Saving Land Using a New Language: “Corporatese”
For indigenous people in Peru, for thousands of years being a good steward of the forest meant speaking the language of animals and plants, and mastering the nuances of their interdependence. These days, being a good steward means in addition to this, speaking the language of oil executives and interior ministry officials, and mastering the nuances of territorial law.
Helping indigenous people develop and understand the nearly impenetrable language of corporations without losing the old has been the lifelong mission of Pedro Garcia.
Garcia first came to Peru in 1970 with friends fleeing Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. When his friends were chased back home by the rainforest’s discomforts, including rabid bats, Garcia stayed. He helped two tribes set up a market and health care center, but his first big achievement, he says, was securing them legal title to the valley where they lived.
Indigenous groups in the Amazon face threats to their land from all directions. Overpopulation in other areas of Peru pushes farmers and livestock owners onto rainforest land, which once cleared, rapidly degrades. An even greater threat has come from the government’s need for oil, gas and lumber to fuel Peru’s economic development.
"A people without land is a people with no life," says Edwin Vasquez, a member of the Ashanika tribe. The Ashanika are one of 66 remaining native groups who have for millennia considered themselves stewards of the Amazon.
Although the government has acknowledged since the '70s that certain territories belong to the indigenous tribes, this has done little or nothing to stop loggers and oil companies from brazenly clearing forest, polluting resources and endangering the health of the people. The impact on the traditional culture is equally, if not more devastating.
“The key to defense is learning how to negotiate," Garcia contends. When it comes to fighting for their land rights, "[indigenous people] have to be prepared to enter the debate arena and not simply count on experts allied with the indigenous cause." Negotiation means navigating the divide between international law, which broadly recognizes indigenous cultural rights and national law which weakens those rights.
In 1995, Garcia set up Racimos de Unguahul, to train indigenous groups in effective negotiation. Mastering the vocabulary and concepts used by government and corporate officials in technical discussion is not easy. For people with no formal education who’ve never had radio or television, it is a leap to another world. Garcia developed two week workshops for groups throughout the jungle that combined role-play and other strategies to help them master the technical concepts.
They also took workshop participants to places in Peru or Ecuador where oil drilling had gone on for 20 years “so they could see the devastation for themselves.”
"At first we didn't know where to begin," says Edwin Vasquez leader of an indigenous group that participated in the workshops.
Today, the workshops have shown results. Gradually more and more of the land claimed by native peoples is theirs by title. Companies which formerly needed only government permission are now obliged to get a signed contract from a locally recognized indigenous organization, for instance.
And in 2006, the first court case was brought by a Peruvian tribe against an oil company for environmental pollution that left local people with dangerously high lead and cadmium levels in their blood and contaminating the water so that animal life disappeared. The oil company agreed to new guidelines for re-injecting most of their waste into the ground where it no longer posed an immediate toxic threat.
What do you think?
Even if new oil company exploration does not ignore the land rights of indigenous people, what is to be done about the effect that existing oil companies have on the culture when the young people leave their villages to go to work for the existing oil companies? For millennia indigenous peoples have taken care of the forest because their survival depends upon it. When the oil companies offer money and goods, how can the culture (and the knowledge that it cultivates) survive?
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