Last Updated: Friday, 21 November 2014, 13:47 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Peru

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 28 June 2012
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Peru, 28 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fedb3f232.html [accessed 23 November 2014]
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.

In June 2011, former army officer Ollanta Humala won the presidency of Peru. In a precedent-setting move, he chose Afro-Peruvian Susana Baca as culture minister, making her the first African-descendant government minister in the history of the Peruvian state. Baca, aged 67, is an internationally renowned singer of the rich Afro-Peruvian musical cultural tradition and winner of a 2002 Latin Grammy.

Before his election, Humala – who campaigned as a populist – sought to assure companies they could proceed with existing and new multi-million dollar resource extraction projects. At the same time, to help ease community concerns over mining and oil drilling, he promised that Peru's natural resources would be used to improve the lives of the mostly poor indigenous and Afro-Peruvian people in the country. Nevertheless, during 2011, increasing social conflict over mining in both the indigenous Andean highlands and lowland Amazon rainforest threatened the implementation of large-scale mining and oil extraction projects. The result was an increase in mining protests involving as many as 200 disputes nation-wide.

Amazon protest

In October 2011, some 500 indigenous Shuar men and women from Peru's northern Amazon blocked the Morna River to stop Canadian energy company Talisman carrying out oil exploration on their ancestral lands. The area traverses land inhabited by Achuar, Shapra, Shuar and Kandoshi indigenous groups. It also crosses the internationally protected Pastaza River Wetland Complex, the largest wetland area in the Peruvian Amazon. Indigenous groups are particularly concerned about the risk of contamination of ancestral hunting and fishing grounds. Traditional hunting practices help guarantee food security and supplement any income gained from wage labour or other activities.

Their protests occurred within a new legal climate in Peru. In August 2011, the new Peruvian Congress unanimously passed the groundbreaking Consultation with Indigenous Peoples Law. It will now be mandatory in Peru to seek indigenous peoples' consent before development projects are allowed to proceed on their lands. It is one of the first instances in the Americas where a binding legal framework has been developed to implement ILO 169 and the UNDRIP, both of which Peru has backed. The new law also mandates that indigenous peoples be consulted before Congress can approve any proposed law that could affect their rights.

However, despite the new legislation, engaging in prior consultations with Peruvian indigenous groups that have chosen to remain in voluntary isolation may pose a practical as well as a legal challenge. Based on sightings by neighbouring indigenous communities, loggers and other outsiders, it is estimated that more than a dozen autonomous nomadic indigenous groups live in voluntary isolation in the country's Amazonian regions. Many inhabit the remote forests near the Brazilian border, relying on their territory for subsistence. They remain highly vulnerable to easily transmitted common diseases and reject contact with the outside world, which is both the source of infections and of intrusion into their territories. Their mortality rate first spiked in the 1980s when oil exploration was initiated in the area. By the year 2000, five reserves had been established in the Peruvian Amazon basin to protect isolated indigenous peoples. In addition to existing protected areas, indigenous organizations have filed petitions for five more reserves.

New mining regulations

During October 2011, however, the Peruvian state proposed new regulations governing oil drilling, mining and forestry operations in these remote rainforest reserves.

Critics, such as Peru's largest Amazonian indigenous organization AIDESEP, the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica del Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana) charged that the new regulations threaten nomadic indigenous groups and are designed to help expand exploration and extraction into already designated indigenous reserves. Under the proposed regulations, extractive activities can be carried out in indigenous reserves deemed 'untouchable' under Peruvian law, provided there is a real public need and the state guarantees the use of methods that 'respect these peoples' rights.' The new rules call for the establishment of a 'comprehensive protection committee' for each reserve, which will consist of government officials, representatives of neighbouring indigenous communities and an anthropologist. There is to be a coordinator for each reserve, as well as a strategic plan and a series of monitoring mechanisms.

At the root of the Amazon conflict are contradictory provisions of the 2006 indigenous protection law. This provides for the establishment of reserves to protect the territory used by indigenous or original peoples in isolation; that is until they decide to settle in communities and seek legal title.

Critics question whether this is just a conciliatory initial step on the way to eventual assimilation. They also note that the regulation comes just as the consortium operating the Camisea gas field in the Peru's southern Amazon basin plans to expand operations into a block which overlaps the Nahua-Kugapakori (nomadic) Indigenous Reserve. AIDESEP points out that oil or gas leases already overlap several indigenous reserves in Peru and the organization has so far tried without success to have the government redraw extraction leases to eliminate such overlapping to avoid the shrinkage of indigenous territories. In October, the newly constituted Peruvian government retreated from the planned regulations.

Cajamarca protests

Although before elections Humala pledged to use resource extraction revenues as a means of improving the lives of Peru's most disadvantaged, after taking office in July 2011 anti-mining opposition often tested his government's resolve to realize this. Most extraction projects in Peru are located in rural highland and lowland zones with majority indigenous populations, consequently it is they who are most negatively affected by mining.

In November 2011, thousands of indigenous men and women in the city of Cajamarca in northern Peru began a protest against plans by the US-based Newmont Mining Corporation to open a goldmine in the high Andes. The resistance included an 11-day general strike that closed schools, hospitals and businesses and stopped buses from running in the region.

The US$ 4.8 billion Conga Mine Project is the biggest mining investment in Peruvian history and is located at 13,800 feet (4,200 metres) in the Andean mountains. The gold reserves are worth about US$ 15 billion at current prices. The Conga project is jointly owned by Peruvian precious metals mining company Buenaventura, and the multi-billion dollar project had been approved by President Humala on the grounds that it would be a major source of government revenue and generate thousands of jobs. Newmont Mining had promised to provide a series of specially constructed reservoirs to replace natural glacier-fed mountain lakes that would be eliminated by the mine. In addition, the company claimed their project plans had been drawn up in consultation with local communities following 'exhaustive' environmental studies. Nevertheless, the protesters maintained the proposed new mine would destroy their natural water supplies, cause pollution and create health problems.

Newmont Mining has been operating in Peru for over two decades. To some extent, the 2011 protests represent the latest manifestations of ongoing community dissatisfaction with the mining company's presence in their region. The US company already operates the Yanacocha gold mine located near to the proposed Conga mine site. In 2000, there was a mercury spill at the Yanacocha mine, which produced lasting anger in the community. Consequently, four years later, in 2004, when the company sought to expand the Yanacocha mine onto the nearby Cerro Quilish mountain, the resulting protests brought exploration to a halt. Then as now, the issue involved pollution and reduction of water supply to communities that have traditionally regarded natural sources of water in both a practical and a spiritual light.

The mining company now runs extensive community development programmes in the area, but these have failed to diminish concerns over the potential dangers of mining. It has certainly not stopped residents from wanting to halt expansion – or, even more – from trying to stop mining in Cajamarca altogether.

Faced with daily street demonstrations, a general strike that paralysed the region for 11 days and a multi-billion dollar project stuck in its tracks, the President tried to negotiate with the protest leaders in Cajamarca. But after failing to reach any agreement, Humala felt forced to declare a one-week state of emergency.

The state of emergency suspended freedom of assembly and allowed the army to help police end the protest marches and rallies. Security forces used rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators, and fired live rounds after some demonstrators began vandalizing mining company property. Up to 30 people were reportedly injured. Newmont Mining then suspended work on the mine, after the government requested help in calming the situation and asked for more dialogue with the highly sceptical local community.

In early December 2011, the head of the civic association as well as the leader of the Environment Defense Front of Cajamarca (EDFC) were detained briefly after addressing a congressional panel. The EDFC leader indicated the organization's intent to file a legal complaint against the government. The Conga mine controversy also led to the resignation of the Vice Minister for the Environment, who had previously headed an anti-mining NGO. He cited a leaked ministry memo that indicated the Conga mine would indeed hurt the local ecosystem despite company claims to the contrary.

At the end of 2011, the anti-mining protest marches in the Peruvian highlands were still occurring, along with continued demands by the indigenous communities to cancel the project. By all appearances, the gold that drove the destiny of the old Inca empire will continue to propel the protests of Peru's contemporary indigenous populations in 2012.

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