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Assessment for Indigenous Highland Peoples in Peru

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Indigenous Highland Peoples in Peru, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Peru Facts
Area:    1,285,220 sq. km.
Capital:    Lima
Total Population:    23,850,000 (source: various, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Though they no longer appear to have reason to fear random political violence, Peru's highland indigenous peoples still face significant challenges, from poorly developed rural infrastructures to high illiteracy and poverty. While it can be said that the legal and political system still presents significant barriers (complex and arbitrary regulation, corruption, etc.), these factors affect non-indigenous Peruvians as well. Though marginal, their socio-economic position appears to have stabilized. Moreover, though traditional highland peoples have not achieved the political success of other groups (e.g., Mestizos), the election of Alejandro Toledo may lead to greater inclusion, if the President converts his campaign strategy to a sustained political agenda. Toledo's apparent support and persistent fears borne from the years of violence make it unlikely that highland groups will pursue their political aims outside of sanctioned state institutions.

Analytic Summary

Most of Peru's indigenous peoples are from the central and southern Andean regions of the country (GROUPCON = 2). They account for 38% of Peru's total population and comprise more than 80 different indigenous languages, including: Arawakan, Aymaran, Cahuapanan, Harakmbet, Huittoan, Jivaroan, Panoan, and Quechua (LANG = 2). Thirty percent speak Quechua, and 22% speak Aymara, or related dialects. Both languages are recognized by the government, but Spanish is the official state language. Social prejudices lead many highland indigenous to resort to speak their native tongue only in private. Despite a recent wave of urban migration (MIGRANT = 6), only 6.7% of the indigenous population is found in Lima, and 16.9% in other cities. Half of the remaining 67% are located in rural areas of the southern Sierra region. Most Peruvians – indigenous and non-indigenous alike – are Roman Catholic (RELIGS1 = 1).

As is common throughout Latin America, the indigenous are the lowest socio-economic and political strata, earning income as labor for agriculture and heavy industry (ECDIS03 = 3). Illiteracy is high and the school year is still not coordinated with agricultural labor cycles (ATRISK2 = 1). Many suffer from intestinal disorders and other illnesses associated with the lack of potable water and sanitation facilities (ECOSTR99 = 7). However, while poverty, health, and educational differentials are high among indigenous and non-indigenous people, their respective birth rates are comparable.

In the 17th century, following Incan imperial practices, the Spanish conquistadors organized highland groups into collectivities known as "ayllus." Thereafter, the Spanish Crown protected the borders of the ayllu lands, but in 1854, the Peruvian government rescinded its support, selling many of the lands. Indians were not represented in the government, nor were they allowed to negotiate, because as illiterates, they were considered "second-class citizens." Literacy voting restrictions were not rescinded until 1980. From 1919 to 1930, the government vigorously pursued a modernization program, attempting to integrate indigenous groups with modern markets. In 1926, 59 indigenous communities were officially recognized. The 1920, 1933, and 1980 constitutions all protect communal lands. By 1958, the first indigenous union was formed to mobilize against the selling of indigenous territories; as an official union, they received counsel and were heard in front of judicial bodies. Many Quechua speakers during the 1960s protested the government through marches and various acts of vandalism. A 1963 strike protested against wealthy landowners' abuse of indigenous agricultural laborers.

After the election of President Velasco in 1968, the 1970 Statute on Peasant Communities was passed, limiting indigenous organization and organized a state-representative for the groups. In 1979, the Peruvian constitution was reformed to protect all ethnicities and recognizing the right of people to adhere to their own "cultural identities" (POLDIS00-03 = 2). Bilingual education was recognized, including the right to deal with the state in one's own language, through an interpreter if necessary. Article 149 also gives indigenous communities judicial functions within their territory in "accordance with customary law" (POLSTAT = 2). However, realization of such guarantees was long delayed. For instance, Peru did not begin significant implementation of bilingual education until the late 1990s.

During the 1980s, several organizations emerged in the highland regions of Ayacucho, Apurimac, and Huancavelica using political violence as a strategy, including the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Shining Path and Tupac Amaru claimed to represent indigenous interests, which attracted some initial support from Quechua and other indigenous groups, although these organization cannot be said to be authentically indigenous movements. From 1980 to 1987, it is estimated that the Shining Path carried out more than 9,500 attacks on banks, factories, and police; 11,000 people were estimated to have died in the violence. In the early to mid-1990s, the government of Alberto Fujimori waged an anti-terrorism campaign in which the Shining Path's leader, Abimael Guzman, was caught and imprisoned. Since then, the organization's activities gradually declined (despite a high-profile takeover of the Japanese Embassy in Lima). Between 2001 and 2003, remaining Shining Path rebels kidnapped and attacked various communities in the Peruvian jungle, igniting fears of a resurgence for the organization; in 2003 government security forces rescued 70 Ashaninkas indigenous people. To protect themselves, indigenous communities have formed civilian self-defense groups and demanded protection from the government (CULGR50A = 1).

The 1980s also saw the formation of several peasant organizations that mobilized against agrarian reform and the development of indigenous lands. These include the Peasant Confederation of Peru and the National Agrarian Confederation (GOJPA03 = 2). These organizations offer small loans and credit to both Indians and non-Indians peasant farmers. The years of the Shining Path (as well as state efforts to destroy the rebel movement) appear to have muted the willingness of highland groups to demand much of the government or the broader Peruvian society. Though there have been several initiatives to improve the quality of life in the highlands, there is little evidence that indigenous groups organized to demand change. A new group called Peru's Permanent Conference of Indigenous Peoples (COPIP), formed in 1999 in part to configure election strategies for 2000. This group was also active in protesting against the government's suspension in 1999 of the creation of the Commission of Indigenous Concerns until the new legislature in March 2000. Only in the 2000 presidential election were highland groups politically active on a large scale. The winning candidate, Alejandro Toledo, traveled throughout the highlands, campaigning in part on his indigenous heritage. When President Fujimori was accused of rigging the runoff election in his favor, Toledo supporters throughout the country rioted, including highland Indians (PROT00 = 4). In 2002, large-scale protests against the government's efforts to privatize Peru's energy sector resulted in the government abandoning its plans (PROT02 = 4).


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