Indians and imperialism: why Bolivia and Peru’s war of words is turning nasty
Growing confidence of the tribes is spreading across South America

By Andrew McLeod

THE EXPLOSIVE confrontation between Peruvian President Alan García and the nation's native population, over plans by the government to open up tribal areas in the Amazon for oil exploration, has spilled over the country's borders. Accusations are flying that both Bolivia and Venezuela are fomenting unrest among Peru's indigenous peoples.

"Agitators and political leaders from Peru's rivals", García said, were trying to disrupt the country's free-trade agreement with the USA. García 's foreign minister even branded Bolivian president Evo Morales "an enemy of Peru".

The war of words between Peru and its regional rivals comes against a backdrop of violence inside the country.

Clashes between police and indigenous demonstrators left at least 34 dead in Bagua on the main highway to the Peruvian Amazon from the capital, Lima. The escalation in violence is symptomatic of attempts by indigenous tribes across South America to redress what they see as 500 years of colonial subjugation and exploitation.

The ferocity of Indian resistance forced the congress to scrap the oil exploration laws and brought about the resignation of the prime minister, Yehude Simon. The interior minister, Mercedes Cabanillas, was also under pressure to step down over her handling of the crisis.

It is no secret that Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president and an ally of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez - himself half Indian - opposes any government that enjoys good relations with the US. Last year Morales accused Peru of allowing the Americans to set up a military base on its territory. The US said around 100 US soldiers were in Peru to do "humanitarian" work and there were no plans for a base.

Earlier this month Morales called on a congress of South America's Indians to move from "resistance to rebellion, from rebellion to revolution". Hailing Peru's about-turn over oil exploration and rejecting criticism that he was interfering in Peruvian affairs in a "messianic" drive to oust García from office, Morales said he did not see himself as a thorn in the side of his neighbours, but felt he had to speak out against economic and development policies "wherever they are destroying the environment, planet Earth, and as a result, humanity - this is not a private matter".

Peru has Latin America's fastest-growing economy but the crisis has threatened García's attempt to attract more foreign investment to a country rich in natural resources but where most people live in abject poverty.

Under special powers granted by congress, García last year issued decrees to implement a free-trade agreement with the US which the tribes feared would hand their ancestral homelands over to foreign oil and mining companies. Environmental and human rights campaigners claim the amount of Peruvian Amazon territory open to oil exploration would have risen from 13% to 70% had the oil laws been implemented.

While admitting he should have consulted more closely with Indian leaders, the president says the laws aimed to protect the tribes by shifting the region away from illegal logging and mining, coca-growing, and drug-trafficking.

Indian leaders are suspicious, citing last year's corruption scandal over the allocation of oil contracts that led to the resignation of García's entire cabinet. For centuries, international borders drawn up in post colonial times have meant little to the indigenous populations.

There was fresh evidence of this in the accusation by Peru's foreign minister, José Antonio García Belaunde, that Bolivian Indians had crossed into Peru in support of the Peruvian protesters.Unlike in the past, when indigenous movements were led by white urban intellectuals, the leaders of the protests are indigenous themselves.

They are also better organised. When one leader was granted asylum in Nicaragua, others quickly took his place.

The Indians have an ally in leftwing Peruvian nationalist politician Ollanta Humala, a retired military officer and losing candidate in the 2006 elections won by García in a run-off. A veteran of the 1990s war against the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) terrorists, he has embraced Chávez's "Bolivarian" vision of a united Latin America and is at odds with García in believing that regional integration must take precedence over agreements with the US.

García , in turn, has dubbed Humala a Chávez "pawn".

Andrew McLeod is a writer and analyst on Latin American affairs