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The Commission of Inquiry's Report on the Violent Events in Bagua, Peru: A Truth Commission with Little Truth

Late December, the administration of Peruvian President Alan García rammed through a final report of the special commission to investigate and analyze the violence that erupted last June 5 in Peru's Bagua province. The report of the Commission Of Inquiry has been widely criticized as an embarrassing attempt to validate the government's version of the root causes of the events.

On June 5, members of the Peruvian National Police (PNP) were ordered to remove indigenous protesters in the Curva del Diablo region of Bagua in a police operation that left 33 people dead and 200 wounded. The protesters were taking part in a general strike called by the Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP) to demand the repeal of several legislative decrees passed to facilitate the enactment of the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement, and effectively remove many indigenous communities from their lands.

The Commission of Inquiry's stated purpose was to "determine the socio-cultural, economic, political, and religious causes and consequences that gave rise to the events ...in the Bagua Province," but its final report lacked any semblance of the analytical rigor or in-depth analysis that might have clarified the events of that day. Instead, Peruvians were presented with a propaganda document that conveniently aligned with the García administration's version of events.

The commission was comprised of a seven-member team that included three representatives chosen by the indigenous protesters, three representatives of the national government, and one representing the regional governments. On December 22, several commission members held a press conference in Lima to present a summary of their report.

Two of the indigenous representatives were conspicuously missing from the presentation, having been excluded for their refusal to support the final report. Both of them, Sister Mari Carmen Gómez Calleja, a Catholic missionary in Bagua and witness to the June 5 violence, and AIDESEP representative and Commission of Inquiry President Jesús Manasés, had already withdrawn from the commission, claiming the report was not the work of an impartial investigative body. Ultimately, the commission's report was signed by only four of the remaining commissioners, as one of the national government representatives had resigned earlier.

In clarification of their actions, Mr. Manasés and Sister Gómez presented a letter to the Minister of Agriculture dated December 25, 2009 in which they highlighted 43 points of contention with the commission's work. The letter noted that the García administration consistently demonstrated a lack of political will to support the commission's efforts. Although officially installed on September 7, the government never approved a budget to fund the commission's work and the resources provided by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) were never efficiently used; the Minister of Agriculture, for example, only approved two short trips to the Bagua region to conduct interviews.

According to the pair, the government also actively sought to obstruct the commission's work by not allowing the commissioners to interview key members of the García administration. This included President García himself who often supported his development policies with overtly racist arguments that denigrated indigenous peoples for opposing his plans or his former Foreign Trade Minister Mercedes Araoz who stated that the repeal of the legislative decrees would endanger the implementation of the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement and possibly lead to U.S. sanctions against Peru. Former Interior Minister Mercedes Cabanillas who ordered the PNP operation was interviewed but according to Mr. Manasés in a recent interview, arrived a half-hour late and answered few questions.

Mr. Manasés and Sister Gómez also asserted that the commission lacked the time to fully review and debate the collected materials in order to come to some form of consensus as to the actual causes of the violence in Bagua. They criticized the effort by the report's authors to find multiple actors responsible for the indigenous violence of June 5 while almost completely ignoring any errors made by the political leaders and security forces. For example, the report uses overtly racist language to blame indigenous peoples as the primary aggressors due to their inability to control their inherently combative nature.

Indeed, the report singles out one ready-made cause for the violence: external actors' supposed manipulation of indigenous people's combative nature and ignorance of the legislative decrees in order to organize them in furtherance of a leftist political agenda. These "outsiders" include the political opposition of the Peruvian Nationalist Party of Ollanta Humala, and members of the national teachers union SUTEP, both strong opponents of the government's neoliberal development plans.

The report identifies other groups for reproach as well, like the media for broadcasting misinformation about the events, Catholic missionaries from the nearby town of Jaén for failing to pacify the indigenous protestors, and unnamed NGOs for teaching indigenous peoples about their rights without referencing their corresponding responsibilities to the state and their fellow citizens. It should be noted that none of the "accused" were given an opportunity to respond to the report's allegations.

In their letter, Mr. Manasés and Sister Gómez asserted that the interviews with representatives from indigenous communities in the region did not support the argument that they did not understand the decrees. They also pointed out that the collected evidence appears to have been cherry picked with very few of the hundreds of interviews making the final report and even then, often taken out of context.

Noticeably absent from the report is a strong critique of the role of the political and security forces. As president of the Commission of Inquiry, Mr. Manasés had repeatedly requested documents from the government concerning investigations of PNP Generals Elías Muguruza Delgado and Javier Uribe for their irresponsible management of the Bagua operations that needlessly imperiled the lives of police and civilian participants alike. The government denied access to the reports, citing that investigations were ongoing.

Among the many documents Mr. Manasés requested was an investigation conducted by Luz Rojas, former district attorney of nearby Utcubamba province. Ms. Rojas was summarily removed from the investigation and transferred to the Chachapoyas office in early August after determining that there was enough evidence to press charges against the two PNP generals. She has also received numerous death threats since initiating the investigation and remains without state protection despite repeated requests to the PNP and the Ministry of the Interior.

While the report provides a general historical perspective of indigenous political and economic marginalization as a cause of the conflict, it completely ignores concrete actions like governmental efforts since the 1990s to weaken the legal protections of indigenous land rights in the Amazon in order to facilitate their transfer to extractive corporate interests.

Mr. Manasés and Sister Gómez also noted that indigenous communities were upset that the legislative decrees were developed and passed without their free, prior, and informed consultation a right that Peru has yet to fully implement. Although the final report does state that Peru has joined several international instruments that recognized the right to consultation, like the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the International Labor Organization (ILO) 169, it fails to mention that Peru has also accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court (IAC) which has issued several opinions concerning indigenous rights, including the Saramaka People v. Suriname, a watershed case that recognized and articulated the legal framework for the right to consultation and is binding on Peru.

Further, the report makes no reference to the García administration's nearly permanent hostile posture towards indigenous peoples' rights to their lands and resources as well as their concerns over government polices that impact those rights, including the criminalization of their leadership.

The government has also attempted to marginalize or dismantle indigenous leadership. Last July, the García administration used the governmental entity National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (INDEPA) to indirectly finance the installation of a parallel AIDESEP Board of Directors. And on October 20, the Justice Ministry notified AIDESEP that it had requested the Public Prosecutor's Office to either force the organization to cease its operations or appoint a new board due to its activities that conflict with the public order. The government's threats were discussed during the Inter-American Commission's hearings on the human rights situation in the Amazon in November and the international attention appears to have forced the hand of the government, which has withdrawn the request.

Not satisfied, the governing APRA party also created its own indigenous organization, the National Campesino and Native Agrarian Confederation (CONAC), a national body made up of campesino and native agrarian commissions already belonging to the APRA party. CONAC's purpose was to become a pro-government intermediary between indigenous peoples and the administration of their fellow Aprista, Alan García. The organization was off to a rocky start, however, when not a single representative from the provinces attended its first national assembly held in Lima in December.

The future of the final report is unclear. The regional governments have ordered that their representative's signature be removed and calls continue to grow for an independent commission. Nevertheless, the García administration will likely continue to push forward with its development plans as indigenous peoples increasingly are confronted with multinational corporate interests intent on exploiting natural resources on their lands. Beyond the extractive industries however, a potential greater threat to indigenous collective property rights looms in the distance, that being the enormous infrastructure projects currently being developed as part of the multi-billion dollar Initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRIS) that will likely include hundreds of projects effecting indigenous communities across the country. If Peru's government does not change course towards a more inclusive and participatory development process, the violent events of Bagua may be just the beginning.

[Source: By Kristina Aiello, NACLA, NACLA Research Associate, NY, 16Jan10]

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