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Forest Fighters

Developers tearing down the Peruvian Amazon have a new enemy.

Satipo, Amazon Basin, Peru--On the fourth floor of the National Museum in Lima, there's a photo exhibit of Peru's long "dirty war" against the leftist Shining Path guerrillas during the 1980s and '90s. A series of wall-sized photographs illustrate two decades of bombings, roundups, secret arrests, and massacres that left 70,000 dead. The exhibit has been criticized for both overstating and downplaying government atrocities, a sign that this era in Peru's history remains controversial. Just two weeks ago, former president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights crimes committed during the war, fueling a fierce national debate over what actions are justified in the name of security.

But there's one aspect of the exhibit that seems particularly relevant today. A small room in the museum documents the little-known role of Peru's Ashaninka Indians, who drove the Shining Path from their rain forest redoubts in the late 80s with bows and arrows and Army-supplied machine guns, suffering up to 10,000 casualties as a result. Now, 20 years later, the Ashaninka are resisting yet another incursion into the Peruvian Amazon, the world's fourth-largest rain forest. But this time, they're not fighting Maoist guerrillas. They're fighting developers.

In recent years, the Peruvian government has been handing out exploratory and development concessions to international firms lining up to prospect the forest's rich stores of minerals, lumber, gas, and oil. The frontier towns in the Amazon Basin are booming. Roads are multiplying and stretching ever deeper into the jungle. Where roads can't reach, the forest is dotted with dirt helipads offering entry for equipment, engineers, and security personnel. Look at a commercial map of Peru and you'll see a quilt of concessions covering nearly three-quarters of the rain forest--far more than in any other Amazonian country. Small firms like Occidental, Burlington, Harken, Plus Petrol, and Repsol are doing the early work, paving the way for bigger firms to roll in later.

As a result, protests are spreading among Peru's indigenous tribes. Last month, more than 100 Amazonian communities declared a permanent "state of emergency" after Peru granted a large oil concession to Brazilian and Colombian companies. The last five years have seen several high-profile kidnappings of oil and mining employees, leading the Peruvian government to establish jungle garrisons in response. And the rhetoric is escalating. "We will not allow any more concessions in the indigenous Amazon Territories," Alberto Pisango, president of National Organization of the Amazon Indigenous People of Peru, recently told the Tierram?rica news service. "Without a doubt there will be conflicts," says Jos? de Echave, of CooperAccion, an NGO that monitors the mining industry in Lima. Veteran observers of the region say the conflict could easily escalate from peaceful protest and the occasional kidnapping to coordinated guerrilla attacks on oil and gas infrastructure.

Energy exploration and mining are not new to Peru, which has been a leading producer of base and precious metals for centuries. But industry has traditionally been limited to the Andes region and the coast. This began to change in the late 1990s, when Fujimori opened up the Amazon to development. Now, with oil and mineral prices stagnant, observers say that the current government is sweetening deals by giving away more primary rain forest to keep the companies in the region. Not only does the influx of industry threaten to unleash vast amounts of stored carbon--deforestation in the Amazon releases more carbon-dioxide than the entire U.S. economy each year--but it may embroil the Amazon in a level of conflict not seen since Shining Path guerillas came down from the mountains in the 1970s.

The transformation of the Amazon can be seen in a frontier town like Satipo, which was a sleepy trading settlement just 15 years ago--the final electrified outpost before dense jungle swallowed up the lone dirt road going east through the mountains and into the Amazon. The only visitors were Ashaninka Indians who paddled upriver to work on Satipo's few plantations, or came to acquire the occasional tin cooking pot or swath of cloth. But today, the town is rife with modern hotels and Internet caf?s that service visiting field staff from oil and mining firms, as well as the occasional Korean and Japanese trader looking for deals on much-coveted mahogany. 

Because the threat to the Amazonian tribal lands is also a threat to the global climate, the sell-off in Peru has prompted a surge of international preservation efforts. Johan Eliasch, a British sporting goods mogul, recently founded a new initiative to buy up and preserve threatened portions of Peru's rainforest, as well as fund sustainable development among the Indians. Indigenous-rights groups like Survival International, meanwhile, have launched a campaign to hold Lima accountable to international laws governing the protection of Amazonian Indian lands, including those areas inhabited by some of the planet's last "uncontacted" tribes, who eschew all interactions with outsiders.

But groups like Survival are finding it hard to crank out press releases fast enough to keep up with the concessions. Two weeks ago, Perupetro, Peru's state oil company, announced plans to auction off up to twelve new lots for oil and gas exploration in land inhabited by uncontacted tribes. "The concessions violate international law and the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples," says Stephen Corry, Survival's director. "And it could have catastrophic consequences for the environment and the Indians who live there--including extinction." According to reports by the Brazilian government's Indian Affairs Department, Peru's last remaining uncontacted tribes are already retreating east into Brazilian territory to escape contact with disease-bearing loggers and oil prospectors.

Still, the tribes in retreat are the minority. Most are girding for a fight and stepping up their protests. They are demanding that the government respect their rights and consult them before allowing developers onto their tribal lands. What's more, the Indians understand their fight is one with global stakes. This was made clear in a 2004 declaration issued by COICA, an umbrella organization representing the Amazon's indigenous associations. "We will fight together with our parents and children to take care of the forest," it read, "and save the life of the equator and of the entire world." So far, the government in Lima has given little indication that it takes such statements or the Indian protests seriously. But this may change as the concessions pile up, the pollution associated with oil and gas development spreads, and Indian resistance stiffens.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist based in New York City.