What a difference a week can make. Only days before Peruvian cabinet minister Carmen Vildoso resigned in protest at the government’s handling of indigenous land rights protests, she was touring Huancavelica, the country’s poorest province, showcasing anti-poverty initiatives.
Listening to campesinos’ stories of growing papaya and salad greens at elevations of 12,300 feet (3,750 meters) thanks to basic agricultural training and provisions, Ms. Vildoso seemed to be enjoying a rare “good news” moment in her portfolio. The Mi Chacra Productiva (My Productive Land) program, though small-scale (an initial $3.4 million budget to benefit 7,000 families), has begun to have an impact in the remote town of Pampas, which is about an hour’s walk from one of the main routes traversed by people hauling cocaine paste out of the valley of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers. Employment opportunities here are minimal, and for many years residents of working age have had to move to Lima or to the regional capital of Huancayo to feed their families.
For the first time, a timid young mother told me, her family could feed itself and produce enough extra guinea pigs or eggs to sell at the local market, which meant her husband could stay with the family.
That fragile optimism was nowhere to be seen this week, when a clash between 600 police and 2,000 protesters on a remote highway near Bagua in the northern Peruvian Amazon escalated into the worst violence since the Shining Path (an insurgency that terrorized the countryside in the 1980s and early 1990s) years.
A tight-lipped Vildoso resigned, saying only her departure was for “political reasons, obviously.” Prime Minister Yehude Simon told Congress Ms. Vildoso had objected to the government’s television advertisements, which showed photographs of the slain policemen.
While Vildoso’s resignation is not seismic in itself, it underscores the fact that the renewed flow of oil and gas from the Amazon to the coast is no more than a respite in a long-running saga. Protesters have called for the resignation of Mr. Simon, and Mercedes Cabanillas, the interior minister, and while Congress has suspended two of the most controversial of the decrees that sparked the protests, the government shows no sign of agreeing to a compromise.
Protesters say the decrees, which the government says are being passed to comply with a free-trade agreement with the United States, significantly weaken their land rights. But there is doubt as to whether all of the decrees have any bearing on the FTA. Large tracts of Peru’s Amazon have already been concessioned for oil and gas exploration, in line with government hopes to turn the country into a net exporter.
There have been tragic errors on both sides since the violence in Bagua. The death toll is contested, although at least 35 have died, including 22 police, nine of whom were killed after being taken hostage by protesters. Hundreds more were injured.
President Alan García has repeatedly called the protesters “ignorant,” saying they have no special right to the lands they occupy over that of the wider Peruvian population. He has also hinted strongly at a conspiracy driven by leftist elements outside of Peru. The government has sought the arrest of Alberto Pizango, leader of one of the biggest umbrella organizations for indigenous groups, on sedition charges.
Mr. Pizango, who is now trapped inside Lima’s Nicaraguan embassy after being granted asylum, called for an “insurgency” in the lead-up to the violence, but quickly clarified the remarks, saying he intended only strong but peaceful protest action.
His successor, Daysi Zapata, showed no signs of backing down on their demands to repeal the decrees. At a press conference this week, she dressed down Peruvian media for portraying indigenous people as beasts and vowed they would not “take one step back.”
Naomi Mapstone is a contributing blogger to americasquarterly.org. She is a journalist based in Lima, Peru.
**Check back to AmeriasQuarterly.org for continued coverage on the land conflict in Peru, including a forthcoming web exclusive article that looks in-depth at why the conflict originated.