(above) Indigenous protesters fighting logging and drilling blocked a road in northern Peru on Friday as police tear gas hung in the air. Photo: AP

Fatal Clashes Erupt in Peru at Roadblock


LIMA, Peru -- Clashes between indigenous protesters and security forces on a remote jungle highway in northern Peru left more than a dozen dead on Friday, including 11 police officers, heightening tension over intensifying protests by indigenous groups over plans to open vast tracts of rain forest to oil drilling, logging and hydroelectric dams.

Initial accounts of the clashes varied. Indigenous leaders here said the killings unfolded early on Friday after the police fired from helicopters on hundreds of protesters who had blocked the highway in the northern Bagua Province, with at least 22 civilians killed. The Chachapoyas Medical Association, in the region where the killings took place, put the number of dead Indians at 25.

Peru's interior minister, Mercedes Cabanillas, said the police did not initiate the bloodshed but were "victims of the frenzy." Prime Minister Yehude Simon said Friday night that 11 police officers and 3 Indians had been killed, and that 38 police officers and a civilian engineer were abducted by the protesters.

The protests are part of an increasingly well-orchestrated campaign by indigenous groups that have been inspired in part by similar movements in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Angered by the government's failure to involve them in the plans, the indigenous groups in Peru have surprised the authorities with their sudden strength and organization and are now threatening to blunt President Alan García's efforts to lure foreign investment to the region.

"The president thought we would be docile in accepting plans that could completely change the way we hunt for food and raise crops, and we are not," said Juan Agustín, 41, a Shipibo Indian and a leader of the Peruvian Jungle Interethnic Development Association, an umbrella group here representing more than 300,000 people from dozens of indigenous groups.

The protests have disrupted oil production and pipelines, blocked commerce on roads and waterways, and halted flights at remote airports. While shortages of fuel and food have been reported in some jungle areas, the real concern is that the protests will succeed in cutting energy supplies to major coastal cities.

The killings in Friday's clashes in Bagua, near an oil pipeline that was a target of the protesters, present a robust challenge to Mr. García, with indigenous leaders here describing them as "genocide." Officials imposed a curfew in the region as they tried to prevent further violence.

Mr. García had already declared a 60-day state of emergency on May 9 in areas affected by the protests, which began in April. But the move seems only to have escalated tensions, with protests spreading from northern Peru to strategically important locations in the country's south.

Last weekend about 200 Machiguenga Indians occupied valve stations on the pipeline that moves natural gas from the huge Camisea project in the southeast. Soldiers regained control of the sites, the energy ministry reported. But indigenous leaders said they would try again.

The protesters demand that Mr. García repeal decrees that have made it easier for companies to enter the Amazon Basin, and they have focused on thwarting larger projects.

For instance, leaders from the Asháninka indigenous group are trying to derail a plan by Eletrobrás, a company controlled by Brazil's government, to spend more than $10 billion to build five hydroelectric plants in Peru.

"We want an immediate halt to every project that was conceived without consulting those of us who live in the forest," said Daniel Marzano, 39, an Asháninka leader from Atalaya Province.

But it is the coordinated focus of the protests on energy installations that has most alarmed analysts and Peru's business and political classes, who overwhelmingly live in coastal cities.

"The leaders have a strategic vision of hitting the country where it hurts," said Alberto Bolívar, a security expert, who pointed out the potential for the protesters in some remote jungle areas to combine forces with a resurgent faction of the Shining Path, the Maoist group feeding off Peru's cocaine trade.

On Friday, the guerrillas fired on a helicopter carrying troops in southern Peru, killing one soldier and wounding four others.

Aldo Mariátegui, editor of the daily newspaper Correo, speculated that the protests were being supported by the governments in Venezuela and Bolivia to oust Mr. García. It is a view held by some among Peru's political and business elite.

Indigenous leaders interviewed here rejected the notion, however. Instead, they said conflict arose because the government had opened the rain forest to new investments without thoroughly consulting or involving the people who live there.

In the case of oil, for instance, at least 58 of the 64 areas secured by multinational companies for oil exploration overlay lands titled to indigenous peoples, according to a study last year by scientists from Duke University.

Explaining the government's position last month, Mr. García said, "We have to understand when there are resources like oil, gas and timber, they don't belong only to the people who had the fortune to be born there, because that would mean more than half of Peru's territory belongs to a few thousand people."

Such views resonate in a country of nearly 30 million people where almost three-quarters of them live in urban areas. But the protests, which show few signs of abating, offer a different vision of how Peru should develop.

Even before the clashes in Bagua, the government used the navy this week to break through blockades on the Napo River in the north to allow barges for Perenco, an oil company planning to invest $2 billion, to move deeper into the rain forest.

"Now we have a government resorting to using military force to spearhead development of the Amazon," said Paul McAuley, an environmental activist in the Amazonian city of Iquitos with Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic lay order. "This cannot be a strategy that is sustainable."