A determined campaign by indigenous people has forced the Peruvian government to temporarily suspend new laws that would permit the global oil, gas and timber corporations to expand into virgin forest on the Amazon river.
Leaving their land, the members of the resistance blockaded the main road linking the two industrial cities of Tarapoto and Yuri-maguas earlier this month. In bloody clashes with the authorities, 20 police were killed and an unknown number of members of the resistance. The authorities are accused of burning bodies to hide the number of dead.
The indigenous people, who live in traditional tribal communities, say the government has no right to steal their ancestral lands and hand them over to global corporations. Armed with bows and arrows, and blow pipes, they plan to continue fighting until the laws are not only postponed, but abandoned.
They have no choice, they say, because once the loggers, miners and oil and gas companies come, their way of life would be destroyed. One of their leaders, Alberto Pizango, was accused of “sedition, conspiracy and rebellion”. He took refuge in the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima and as part of its retreat the government has agreed to allow him to leave for Nicaragua unmolested.
Peruvian President Alan Garcia claims that the exploitation of the country’s “natural resources” is essential to tackle widespread poverty. His government passed the new laws to try and get a free-trade agreement with the US. Some 40% of Peru’s people live in poverty and hunger is widespread. Peruvians tempted to think he has a point, need only look north, to Mexico, to see what free trade brings – unrestricted development of sweat shops, the destruction of communities, a permanent low-wage economy and frightening levels of air and water pollution.
In Brazil, South America’s free trade model and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, the vast majority continue to live in abject poverty. According to the Human Development Index, a measure that looks at life expectancy, education and purchasing power, Brazil is still ranked 70th of the 177 countries for which figures are available.
Or they could look further away, to the Niger Delta and see what oil wealth has brought to the Ogoni people. The Ogoni used to be a prosperous farming people, who supplied most of the cassava and yam consumed in Nigeria. Now farm land is polluted beyond use, farming communities have been broken up and unemployment is over 70%. There is one doctor for every 50,000 people.
Free trade does not tackle poverty – it embeds it, legalises it and regulates it. Capitalist globalisation – the ever-expanding and voracious search for profit – cannot permit the survival of traditional ways of life and farming. It must draw everything into the system, and then it condemns the majority to live in poverty.
Two billion workers earn less than $2 a day. The average per capita income in the most advanced country is now 58 times that of the least developed country. Over half of the world's population lives on 5.6 per cent of the world's income.
Capitalism is a plague that will destroy every eco-system and every way of life. Indigenous people are amongst the bravest when it comes to resisting. We should boldly follow their lead and challenge the right of states to enforce laws that make us and our environment subject to the needs of the banks, the corporations and the capitalist system.