British religious activist fighting Peru government’s expulsion order for helping Indians

By Carla Salazar, AP
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

British activist fighting expulsion from Peru

LIMA, Peru — A British religious activist is fighting an expulsion order from Peru’s government for allegedly inciting unrest among indigenous peoples protesting environmental damage from oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest.

Brother Paul McAuley, a 62-year-old lay activist with the La Salle Christian Brothers who has worked in Peru for two decades, is appealing the order with the backing of the Roman Catholic Church, indigenous and human rights groups.

“I’m very moved by the signs of solidarity and almost spontaneous activities being carried out,” he told The Associated Press from Iquitos, capital of the jungle state of Loreto.

That support has included a protest rally in Iquitos and an online appeal via Twitter by the outspoken U.S. actress Q’orianka Kilcher, whose father is a Peruvian Indian and who called McAuley “my mentor and friend.”

Peru’s government informed McAuley on Friday that it was revoking his residency because he was engaged in activities “that put in risk the security of the state, public order and the national defense.”

Peru’s Cabinet chief, Javier Velasquez, told reporters in Lima on Monday that McAuley was being expelled because the government could not “accept that foreigners can continue furtively to stir up people to shatter democratic values.”

McAuley, who was given until Wednesday to leave the country, denies breaking any laws.

He said Tuesday that he works closely with regional government officials on various projects and “can’t imagine them sitting down with people who are breaking public order.”

After moving to Iquitos from Lima a decade ago he founded a nonprofit civic group in 2004 called the Loreto Environmental Network that works on behalf of indigenous groups.

President Alan Garcia’s government has since opened up the Amazon to unprecedented mining and oil exploration and drilling. It has done little to impede rampant logging that threatens the existence of indigenous groups, McAuley and other environmentalists say.

In a letter to the Interior Ministry protesting the expulsion order, Amnesty International said it “appears to be one step further in a campaign of intimidation by the government against indigenous communities and human rights defenders who work with them”

Resistence by Amazon Indians to what they considered Garcia’s granting carte blanche to multinational oil and mining interests exploded in violence in June 2009 when police tried to dismantle a road blockade by protesters outside the Amazon city of Bagua. At least 33 people were killed, most of them police slain by vengeful Indians.

Velasquez, the government minister, suggested McAuley may have helped stir up such violence.

“The words of a religious authority must obviously be prudent because they can generate a social explosion that no one anticipated,” he said in a radio interview Monday.

President Alberto Pizango of AIDESEP, which represents 65 Amazon indigenous peoples, wrote McAuley on Monday to express solidarity.

“This government only thinks about the earnings of big foreign companies, which have become the main beneficiaries of the state,” wrote Pizango, who spent a year in exile after the Bagua incident because the government ordered his arrest.

McAuley has long worked to helped Peru’s historically downtrodden indigenous organize themselves economically and politically to defend their rights.

He began in Lima by helping them sell handcrafts abroad and, in recent years, traveled deep into the rainforest to give workshops in villages on international and national law that helped empower the Indians politically.

In February, McAuley helped Kichwa Indians file complaints with Peruvian prosecutors charging contamination of the Tigre River and its tributaries, allegedly by 35 years of oil drilling by the Argentine company Pluspetrol.

McAuley told the AP on Tuesday that he is still awaiting a response.

While he said he had no hard data on the alleged contamination, McAuley said studies published by Peru’s health ministry in 2005 found that Achuar Indians living along the Corrientes river “all had cadmium and lead in their blood.” He blames the oil drilling.

Peruvian environmental activists say the expulsion of McAuley would send the wrong signal to the country’s native peoples just as the Garcia government says it wants to negotiate in good faith with them over developing the Amazon for the benefit of all Peruvians.

“This is a very special moment in the history of the Peruvian Amazon. At no time have there been so many projects, so big and being proposed and developed simultaneously,” Mariano Castro, a lawyer with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, told the AP.

“I think that, effectively, people like Brother Paul cause discomfort in such a scenario.”

Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

(This version corrects Peruvian lawyer’s family name to Castro instead of Costa.)

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