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Remembering the Violence at Bagua, 1 Year Later

A Memorial for Peru's 'Tiennamen Square'

by Anna Luisa Daigneault

Pizango Speaks at the Memorial in Bagua, Peru on June 5th 2010. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Pizango Speaks at the Memorial in Bagua, Peru on June 5th 2010. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Candle Light Vigil, June 4th, Bagua Memorial Event in Peru. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Candle Light Vigil, June 4th, Bagua Memorial Event in Peru. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Activist Speaks at Candle Light Vigil, June 4th, Bagua Memorial Event. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Activist Speaks at Candle Light Vigil, June 4th, Bagua Memorial Event. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Bagua Woman Lighting Candle at Memorial Cross, June 5th. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Bagua Woman Lighting Candle at Memorial Cross, June 5th. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Crowd at La Curva Del Diablo, Bagua, Peru. June 5th 2010. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Crowd at La Curva Del Diablo, Bagua, Peru. June 5th 2010. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Anna Luisa Daigneault interviewing the uncle of one of the police officers who died at La Curva del Diablo. June 5th 2010. Photo by Bronwen Moen.
Anna Luisa Daigneault interviewing the uncle of one of the police officers who died at La Curva del Diablo. June 5th 2010. Photo by Bronwen Moen.

On June 5th, 2010, under a scorching hot sun, hundreds of mourners gathered at a remote section of highway called 'La Curva del Diablo' (The Devil's Curve), located near Bagua, in northern Peru. People came from all over the country to commemorate the deaths of over 30 people who died one year ago at this fateful site. Simultaneous memorials were also held in cities all over Peru.

It was a slightly chaotic scene. Over loudspeakers, people shouted slogans such as 'La selva no se vende, se defiende' (the jungle is not for sale, we must defend it). Small children ran up and down the cactus-covered hill, selling multicolored popsicles and fluorescent soft drinks to the sweating crowd. People crouched in prayer in front of a large white cross erected in honor of the dead. Tense whispers spread among the mourners, in anticipation of the arrival of Alberto Pizango, the famed Awajun indigenous leader who is being portrayed in the Peruvian media as a criminal, guilty of perpetrating violence against the state. Students waved posters of Pizango's passionate face, his gold teeth gleaming against a blood-red background.

What happened one year ago at Bagua?
The events of June 5th, 2009 are being called 'Peru's Tiennamen Square' and are linked to the current global struggle for the control of the diminishing oil reserves on Earth. The exact details concerning the killings that took place near Bagua are still nebulous and many conflicting reports and opinions could be heard at the memorial event. People cited different figures concerning the number of people who were killed in the violence. While the official body count is currently at 34 (a tally that includes 25 local police officers and 9 indigenous people), many local Bagua citizens speculate that up to 100 Awajun and Wampis activists died at the massacre and that their bodies have been hidden from the public eye by the national police.

The issues surrounding the Bagua massacre are complex and are related to the protection of indigenous land rights and the exploitation of native territories by the oil industry. In June of 2009, dozens of Awajun and Wampis indigenous people traveled from the Amazonion jungle to camp out at the La Curva del Diablo, a strategic location for trucks entering from the Pacific coast into the Amazon region. They held their ground for two weeks, in protest of controversial government laws that allow national and multinational corporations to exploit natural resources in indigenous territories.

As it stands, 72% of the Peruvian Amazon has been conceded to multinational corporations by the Peruvian government for fossil fuel exploration and extraction. In a nutshell, the Awajun and Wampis activists wanted the Peruvian government to recognize and respect native lands as well as adequately consult indigenous people before extractive activities begin.

According to the Peruvian media, tensions rose between the indigenous protesters and the local Bagua police, which led to a violent stand-off that left 34 people dead and a hundred people wounded. However, at the memorial in 2010, many survivors of the event reported to us that protesters and local police did not actually clash, but that both sides were in fact attacked by the Peruvian national police.

Eyewitnesses related that police helicopters were sent in from national headquarters to violently end the protest. They claimed that the national police exterminated all those on the ground, killing protesters with gunfire from above, and in the process also killing many local Bagua police officers. To cover up the massacre, local people in Bagua say that the national police imposed a 3 pm curfew for all citizens, cordoned off the area for many days and disposed of all the bodies by burning them.

While an official investigation and subsequent released statements did not reveal any more deaths, local people remain adamant that many more people died than was admitted, but the exact numbers are unknown. However, despite the differences in factual details, the extreme nature of the eyewitness stories is a testament to their painful grief. All the people we spoke to were outraged by the events and spoke of a strong desire for justice in the face of oppression.

For more background on the 2009 events, please see:

The Bagua Memorial and its Ideological Landscape

Many different leaders spoke to the large crowd gathered at La Curva del Diablo. Their discourses varied and their words were at times both unsettling and uplifting to the listeners. Some hardcore anti-extraction activists referred to the multinationals in Peru as evil propagators of capitalist values and rapists of La Pachamama (Mother Earth). They led chants that encouraged the crowd to reject all forms of exploitation of native lands and focused on environmental preservation.

Other indigenous leaders did not condemn the multinationals, but expressed hope that their communities would be able to reap the financial benefits of the economic activities, and thus combat widespread poverty, improve education, promote health and encourage the economic development of the jungle. These speakers emphasized their frustration that foreign investors were getting rich while Peruvians remained in the dust. As one speaker aptly put it, 'Nosotros tenemos la vaca, y ellos toman la leche' (we've got the cow, but they drink the milk).

While all speakers agreed that violence, corruption and oppression in Peru must end, they did not agree on proposed strategies to end the conflict and had fundamentally different perceptions of indigenous self-determination and economic development.

The most intense speech of the day was that of Alberto Pizango, the Awajun indigenous leader who had recently returned from exile in Nicaragua. He gave a measured yet captivating speech that provided a detailed account of the history of all economic activity the Amazon. He spoke of the sacrifice made by his fallen brothers, the struggles of his people for land recognition and implored the government to protect indigenous rights and the precious ecosystem of the jungle. For his own protection, after he spoke, he was escorted away by bodyguards and the local police and this caused a brief but mad flurry of fans who were trying to follow him and speak to him.

The memorial was also marked by two Awajun elders who spoke in their native language about the killings. They sang several traditional indigenous songs to a hushed crowd and their voices filled the valley with the power of their ancestral past. The memorial ended peacefully and the crowd dissipated as people headed back to the towns of Bagua Chica and Bagua Grande in packed moto-taxis. The upcoming months will reveal more about this situation as pressure is placed on the Peruvian government to protect indigenous rights.

(The fieldwork to write this article was carried out by Anna Luisa Daigneault and Bronwen Moen, both from Montreal, Canada).

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annaluisa_daigneault (Anna Luisa Daigneault)
Member since March 2009


I am a graduate student studying ethnolinguistics in the Anthropology Department of Université de Montréal. My current work is on the Yanesha endangered language of the southcentral Peruvian Amazon. My thesis focuses on the factors leading to the disappearance of the Yanesha language and women's sacred songs. I have recently been accepted to work as a field linguist on an expedition to Paraguay with the National Geographic's Enduring Voices Project. I am also a singer and musician and play in a experimental project called "Banana and the Flying Colors" as well as a freak-folk band called "Feast of Spirits" in Montreal, Canada.

1132 words


everyday indigenous life in the peruvian amazon

 If you would like to know more about everyday indigenous life in the Peruvian Amazon, please visit       You will see amazing photos, all of them taken by the children who live there.  It is a unique, intimate perspective and a true document of their realities.  Thank you.  

comments on the article

Hi Anna! just read you article about the Bagua incidents. I would love to talk about what you heard from the people down there. It has made me think about several things... Its a bit long but I think its important

I am against irresponsable industries and criticize the lousy laws regulating communication between amazonic groups, provate companies and government. Added to this The ownership laws related to this are virtually inexistent. I think these facts led to the situation we saw in Bagua. But they are not the only causes.

I think you are living behind some important stuff that shows the complexity of the problem.

First of all, we must not forget that Pizango, in an irresponsable act, called to violence in national radio to all amazonic groups, lying about the selling of the land, and using a racist discourse, refering to Lima's population and the president as "Whiteys". For this he must assume his partial responsability in the death of 30 or pressumably more persons.

Secondly, You must take in account the presence of some left wing groups such as Humalistas, using the amazonic people historically. By the way, as in any other place, people from the amazon are made up of several groups with political interests using the weakest for their own interests too. Pizango is a politician and he is no exception to the rule.

About the murders. No one really knows what happended. A comission with international obeservers has stated that most of the dead people were the policemen. Their bodies were found with machete cuts.

I must tell you that before this comission stated its veredict, a trustworthy friend of mine gave me first hand information. He was THERE when it happened. ANd he surprisingly told me the same thing the comission stated. A group of natives kidnapped a group of policemen who were planning to clear the road and murdered them.

Then the people who had taken the road murderd the policemen and the policemen just tried to defenf themselves. The police action was a disaster. Policemen were irresponsably exposed to a great danger by the government.

That is first hand information I received. I trust this person.
I don`t know what happened though. Nobody knows what really happened. What I know is that this is a very complex scenario. There is not a good and a bad side, but shared responsabilities and strong political interests from the government, the MOSAIC of amazonic political groups, and private companies.

The Amazonic peoples have long time ago taken political action. As in any place there are good politicians and bad politicians. I think the analysis should be done from that point of view. Not doing so can keep us in the idealization of natives as the good savages, which is the root of the problem: we do not see them as legitimate politcal actors, as citizens.

I think it is great to keep on debating on this stuff. It is necessary. Some solutions?

1. The actors responsible for the deaths must pay: Mercedes Cabanillas (former MInister of inside affairs) for exposing policemen to an unnecessary danger, Pizango and the other politicians involved manipulating the natives, and Alan Garcia for not supporting a true and egualitarian dialogue between the private companies and the communities.

2.The government MUST develop a law to regulate an effective communication between companies and natives, so that political groups or private companies don`t use the masses for their own benefit. INFORMATION, education and Freedom of choice

3. Like Hernando de Soto has stated, the land ownership system must change to give the natives some confidence. WHo can they trust if they do not own their land?

4. Punish strongly form of violence, including the blocking of roads which has become a tradition among the native and andean communities.

5. All of these are necessary for the change to be carried out. Not only repression or good laws will do.

On Indigenous Consultation

 Thanks, Efrain, for all your comments. We are in agreement with many of the points you brought up. This is a complex situation with many different participants. Where does the responsibility for violence lie?  Until there is a balance of power, minority groups should be protected and respected. The government must definitely listen to the voice of Amazonian peoples to really understand their side of the issue. It is important to not romanticize them, but it is also crucial to listen to them and know more about their ancestral ways and the multi-faceted reasons why they are defending their lands. 

Unfortunately, since the indigenous people are not properly consulted and often ignored in Peru, it leads them to take strong and disruptive actions such as blocking the roads, in order for their opinions to be heard. While we do not think violence is an acceptable means of protest, we think that the situation was extreme, and that both sides were definitely provoked, and that it led to violence. Everyone has different opinions on who started what, and who killed who, and we will not know what truly happened that day because a lot of the evidence is no longer available to examine. 

In the end, it comes down to Alan Garcia's government changing its policy on the privatization of Amazonian lands. No matter how you spin it, the government did not negotiate the oil concessions adequately with indigenous groups, nor did they respond to the conflict properly. Garcia's government focuses purely on the sacredness of foreign investment and the exportation of raw materials, and this does not lead to sustainable development in the remote areas of Peru. It leads to contamination and the further erosion of indigenous cultures in the Amazon. 

(thanks to Richard Chase Smith of El Instituto del Bien Comun for helping us understand the broader dynamics of economic development in Peru). 


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