Bagua grande, Peru—Daylight had not yet broken on a remote road outside this small city in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest of northern Peru. but along the narrow strip of highway—known to locals as the Devil's Curve—thousands of protesters were huddled. Most were members of indigenous tribes. It was June 5, 2009, and they had been blocking the highway for two months.

The tribes and the environmental activists allied with them were demanding the repeal of two legislative decrees that had opened the rainforest to oil exploration, mining and large-scale agricultural development. The Amazon natives feared new exploration would force them out, and felt slighted after the government set a plan in action without consulting them. Their confrontation with Peru's president, Alan Garcia, had reached a fever pitch.

Protesters built makeshift tents of plastic sheeting on the highway and used tree trunks and rocks to block passage...

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