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Groundbreaking News for Peru’s Indigenous Inhabitants and Their Ancestral Lands

Thanks to Rhett A. Butler of the environmental science and conservation news site, for the images of Peru

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Peru Leads the Way for Latin America’s Indigenous Communities
A new law recognising the land ownership rights of Peru’s native inhabitants sets an important regional precedent
September 12, 2011 | Mattia Cabitza | The Guardian

Polluted river entering a rainforest river

In February, after a legal battle lasting nearly two decades, little-known indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Amazon region won a multi-billion dollar landmark ruling against the oil giant Chevron. The company was accused of polluting a large part of the Amazon basin by dumping billions of litres of chemical-laden materials, which campaigners said destroyed crops, killed livestock and increased cancer rates among the local population.

The oil firm is appealing the ruling, so the indigenous population and other residents affected by the years of environmental damage may never see a cent from Chevron for the clean-up of their lands. Yet, whatever the outcome, it is rare for indigenous people in Latin America to be awarded compensation for damage to their ancestral lands. From northern Mexico to the southern tip of Chile, it’s more usual for commercial intereststo get their own way when it comes to development projects affecting indigenous people or their territories.

In Brazil, for instance, the construction of the Belo Monte dam, which will flood a huge area, is going ahead even though it will force the displacement of indigenous Amazon tribes, threatening their very survival. In Guatemala, gold extraction at the Marlin mine continues despite an international ruling calling for the suspension of mining operations, and regardless of the fact that the resulting pollution is detrimental to the health of the surrounding indigenous Maya communities.

Against the wider backdrop of a struggle that pits the ancestral owners of untapped natural resources against greedy governments and corporations, Peru’s new law on the right of indigenous people to prior consultation may set a regional precedent in avoiding lengthy legal battles and, more importantly, in the prevention and reduction of social conflicts.

Getting to the law has not been easy. In June 2009, more than 30 police officers and indigenous protesters were killed in Bagua, in the Peruvian Amazon, after months of demonstrations over the sale of rainforest for oil and mining exploitation turned violent. The deadly clashes in Bagua prompted the Peruvian congress to grant indigenous people the right to prior consultation on legislation or infrastructure projects that would affect them or their territories. But it wasn’t until Ollanta Humala became president two years later that the bill finally became law.

Rainforest creek in Manu

The bill was signed on Tuesday in the town of Imacita, in Bagua province itself. Afterwards, Humala dismissed the reasoning behind his predecessor’s veto. Alan García had argued that foreign investment in indigenous land was needed for Peru’s economic growth; the mining sector represented some 60% of the country’s exports last year. Instead, Humala told state TV that the new legislation would “strengthen investment” because the government would be able to use consultations to reduce the risk of social conflicts that drive investors away.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights praised Peru for finally complying with its international obligations and catching up with the rest of the region. But for Carla García Zendejas, from the Washington-based Due Process of Law Foundation, Peru’s new law goes further in its regional accomplishment. “It marks an important moment for Latin America,” she says. “The hope is that other countries will follow [in Peru’s footsteps].”…

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