How the indigenous in Peru have continued to fight, despite centuries of oppression, and now
offer hope for our future.
William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is certainly the
case when we consider the legacy of colonization and indigenous conflict here in the Americas.
Modern civilization has been built upon soil soaked with indigenous blood and filled with their
graves. But that conflict is nowhere near its end.
Money talks, but indigenous people unfortunately don’t get heard until somebody starts throwing rocks
Even today, indigenous communities’ lands are being taken, their environment degraded, their labor exploited, and their voices silenced by the powerful institutions of the modern world. Especially in Peru, there is overwhelming evidence of violence in just these last ten years. The
indigenous continue to be overpowered and exploited. Ryan Juskus, assistant director of
Wheaton College’s Human Needs and Global Resources program, shares “Money talks, but
indigenous people unfortunately don’t get heard until somebody starts throwing rocks.”
In 2009, in Peru’s province of Bagua, this tendency was clearly shown. Indigenous people and
other advocates were protesting state efforts to open up the region to increased development
through mining, oil-drilling, and other large projects. When their protest led them to block a
segment of the road, Peruvian security agents opened fire from their helicopters. Almost two
hundred people were either wounded or killed.
This is not the only case of indigenous voices being clearly ignored. Early in the new
millennium, the Peruvian government began a large highway project, aiming to build a road that
would span the entire continent, opening up large areas to more trade and development. They
continued with this project, though it was projected to heavily encroach upon indigenous lands,
attract exploitive businesses, promote illegal trafficking, and cause severe environmental
degradation. Construction is now complete, but the entire impact of this new route is only
beginning to be understood.
Almost every kid under the age of five has lead poisoning… So
basically, you have a whole city of kids just crippled
Another indigenous area, La Oroya, located in the southern Andes, is the site of a continued conflict between one mining corporation and the indigenous people that are both employed and harmed by it. Doe-Run, a corporation based in St. Louis, operates a large zinc processing plant
in the midst of an indigenous community. Though the corporation does provide some jobs and
money, their presence is far from beneficial. “The plant pollutes the environment, the water, and
the air; and almost every kid under the age of five has lead poisoning,” Juskus explains, “So
basically, you have a whole city of kids just crippled.”
Besides the tangible deterioration of lands and negative health impacts, companies like Doe-Run are often harmful at the economic level as well. Though they masquerade under the banner of development, bringing increases of jobs and capital, employment to large corporations often turns into a form of bondage. They make it difficult to maintain traditional subsistence lifestyles, forcing people to work. Those people have to take out company loans for food and housing, and become indebted to the system. They become like slaves.
That is why indigenous communities so often protest, distrusting any involvement in their lands
and lives whether by the government, companies, or development agencies. Yet their voices go
unheard, because they have so little power.
The indigenous in Peru are rarely even recognized by their state. Registration for citizenship is
both costly and inconvenient, creating a barrier for legal participation. Indigenous people can thus be classified as a part of the “Fourth world”, a term used today to refer to stateless people.
They are those whose rights and lives are often neglected because they represent a globally
powerless minority. Their values and lifestyles often do not coincide with those in power in their
states or on the world scale. Therefore, their interests are rarely considered and any rights they
do have are almost never enforced.
Thankfully, that is not the end of the story. There are numerous organizations working to
promote the desires and rights of indigenous groups, and the indigenous people themselves are
anything but passive.
Paz y Esperanza is one non-profit organization advocating for indigenous people in Peru and
other South American countries. In the past few years, a Korean company ECOAMERICA has
laid claim to the land of the Shawi people living in the Amazon jungle in the region of San
Martin. But Paz y Esperanza has stood by the Shawi. It has pressured the state to reinforce the
laws which require indigenous people to be consulted before their lands are sold or repurposed.
In fact, many efforts to help are now being made. The devastation in La Oroya has been actively
addressed by the Presbyterian church in St. Louis, where Doe-Run is based. It was effectively
closed down for a time while negotiations occurred.
Then, just this month, Paz y Esperanza released a report, sharing their progress and hopes
regarding indigenous citizenship. Their director in the province of San Martin, Jorge Arbocco,
shares that they are trying to open up the state, so that it will work alongside the indigenous
people in local initiatives toward development. The next step is to get the more than 90%
unregistered indigenous legally recognized.
By far the most exciting development, however, has been made by the indigenous people,
themselves. Passionate about the preservation of their lands and ways of life, the indigenous in
Peru have started to come up with alternate visions for the future that challenge modern
development theories. Their proposal, called “sumak kawsay” in Kechua, or the “good life”,
envisions a future where the interconnectedness of life, work, and nature are emphasized.
Rather than human domination, they desire harmony.
Indigenous communities and other groups termed as part of the “fourth world” may lack power
and representation, but they have valuable experience and insight to offer the world. That is why
it is imperative that this be a millennium distinct from those of conquest and imperialism which
came before. We must rally alongside the oppressed, draw attention to their cause, and listen
carefully to the vision they cast for a better future.
“We have so much to learn from indigenous groups about different ways to run a society and
interact with the nonhuman world”, Juskus says. And we certainly do have a duty to make sure
their lives and perspectives are smothered no more.
Photo Credit: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/world/americas/25peru.html?_r=0 http://www.sierraclub.org/trade/globalization/us-peru-fta.aspx http://amazonwatch.org/news/2011/1017-the-privilege-of-working-with-indigenous-rainforest-guardians-iii