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Ben Powless

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Ben Powless is a Mohawk citizen from Six Nations in Ontario, currently based in Ottawa. He works primarily with the Indigenous Environmental Network. He is an avid photographer and sporadic writer.

Calm at the centre of the storm: Reporting from the Amazonian Peoples' Headquarters in Lima

| June 6, 2009

I've just arrived at the head offices of AIDESEP, the Interethnic Association of Peruvian Rainforest Development, the representative body of Amazonian peoples of Peru, now at the centre of a developing emergency here in Peru. I'm here at the center of a fight over who controls the Amazon and the lives of those who live there.

I had no idea what to expect coming here. What the place would look like - I half imagined a fortress, half just a normal office. In reality, it was a bit of both, an unmarked house hidden behind a big gate and an electrified fence. The reception area was abuzz with news from the Amazon region, where yesterday at least 30 people were killed in a battle between Peruvian Amazonian peoples and state police forces. I asked for the one contact I had, but he was not to be found. Instead I walked into another meeting where another gentleman had come with similar intentions as myself. After he left, I introduced myself. That's when the acting director told me he could really use someone to go and photograph and document what was happening, from their side. Someone else asked me to stay around a few weeks and help get the information out and bring people here, figuring this would last months if not longer.


It feels all a bit unbelievable to be at the centre of all this, except that it feels like the centre of a hurricane. Seemingly calm, but with debris flying all about, and you're just waiting for it to hit. The only thing on the national news is the deaths of the police, their funeral, and the order to arrest Alberto Pizango, the president of AIDESEP and widely recognized leader of the Amazonian peoples here. And here we are in the office, an hour before the press conference, trying to get information out, monitor the television and radio stations, writing press releases and answering phones. Now, watching counterprotests on television. It's impossible to know what to believe on television, least of all the government spokespeople.

The source of the current conflict is long-standing, but comes from recent provocations. Free trade agreements, to be precise, built on a long history of forceful colonization, and confrontational incursions into the Amazonian territories. Recent free trade agreements signed with the American and Canadian governments fuelled the government to go ahead with changes to domestic laws that would seek to advance mineral, logging, oil and agricultural ‘development' into previously untouched areas of the Amazon. This touched off a over-50-day protest that has shut down parts of the Amazon, as Amazonian groups decried laws that were later ruled unconstitutional (though like Canada, this doesn't mean they have to be revoked) and that threatened their very livelihoods and futures. The government responded by saying that the resources belonged to all Peruvians, not just the locals, as if human rights were a matter of majority vote.


Then, this. Yesterday at about 5am it seems a number of helicopters and ground forces showed up to remove the protestors at force. Police say that they were fired upon by armed groups. People on the ground say they were sleeping when the police started shooting live rounds, and responded by taking away the polices' weapons, with 9 police killed in the process. Many reports put the number of Amazonian dead at over 22 as part of this process, but good numbers are hard to come by here. Around the offices, calls have come in claiming much higher casualty numbers, some contacts saying over 100. Many people are using the words massacre, ethnocide, civil war. The army has been reported going house to house, with a vengeance, looking for suspects. Its hard to imagine the situation getting much better immediately, especially with the government officials calling the Indians terrorists, confused, mislead, all on national television.

Now the president is saying there are other interests behind stopping mineral extraction. Like China and Chile as competitors. A blatant attempt to try and portray the Amazonian peoples as pawns, but also an effective way to skirt around the real issues - resource extraction, and the destruction of the places where people live, in violation of their human rights. The military chief is on the air now, saying that no Indigenous peoples have been even hurt, as if the poor police were attacked by superhumans while enjoying a nice helicopter flight over the Amazon. This, after the news program has shown dead bodies of Indigenous peoples, and images have started flowing into our offices from hospitals on the groun. Now the news turns to a special report on how the Israeli security forces defend themselves against their own Amazonians.

The press conference is done now, and was aired live and replayed by a number of newstations. Soon after, all of the major interior ministers with some army officials also held their own press conference to counter what Indigenous groups were saying, applauding their calls for peace and justice, pointing out that to get to who was responsible would implicate many Indigenous groups. Of course, the state can do no wrong. This is all a bit much to process right now, but I'm working to pull together a number of contacts who can help influence things. Ways to reach the media, the masses, and the movements. I will also be counting on some of your assistance as well. More photos will be forthcoming, but you're seeing some of the first to emerge from Bagua, in northern Peru, one of the main sites of conflict. Since my plane ticket was cancelled last night, I was fortunate enough to get them to change my return ticket until next week. It looks like we may take off as early as tomorrow to visit the Amazon areas. Right now, the news is airing live coverage of hundreds of military and police gathered to receive their dead comrades. We have been hearing reports of military entering towns in vengeance. Unfortunately this may only be a brief calm.

To be continued...

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