Thursday, June 11, 2009

Protesting Very Foreign Investments

Led by an indigenous organization, tens of thousands of Peruvian Indians have for many months been engaging in non-violent protests against gas and oil exploitation of their ancestral lands. Then on June 5, when government forces in helicopters and on foot clashed with protesters blocking a road in an Amazonian province, at least 11 police officers and 30 Indians were killed and many more were wounded.

The specific aim of the protest is to cancel government legislation enacted in implementing the investment provisions of the Peru-U.S. free trade agreement, signed by President Bush in December 2007.

President Alan Garcia says the legislation will spur development. Indian opponents say it opens up communal lands and water resources to exploitation by foreign investors. Last month the nine Roman Catholic bishops in the Amazon issued a declaration calling the Indians’ complaints legitimate.

They condemned the “cruel and inhuman effort to make decisions about the possessions of riverine and Amazonian communities because they lack the legal means to defend their just demands, even in their own country.”

Thirsting for Distant Lands

The conflict in Peru comes amid an international surge in foreign investment not just by multinational corporations but also by governments and various others entities, including hedge funds and commodity traders.

“A Thirst for Distant Lands: Foreign investment in agricultural land and water,” a report released in May by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, notes that the Gulf States, China, Japan, and South Korea are also acquiring vast plots of land abroad to produce food, animal feed, and energy crops for home consumption.

As in Peru, these foreign acquisitions are generally legal, as legal is traditionally understood, that is, in accord with domestic law, even when adopted under foreign government pressure in negotiations for free trade/investment agreements. But that justification overlooks two modern realities: that rich countries promoting those agreements also advertise human rights, freedom, and democracy, and that those advertisements now instruct far-away people whose rights are violated.

More and more, then, there comes into play a factor that John Ruggie, UN special representative on human rights and business, calls a “social license.” Human rights violations can become so egregious, so intolerable that, no matter the legal license, victimized people get themselves organized to protest and to shout loud and clear Stop! No More!

That has happened in Peru.

One more challenge testing the Obama administration’s policy on foreign trade and investment.

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