on May 31 as its phoenix appearance, piggy-backing on actions already planned by the Committee in Defense of Water, which has been increasing the heat on the Regional Government to reveal its dealings with ConocoPhillips.

Deborah Rivett, Monday, 21 May 2012

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