Red gold, Black gold

An Amazonian nightmare

FOR THE past seven years, the Peruvian state and its financial backers have been waging a largely unreported war against the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Not since the dark days of the nineteenth-century rubber boom has so much destruction been visited upon these isolated rainforest tribes, who currently face the very real prospect of annihilation.

Last May, startling images revealing the presence of a previously “uncontacted” tribe in a remote corner of western Brazil near the Peruvian border made the news headlines. Mainstream coverage of the story was predictably shallow, dwelling (for the most part) on the sensational aspects of this “jungle discovery.”

What the corporate media failed to report was that the people appearing in these images were, in all probability, traumatized refugees who have recently fled from neighbouring Peru where a major environmental and humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold.

In 2001, Alejandro Toledo Manrique—a U.S.-trained economist and ex-World Bank employee—was elected to the presidency. Despite making much of his pueblerino origins during the campaign, Toledo’s worldview was virtually identical to that of his opponent, the dictatorial incumbent Alberto Fujimori. Both were tireless advocates of neoliberal economic ideology and its attendant slogans: “free trade,” “deregulation” and “privatization.”

Shortly after he assumed office, Toledo’s former paymasters at the World Bank made it clear that the approval of further “development loans” was contingent on an accelerated opening-up of the Amazon (and other areas) for commercial exploitation. Eager to please, the new leader rapidly proceeded to eliminate all barriers to “investment.”

As a result of Toledo’s radical reforms (which surpassed even Fujimori’s free market policies), foreign companies operating in the Amazon were no longer obliged to pay “prohibitive” royalties.

The Peruvian Amazon, a wondrously biodiverse region of vast ecological significance, is home to the world’s largest remaining stands of mahogany. Often referred to as “red gold,” this rainforest hardwood fetches exorbitant prices in the United States, Europe, and China, where it is used to make high-end furniture, luxury automobile dashboards, and other consumerist frivolities.

Enabled by the “business-friendly” attitude of the Toledo administration, logging teams began felling mahogany and other precious hardwoods in previously pristine reaches of the Amazon. Rainforest hectares were sold off for less than a dollar, creating vast timber fiefdoms overnight. Before long, thousands of square kilometers of rainforest had been obliterated, resulting in a mass extinction of rare flora and fauna species.

In keeping with standard timber industry practice, specialist teams of armed mercenaries accompanied the loggers. Groups of indigenous people living in voluntary isolation were routinely tortured and murdered as an example to other chunchos.

Survivors of the timber industry’s slaughter campaign fled further into the jungle, only to perish in huge numbers from the unfamiliar diseases to which they had been exposed. Typical death rates exceeded 50 percent within a few months of first contact—a replication of the original pattern of conquest and colonization in the Americas.

During the Toledo years, the tormented peoples of the Peruvian Amazon also had to contend with a full-scale invasion by the heavyweights of the international fossil fuel industry. Working in collaboration with a host of foreign corporations, the state-owned petroleum company (PeruPetro) presided over a frenetic expansion of exploration and drilling activity.

This trend has intensified under the born-again neoliberal Alan Garcia Perez, who relied on millions of dollars worth of U.S. government-sourced campaign funding to win the 2006 presidential elections. Over 70 percent of the Peruvian Amazon is currently leased for oil extraction (up from 13 percent in 2004).

Private security teams employed to “protect” drilling platforms have been involved in a long-running campaign of intimidation and violence, complementing the genocidal activities of the loggers. Particularly vulnerable are the undocumented groups living in voluntary isolation—for they can be shot and killed on sight without public scrutiny or intervention. The government is more than happy to turn a blind eye. According to the chief executive of PeruPetro, “It’s absurd to say there are uncontacted peoples when no one has seen them. This is a tragic little game that we don’t want to play.”

Concessions operated by multinational companies now account for well over one hundred million acres of rainforest. U.S.-based companies are well represented in the “Black Gold” bonanza, along with a bevy of European, Chinese and Latin American firms. There are no meaningful environmental management standards to speak of, and millions of barrels of contaminated wastewater routinely find their way into local rivers, converting once-thriving ecosystems into toxic sludgelands.

Indigenous organizations have repeatedly condemned these practices, which have proved utterly devastating to their way of life. In the words of the Achuar people, “The Peruvian state just wants to extract as much oil as they can from our land. They’ve made millions of dollars but we haven’t seen it here. We know there’s wealth here and there’ll be more drilling so the state will keep on killing us.”

The Garcia administration, which denies the existence of all but the most visible Amazonian tribal groups, refuses to acknowledge—let alone act upon—such concerns. Indeed, since the ratification of the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement in late 2007, the pace of fossil fuel development has been greatly boosted. This latest encroachment has forced many isolated tribes to find whatever sanctuary they can on the Brazilian side of the border where various agencies have observed in recent months a steadily increasing number of arrivals from Peru. They face an uncertain future in Brazil, where multinational resource companies are also stepping-up operations.

These displaced Amazonian tribal groups are the survivors of a ruthless campaign of conquest; they are war refugees in all but name. For this crisis, neoliberal “development” policies are largely to blame, just as they are to blame for much of the suffering inflicted on the “surplus population” of the Global South.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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