Indigenous Protests, Wikileaks and Online Subtitles

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In June 2009 residents of Lima, Peru witnessed just how far removed their urban media were from the reality of daily life in the north of Peru.


Peruvian protesters in June 2009 at Devil’s Curve. Photograph by Enrique Castro-Mendivil.

The Protest
_45847643_0509_peru_bagua.gifEarlier that year Peru signed a free trade agreement with the United States that opened up water management, timber, oil, and mining to privatization and foreign investment. In terms of economic growth the free trade agreement has been a smashing success and Peru’s growth rate – nearly 10 percent – has been a major player in the global economic recovery, according to the International Monetary Fund.

As is common with economic development derived from natural resources, the flow of foreign investment into Peru has undoubtedly benefited some segments of the country more than others. (A year earlier audio files anonymously uploaded to Wikileaks caused the “2008 Peru oil scandal” in which Peruvian politicians were accused of accepting bribes to secure contracts for foreign firms.)

The first week of June 2009 a group of mostly Awajún Peruvians created a roadblock along a stretch of highway known as “Devil’s Curve” about 870 miles north of Lima in the Amazonian province of Bagua. They created the roadblock, which prevented supplies from reaching Bagua city, in order to protest how wealth was being distributed from natural resource extraction on land where they have lived for centuries.

On June 5 police were sent to remove the roadblock. Violent clashes that day between the police and protesters left at least 22 people dead, including 12 police officers. President Alan Garcia compared the indigenous protesters to the brutal Shining Path guerilla insurgency of the 80’s and 90’s, and sent federal troops into the region. Police and soldiers fired shots into crowds of protesters from helicopters. By the end of the week 12 police officers and 22 indigenous Peruvians were killed.

The Media
In a forthcoming paper that will be presented at next week’s Latin American Studies Association annual conference in Toronto, Peruvian investigative journalist and blogger Jacquiline Fowks shows how Lima’s mainstream media coverage of the Bagua protests succumbed to usual stereotypes of “warrior indians” with spears drawn while calling out “battle cries.”

The leader of AIDESEP, a coalition of local, indigenous rights groups, was filmed with shaky cameras that constantly zoomed in and out to portray a sense of anxiety, while government politicians were filmed using steady tripods, which communicates a sense of calm. The nightly newscasts played story after story about the violence, but there was hardly any analysis about the free trade agreement, mining contracts, and legislative decrees that led to the protests in the first place.

News anchors repeatedly mispronounced the names of indigenous leaders. Mainstream media soon adopted the same vocabulary as the government to describe the events. Police officers were “assassinated” while indigenous protesters were “deceased” (“fallecidos“). When indigenous leaders were interviewed by some reporters, such as Rosa María Palacios, they were ridiculed for not speaking Spanish fluently even though none of the reporters were able to speak to the protesters in their native Awajún.

Despite this general panorama of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Bagua protests, Fowks does point out that there were some exceptions to the rule. A few journalists did try to also show the conflict from the point of view of the Awajún, but language remained a crucial divide.

On June 8 Frecuencia Latina aired a segment titled “The Vision of the Overcome” (“La Visión de los Vencidos“), which showed Awajún reactions to the deaths of their fellow residents. During this highly emotional time the Awajún interviewees did their best to respond in halting Spanish, fully aware that Peruvian journalists do not speak their language.

However, the most powerful moment of the segment comes at the 21 second mark and lasts until 1:26. It shows a sobbing Awajún woman screaming angrily in her native language after her husband had just been buried. Frecuencia Latina aired a full minute of her highly emotional testimony on primetime broadcast television, but they did not include any subtitles or description of what she said. Here is the full video of the original segment:

One of Peru’s largest broadcast media companies was not able (or willing) to find a single Awajún speaker to provide a translation of the woman’s testimony. In fact, the segment exemplifies the treatment of indigenous Peruvians in Lima’s media: seen but not heard; portrayed, but not listened to.

When Jacquiline Fowks watched the segment she immediately decided to find an Awajún speaker to translate the woman’s words. The next day she wrote to Fermín Tiwi, an Awajún lawyer from Bagua who was temporarily living in Lima. The following day she received the translation, which she posted on her blog. That post was widely linked to by influential bloggers such as Marco Sifuentes and was read 12,000 times; more than any other post on Fowks’ blog. What the Awajún woman said was this:

Please listen to us Mr. Alan Garcia:
You are guilty because you exterminated us.
You are killing us.
You are selling us.
You are the terrorist.
We are defending our territory without the use of guns, our only weapons are spears and small sticks that aren’t meant to kill like you have done to us.
You exterminated us using guns, bullets, helicopters, and you killed our brothers, sisters, students, teachers, children.
Alan, we ask you to come here to our territory and pay us the debt that you owe us.
Alan, you sold the country, you sold the indigenous, you sold our natural resources: gold, petroleum, water, and air. You contaminate our natural environment and you leave us poorer. Now you see how we live and how you’ve left us.
We, the Awajún-Wampis have not asked you to exterminate us, but rather that you help us. That you help educate our children that you have now killed.
We are not taking away your private property. We have not killed your children, your family. Why are you know finishing us off?
You have exterminated us! We are left with nothing!!

The Technology
When I read the transcription of the sobbing woman’s words on Fowks’ blog, the Bagua protest/massacre ceased to be just another indigenous protest; one of thousands that take place in Latin America every year. (Beatriz Merino has noted that there were 260 social conflicts in Peru in April 2009 alone.)

Those words brought a swollen lump to my throat and water to my eyes. As an American consumer of cheap timber, oil, and minerals, I know that I am also implicated in her rage, even if she does not know that herself.

After receiving the translation from Tiwi, Fowks forwarded it on to Frecuencia Latina and asked them to re-air the segment with subtitles. The following day they did, as you can see in this shaky video uploaded by YouTube user “tvbruto01″:

That is the closest we have of a subtitled video of this nameless woman’s important testimony. Until today her words were never made available in English. I assume that you agree with me that her testimony is an important historical document, not just as it relates to the Bagua protest/massacre but also the Awajún community, the relationship between the Peruvian government in Lima and its multicultural residents in the provinces, and the social and environmental impacts of free trade agreements with the United States.

Frecuencia Latina should be celebrated for its role in airing one of the few broadcast segments that show the impact of Bagua from the perspective of the Awajún-Wampi community. But there is no excuse to air the important and compelling testimony of a woman without offering subtitled translation.

The internet now offers us new opportunities and challenges to make video content accessible in all languages, and for the hearing impaired. In the next post I will review the current state of technology related to subtitling online video, and review some of the obstacles and opportunities to make more content accessible for more people.

But first I wanted to take the time to show the importance of subtitling. Peru’s economy continues to grow spectacularly despite the global economic downturn. A new generation of Peruvian elites enjoy top-rate and increasingly expensive Peruvian cuisine in the capital while indigenous communities continue to organize, especially in the natural resource-rich north of the country.

The Bagua protests led to several important consequences. The two decrees that caused the protests in the first place were overturned and Prime Minister Yehude Simon resigned. Congress passed a new law to gives indigenous people the right to be consulted ahead of any projects on their land, but many doubt that the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (Indepa) has sufficient resources or powers to enforce the law and broker the conversations.

Whether the government in Lima and Peru’s 7,000 indigenous communities (making up one third of the population) will speak the same language depends both on their commitment to listen to each other, and to embrace the importance of translation.

David Sasaki
David Sasaki is the Director of Rising Voices, a global citizen media outreach initiative of Global Voices Online.

He manages a portfolio of small-scale projects around the developing world that use citizen media to effect social change.

Prior to his current focus on outreach, he served as Global Voices’
Latin America Regional Editor, monitoring the Latin American blogosphere, highlighting key content and translating select posts from Spanish to English.

Sasaki transitioned into online journalism after working as a freelance
web developer and English instructor in Monterrey, Mexico. He now splits his time and residence between North and Latin America and writes frequently at Rising Voices, Online. He manages a portfolio of small-scale projects around the developing world that use citizen media to effect social change.

Prior to his current focus on outreach, he served as Global Voices’
Latin America Regional Editor, monitoring the Latin American blogosphere, highlighting key content and translating select posts from Spanish to English.
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