Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Peru: Trade policies fuel violence

The following article was prepared by Alfonso Buzzo, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns’ Faith-Economy-Ecology project, and was published in the March-April 2015 NewsNotes.

On February 5, some 200 employees of the Yanacocha Mining Company invaded the property of Peruvian land rights defender Maxima Acuña de Chaupe. She has lived in an area known as Tragadero Grande, Cajamarca for more than 20 years. In 2011 Yanacocha attempted to buy her land. When she refused to sell it, the company initiated a campaign of intimidation and violence, and legal battles ensued. This last forced eviction attempt was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Peru is home to one of the most geographically and biologically diverse landscapes in South America. Coastal beaches, desert, mountains, and rainforest can all be found within this country’s borders. Due to this rich diversity, however, Peru’s regions are slightly isolated from one another. These divisions have led to various problems in the past, and continue to be an issue today, particularly from a human rights perspective. Government corruption, bribes by corporations, and the lack of infrastructure counteract many advocacy efforts from civil society, and reinforce Peru’s resource curse: While it is rich in natural resources, most of Peru’s people do not benefit from the wealth generated from the extractive industries which destroy not only the habitat of many different species but also the homes of the native people.

In the Peruvian Amazon, for instance, the country’s politically and geographically fragmented nature makes regulation of the logging industry difficult, and it increases adversity for the communities living there, especially in marginalized indigenous villages. In September 2014 the growing issue of illegal logging manifested itself in the violent murder of four indigenous Ashanika community leaders. Edwin Chota, an environmental protection activist from the Alto Tamaya-Saweto community in the Ucayali region, was killed along with three other men from his community. The community members who witnessed the murder reported that loggers had shot the four victims in an open field in front of the other villagers. The murder appeared to be preventable, since Chota and his partners had reported receiving death threats and had previously asked the government for protection.

The tragic violence currently unleashed in the Peruvian Amazon is directly linked to the U.S.-Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The FTA opened indigenous land up to private investment by oil, mining and logging companies and to agribusiness, including biofuels plantations. In the words of indigenous leader and protestor Luis Huansi, "We will not give up until they reverse the laws that damage us. They want to take away our lands and forests and make our traditions disappear (…) we are peacefully fighting for control of the land we have lived forever."

Paradoxically, at the same time that these abuses are taking place in Peru and many other areas, the World Bank is weakening its standards on environmental and social safeguards. In early February, advocates from South America attended the World Bank consultation on the new proposed safeguards. Several participants of this gathering expressed disappointment with the Bank’s inability to explain how, when, or what criteria they will allow countries to use in the implementation of the proposed Environmental and Social Framework. For instance, polemic clauses like one allowing countries to opt-out of a new safeguard on Free Prior and Informed Consent for indigenous communities specifically undermine the rights of people like Acuña or Chota’s family over their lands, territories and resources.

Acuña has become the representative of the opposition to the open-pit gold and copper mine, and has supported people who have been forcibly evicted as a result of the mining development. The dispute is not only over more than 2,000 hectares, including four mountain-top lakes, which are the sources of five rivers that provide water for agriculture, livestock and human consumption by the population. It is also over an effort to accomplish a paradigm shift toward significantly greater sustainability and social justice for local communities.

Photo of Yanacocha mine used courtesy of the Creative Commons License (CC BY-SA 3.0)