The Multinational Monitor



Indigenous Voices

An Interview with Sanots Afsua

Santos Adam Afsua, an Aguaruna Indian, is the Secretary-general of the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), which represents 21 regional organizations comprising 60 indigenous peoples with a total population of 300,000. AIDESEP is a member organization of the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Peoples' Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).

Founded in 1984, COICA is an international organization representing indigenous organizations of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia and Brazil.

We have organized to be able to defend the resources, to defend the inhabitants and to defend the homeland. MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: To what extent are indigenous rights respected by South American countries and to what extent are the indigenous peoples allowed self-governance?

SANTOS ADAM AFSUA: Historically, the governments of the countries in the Amazon Basin have never recognized our traditional organizations. They have considered the forest an empty space to use as they wish. That has been their excuse to promote so-called development, which has led to the destruction of our forest.

Because of our persistence in opposing this penetration of the forest by national or multinational organizations or companies, we have been seen as obstacles to the government. As a result, the indigenous people have been subjected to incredible levels of repression, massacres, torture, jailings, abuse and mistreatment. Facing that situation, we have seen the need to further organize to be able to better struggle against these abuses [and] these new forms of colonialism. We have organized to be able to defend the resources, to defend the inhabitants and to defend the homeland.

And this is one of the reasons why we have decided as an international organization to take the initiative ... and talk directly with bank officials, to multilateral development banks, to environmental organizations: to explain directly how the intervention affects us.

MM: How do you view the rainforest?

AFSUA: You must understand that we try to maintain the forest as our ancestors have maintained, protected and taken care of it. That is extremely important because the destruction of the forest would not only ruin our homelands but would have a worldwide effect. The issue is not just to protect the forest; the issue is also to [rely on] the people that are able and have for millenia been able to protect and maintain the forest. There is no time to lose, and bank officials and others must understand that we are not only talking about ourselves, but about the future of the world.

It is important to point out that the forest is not just the forest in itself, is not just the trees or animals, it is also the people who live in it. We have to look at the integrated form.

The attacks on the forest are not only taking place in the Amazon Basin in Peru. The same problems that we face are being faced by our brothers in Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil and Bolivia. And that's why we needed to organize an international coordinating body: to be able to express common problems and to seek common solutions.

In trying to maintain the forest, the banks and environmental groups are trying to commercialize it through so-called "debt for nature swaps" without realizing that there are Indian people who have been able to conserve these spaces, to protect the forest. The only areas in the Amazon that have not been affected by the overall destruction and that are still left with certain ecological and environmental balances are the areas and territories where we live.

We live to protect the forest with the best ecological and environmental knowledge that we possess, a knowledge we inherited from our ancestors. We do this with the understanding that we will continue living there, and we have to protect this forest because we have to think of future generations.

MM: Have any governments treated the indigenous people well?

AFSUA: All governments [fail to] take the Indians into consideration. The governments come and go and they bring different ideas, and they each bring different plans. All of this is geared to the same destruction, to destroy our lives. So we have no hope, no matter who is in government.

MM: The assassination of Chico Mendes of the rubber tappers received a lot of publicity. Have the indigenous leaders received similar international attention for their work and for the harassment to which they have been subjected?

AFSUA: We have been the object of a different type of attention. Different types of actions that indigenous peoples have done have received certain levels of international attention. Two years ago, because of the struggles that we have been waging, COICA received the alternative Nobel Peace Prize. But it is very difficult for us to get that type of attention, that type of treatment; that is why we came to the U.S. to speak directly [to decision-makers and the people of other countries].

MM: What has been the indigenous peoples' experience with multilateral banks?

AFSUA: A lot of the loans from the multilateral development banks which have gone to the governments in our region have been used for specific political purposes. They have never reached the people and the people have never benefited from them. We do not have anything to do with all these debts. We are not part of that and we should not be responsible for resolving the problem.

Many of the projects sponsored by the multilateral development banks involve providing credits so that people, colonists, can come to our forest. These credits have been used to invade our territories, without respect for our spaces. These loans have been made without our having been consulted and without our consent, and that is totally inappropriate. That is why we have taken this initiative [to visit the United States]; because we need to engage in a dialogue to stop this type of destruction. We are here to raise the conscience of the people who are in charge of making these loans. They don't know about this reality, they don't know about what they are doing to our lives.

MM: Are multinational corporations the driving force behind your land being taken away and misused? Or do you feel the problem is more with governments and multilateral banks?

AFSUA: It is all connected; the multinational companies are connected with the banks. The companies open up roads when they do exploration for different types of [raw materials]. These companies destroy the ecological balance through the pollution they produce; they destroy the water; they destroy the air; they destroy the soil.

MM: In 1982 the World Bank published a paper on tribal people and economic development. At that time the Bank said that it was going to start paying more attention to the concerns of indigenous people. Did you note any change around that time? Did the paper make any difference at all?

AFSUA: Since that publication there has been a real gap, a lack of real change by the Bank. In 1986 the president of COICA met directly with the president of the World Bank to talk about the need to stop the loans which harm us. We have, since then, been able to slow down or stop some of the projects. Of course, this has been to our favor, and has worked against the interests of the big developmentalists, so we see that there have been some improvements.

However, we still do not see any change from the World Bank's notion of economic development, a notion which is totally different from our concepts of development.

MM: How successful have your recent meetings with the World Bank been?

AFSUA: We have been able to meet with some Bank officials. We could not meet with the president of the World Bank, as we had hoped to do. However, we have been able to meet with the vice president for Latin America, and some officials of various departments, especially the environmental department of the World Bank. In these meetings we have expressed our concerns, and we have put forward specific positions. We have submitted and we have discussed. Now time will tell what will happen.

MM: What sort of things did you want to communicate to the environmental groups?

AFSUA: We have come to meet with the different environmental organizations to tell them, first of all, that the only people that can really conserve the environment are our people.

The environmental organizations usually contract a bunch of experts that go to our regions to do their studies; but we have realized that these people misinterpreted the reality, our reality.

In our meetings with the environmental organizations, we believe that they have taken our points very seriously. We have said that the environmental organizations and the indigenous organizations need to communicate and coordinate directly.

MM: Several of the environmental organizations have advocated "debt for nature" swaps in which environmental groups pay off some of a country's debt in exchange for guarantees that some of that country's rainforest will be preserved. How do the indigenous peoples' organizations view the debt for nature swaps?

AFSUA: We believe, first of all, that the debt has been created by a total mismanagement of foreign loans, of foreign capital. The governments are responsible for this poor management and use of resources. Now the governments are trying to find ways to pay their interest and to pay back the debt. They have looked at alternatives [to direct payment], like the debt for nature swaps.

This is one of the reasons we have met with the banks and the environmental organizations: to make them understand that the debt for nature swaps cannot take place with our land because that debt is not ours; we have not contributed in any way to that debt.

MM: Do you think your meetings with the environmental groups were successful?

AFSUA: Our meetings with the environmental organizations have helped to establish a linkage. Now we have decided that we are going to meet again. There is going to be a meeting that will take place in the Amazon early next year. We expect that an the environmental organizations with which we have been in touch will be able to come, so we can then start working on common programs.

MM: You want to form an alliance of indigenous people, environmental groups and the rubber tappers, nut gatherers and other people who use but do not destroy the forest. But there have been reports of conflict between indigenous people and the rubber tappers.

AFSUA: Some conflicts exist between our groups and the rubber tappers, but many more exist with the colonists, the people who come to work on the big cattle ranches. They're the ones with whom we have the most problems.

... we have to protect this forest because we have to think of future generations.
We do not have anything to do with all these debts. We are not part of that and we should not be responsible for resolving the problem.

Crimes Against the Indigenous People of the Amazon Basin

  • Massive deforestation has led to changing water levels in major rivers. The incidence of major flooding along the Ucalyali Valley in Peru has increased with the deforestation of the eastern slopes of the Andes. The Quicha people along the Napo River are suffering from the effects of the floods, especially the loss of fish.
  • Hundreds of families of the Ashankinka people in Atalaya, Peru are kept as slaves on farms or forced to cut timber without pay. Young girls are kept captive in landowners houses and forced to service them at will. Both young and old are mutilated and beaten for trying to escape. Tuberculosis is rampant. In 1988, the Peruvian government pressured the landowners, but, after a few months of inaction by the Peruvian government, the landowners again clamped down on their Indian slaves.
  • In his enthusiasm for conquering the Amazon, Peru's President Belaunde (1963-1968, 1980-1985) estimated that for each kilometer of road which his administrations built in the Peruvian Amazon, between 400 and 1000 hectares would be incorporated into productive activity benefiting the nation. In fact, along the "penetration" roads are wasted pasturelands, burned over forest, denuded hill and desperately poor peasants. The results are similar at the new route between Chanchamayo and Satipo in Peru, the road to Lago Agrio-Coca in Ecuador, BR364 in Rondonia, Brazil and the road into the Bolivian Beni. It is estimated that of the five million hectares that have been destroyed along the Eastern slopes of the Andes, only between 20 and 30 percent are still under production.
  • While the logging interests are a significant threat to the rainforests, most of the timber reserves are wasted. When vast areas are felled for cattle ranching or other monocropping, millions of cubic feet of wood are burned and wasted. In 1978, Peruvian forestry expert G. Malleaux estimated that only 6 percent of the timber felled in Peru that year reached the market at all. In 1988, in the Brazilian state of Acre, local authorities had to close down the airport in Rio Branco, the capital city, because the haze of smoke from the burning forest reduced visibility to such an extent that planes could not land.

    -From: "The C.O.I.C.A.: For the Future of the Amazon," October 1989.

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