- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

For more than a month, Indian groups drawn mostly from the vast Peruvian Amazon have come out against a package of laws that would open their region to oil and gas drilling, hydroelectric projects and biofuels farming.

Wielding bows, spears and shotguns, activists have overtaken jungle oil facilities, blocked tourist destinations and cut off thoroughfares. The effort is intended to press Peruvian President Alan Garcia to repeal decrees that are designed to bring the country’s economic framework in line with a U.S.-Peru free-trade accord.

At one point, Peru’s state oil company was forced to shut down a key pipeline after Indians overran a pumping station.

Although weeks of protests have been largely peaceful, a clash between police and protesters on Friday left 155 people wounded and at least 30 dead, including 22 police officers, according to the Peruvian government.

Mr. Garcia and many Peruvians argue that Amazon resources are part of the national patrimony.

Apart from seeking redress for historical grievances, Indian activists fear losing control of natural resources on land occupied by their ancestors long before European colonists arrived.

Some Peruvian officials see the onset of a nationwide insurgency backed by Venzuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist leader who is using his country’s oil wealth to back like-minded politicians and activists throughout the region.

“We have evidence that Venezuela is supporting the protesters,” Peruvian Congressman Edgar Nunez told The Washington Times.

“These people are extremely poor, so you have to ask how they can afford to travel large distances, camp and feed themselves for weeks at a time,” said Mr. Nunez, chairman of the Peruvian Congress’ national defense committee.

Mr. Nunez said his committee has evidence that Venezuelan funds appear to be flowing to the protesters through ALBA houses, grass-roots support centers named after Mr. Chavez’s alternative trading bloc, known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

“We are going to close down those lines of financing,” Mr. Nunez said, declining to elaborate on the nature of the evidence against Mr. Chavez or the means by which the government would try to close off purported lines of finance.

When asked whether Peru is planning to lodge a formal complaint against Venezuela, whose firebrand leftist leader has accused Mr. Garcia of being a pawn of the U.S., Mr. Nunez said only that investigations are continuing.

The Venezuelan Embassy in Lima did not return phone calls seeking comment. In the past, however, the Venezuelan government has denied any link, financial or otherwise, to ALBA houses in Peru.

In response to an investigation by a Peruvian congressional committee earlier this spring, Venezuelan Ambassador Armando Laguna said:

“Venezuela has nothing to do with the ALBA Houses. We don’t finance them, or help them. They have nothing to do with the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas,” according to an article on the Peruvian Times Web site.

The ALBA houses operate in poor areas and claim to offer locals access to free medical care in Venezuela.

Mr. Nunez, who belongs to Mr. Garcia’s political party, said his committee also has evidence that the leftist party of populist politician Ollanta Humala is backing the protesters.

In 2006, Mr. Humala lost a presidential runoff election to Mr. Garcia after being branded as an acolyte of Mr. Chavez.

Mr. Garcia, who has irked Mr. Chavez by recently granting political asylum to Venezuela’s main opposition leader, Manuel Rosales, has made no declarations concerning the international financing allegations.

But the president did throw an apparent barb at Mr. Humala this weekend, saying in a public statement that some leaders have sought political gains by taking the side of “savage extremism.” Mr. Humala in turn has accused Mr. Garcia’s ministers of carrying out a massacre.

Likewise, Ruben Binari, the leader of a Quillabamba-based Machiguenga Indian federation known as COMARU, said the accusations were politically motivated.

“Our communities have put up their own money and donated their services to make this happen,” he said. “That is propaganda put out by President Garcia.”

Alberto Pizango, a national leader of the protests who heads the National Organization of the Amazon Indigenous people of Peru, known by its Spanish acronym, AIDESEP, made headlines while wearing a feathered headdress in recent negotiations with Peruvian Prime Minister, Yehude Simon.

Mr. Pizango was recently charged with sedition and rebellion, and the government issued a warrant for his arrest on Saturday. On the same day, a popular radio program, “Radio Programas del Peru,” cited intelligence sources saying he had fled to Bolivia.

Last week in Lima, while en route to make his official declaration against the charges, Mr. Pizango told The Washington Times that indigenous groups had reached their moment in history and that the charges against him would do little to quash their momentum.

“They make me stronger,” he said. “I am not speaking. The people are speaking.”

The outbreak of violence began Friday when security forces attempted to break up a roadblock constructed by Indian protesters more than a month ago. Protesters seized police as hostages and at least 30 people were dead by the time the melee ended.

At a remote native settlement in Peru’s southeastern Amazon, residents had overrun a natural gas pumping station before being ousted by police who arrived by helicopter late last week.

“We will fight to the death,” said Mario Silva, a Machiguenga Indian donning a headband, red streaks of face paint and a traditional Indian robe, or cushma.

Standing beside him, two men clutched arrows and a sign bearing a message for the president: “Alan, listen. These arrows are for you.”

• Kelly Hearn can be reached at khearn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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