Press Release / May 15, 2014

Trials of indigenous leaders could undermine Peru’s hosting of climate negotiations, warns Global Witness

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As the trial of more than 50 indigenous leaders gets underway in Peru, Global Witness urges the government to ensure a fair hearing. The defendants face up to life imprisonment for their role in protests in the Amazonas region that ended in a fatal government crackdown in June 2009, including some who were over a thousand kilometres away at the time. The case, which has culminated in the biggest trial in Peru’s history, has been characterised by misinformation and biased investigations.1

The trial comes as Peru prepares to host this year’s UN climate change conference in Lima. The government is actively promoting indigenous rights in the negotiations, and is working with communities in Peru’s Amazon, and with the World Bank, to title indigenous land and prepare a progressive new forestry law. Meanwhile the government is prosecuting the very same indigenous leaders for five-year-old protests about forest destruction.

“It is tragically ironic that the hosts of a major climate summit are criminalising people who tried to save the Amazon from destruction,” said Andrew Simms of Global Witness. “Tropical forests are a key line of defence against global warming, and are worth more in every sense standing than they are cut down. People who put themselves on the line to prevent deforestation should certainly not be stripped of their rights, their land and thrown in jail.”

At least 30 people died and more than 200 were injured in the 2009 clashes near the town of Bagua. Civilians came up against military police with tanks, assault rifles and tear gas, causing deaths on both sides. The protests were a response to a government decree that was passed without citizen consultation, rolling back indigenous land rights so that communal land could be opened up to oil drilling, logging, mining and large-scale farming. Indigenous leaders made numerous attempts to enter into dialogue with Peru’s government. The government instead opted for a military response.

In 2009 the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples called for an independent special committee to conduct a thorough investigation into the events of that day. The Rapporteur also stated that: “The prosecution of indigenous people for protests should not be used as a method to suppress freedom of expression, and should be done only in cases where there is clear evidence of criminality.”2

An independent committee was never formed, and early investigations were skewed towards indigenous actions rather than the responsibility of police leaders and politicians. This week seven indigenous leaders face possible life imprisonment for allegedly inciting violence, including some who were not at the scene.

"The real instigators of the tragedy of June 2009 must be brought to justice in a fair trial,” said Cesar Gamboa, the head of Peruvian NGO DAR (Derecho Ambiente y Recursos Naturales). “We also hope that this conflict can teach us to solve environmental conflicts democratically and with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples, who have been exploited and neglected for centuries."

In Global Witness’ recent report, Deadly Environment, Peru ranked as one of the countries where people are most at risk from state-sponsored killings of land and environmental defenders. Peru is a country of contrast. It presides over vast forest reserves, fragile ecosystems and critical watersheds in the Andes and Amazon regions, and is home to over sixty different indigenous peoples. Meanwhile mining and oil extraction have been motors of rapid economic growth, triggering numerous conflicts over land grabbing, deforestation and water contamination. From 2012 to 2013, there were at least 21 civilian deaths or assassinations resulting from such disputes, with indigenous communities worst affected.

As preparations continue for the Lima climate conference, Peru must demonstrate to the international community that it takes seriously its commitment to tackle climate change, recognises the critical role that environment defenders play in that aim, and respects, protects and promotes their right to do so. The government will struggle to do this with its indigenous leaders behind bars without due process, a credible investigation and fair trials.


For any queries, please contact:

Alice Harrison, Communications Advisor, Global Witness 

[email protected] +44 7841 338792