For the first time, a representative of the indigenous communities in Peru’s Amazonas region is sitting in Congress: Eduardo Nayap, an Awajún leader who played a central role in the lengthy protests against laws that opened up native territories in the rainforest to oil, mining and logging companies.
(IPS) – For the first time, a representative of the indigenous communities in Peru’s Amazonas region is sitting in Congress: Eduardo Nayap, an Awajún leader who played a central role in the lengthy protests against laws that opened up native territories in the rainforest to oil, mining and logging companies.
The Awajún people, also known as the Aguaruna, number about 332,000 – barely 1.1 percent of Peru’s population of 28 million. However, the small size of the group did not deter them from rising up against former president Alan García’s policy of granting extraction concessions to private companies without prior consultation of native communities in the Amazon jungle whose land was affected.
Months-long protests by indigenous people turned violent in a clash with the police on Jun. 5, 2009, at a roadblock near the town of Bagua in the north of Amazonas region, leaving 23 police and at least 10 civilians dead.
The bloody conflict was the catalyst for the election of 55-year-old Nayap, who has wasted no time. His first move upon being sworn in to Congress in late July was to present a bill to oblige national authorities to consult fully with indigenous communities before taking any action that would affect them.
Nayap was actually out of the country at the time of the “baguazo”, as the clash in Bagua has come to be known. Furthermore, politics was not the natural bent of this theologian, sociologist and mathematician. But after the tragic killings stained Awajún history with blood, he was persuaded to run for Congress by the “apus” (chiefs) of his people’s 281 villages.
He stood as a congressional candidate for Gana Perú, the party of President Ollanta Humala, for the region of Amazonas, home to 76 percent of the Awajún people.
Amazonas is one of the 14 regions with the highest poverty levels out of the country’s 25 regions. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI), 50.1 percent of people in the region are below the poverty line.
While Nayap belongs to the Awajún people, he made it clear in this interview with IPS that he represents all of his “brothers and sisters living in the Amazon region.” As an indigenous lawmaker, he feels he represents the expectations and hopes for justice of all 51 of Peru’s native peoples, who live in 1,786 village communities in 11 of its regions.
Q: What is your people’s history?
A: Goodness, I’ve never been asked that by a journalist before. During the “baguazo”, most of the media sided with the government of the day, calling us “savages” instead of bothering to find out who we were, why we were protesting or why we resorted to self-defence. They heaped lie upon lie and demonised us, because they knew nothing at all about us. They had a false notion of who we are.
Q: So, who are you?
A: The Awajún, like all the other indigenous tribes, are a good-natured, happy, hospitable and friendly people. We enjoy sharing with people who come to visit us. We have never hurt anyone. We are not hostile.
Q: What are your dreams?
A: Better living conditions, and development to enhance our life. More than 70 percent of the Awajún live in Amazonas region.
What is happening in the region is a disgrace. The Peruvian economy has experienced remarkable growth, but the exclusion, isolation and marginalisation of indigenous people has been exacerbated. This is progress with injustice. We have no paved roads, health clinics or schools, and although there are bilingual teachers, there are too few of them and they are poorly paid.
Q: How many Awajún have made it to the university, like yourself?
A: I don’t know – perhaps no more than 100. Indigenous students who want to go to university have to travel about 500 km to Chachapoyas (the capital of Amazonas region), partly by road and partly by river, a journey of over two days.
Native people cannot afford this enormous expense. It’s like a curse weighing on us.
Q: Doesn’t the state grant scholarships?
A: There are no university scholarships for indigenous people, which is a sign of contempt. I am like an island in the ocean, an exception, an anecdote, a chance occurrence. I was born in the native community of Numpatkaim in the Imaza district of Bagua province.
The evangelical church that my family belongs to paid for me to study in Trujillo, the largest city on Peru’s northwest coast, and to attend the Nazarene Seminary of the Americas (SENDA) in San José, Costa Rica, where I earned a degree in theology.
Q: What were you doing when the “baguazo” broke out?
A: I was employed in three positions in the Costa Rican capital when I heard the call of my people. I am a researcher for Humanitas (a non-governmental organisation); I am in charge of campesino (small farmer) capacity building for the San José office of the European Union; and I was working for World Vision International, a Christian relief organisation.
I dropped everything and joined the struggle. I could not turn a deaf ear to the cry of my people.
Q: In Congress, however, you are only one among 130 lawmakers.
A: Well, previously there was no one, so our presence is a victory. We achieved the goal of getting into parliament. Now the challenge is to pass laws that benefit indigenous people. It’s a huge responsibility, so I have to make sure that our voice is heard.
Q: Why are indigenous people opposed to foreign or domestic investment in their territories?
A: We are not opposed to investment in the indigenous territories. What we demand is respect for our status as owners of the land.
Natural resources must be respected. We do not want foreign companies coming to our region just because of the oil and the gold. There are men and women there too, who own the land. The companies see the gold, but they don’t see the men and women who live there.
Q: Did the “baguazo” mark a before and after in the history of the Amazonian indigenous peoples?
A: The “baguazo” means two things. On the one hand, it brings memories of grief, tears, pain and mistreatment by the government, which did not wish to sit down with us at a table for dialogue. It preferred to use its guns against us.
But on the other hand, it has a positive meaning, because thanks to the “baguazo” we are now on the national agenda.
Everyone pays attention to us now, because they know who we are. We are the people who made history with the “baguazo”.