As mining, oil and gas exploration and palm oil plantations have expanded into Peru’s Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands in the decade since the end of the political violence, Peru’s Indigenous Peoples are locked in a struggle for self-determination about land, natural resources and their way of life. The struggle flared in 2009, when indigenous communities in the northern Amazon blocked a key highway near the town of Bagua, Peru to protest new laws they said would give companies easier access to natural resources on their lands. A police crackdown triggered violence that left at least 30 people dead.
Those events marked a turning point for indigenous rights in Peru. Since then, the country has passed a law requiring that indigenous people be consulted about any new development projects affecting their territory or lifestyle. Nevertheless, communities still battle companies over pollution from existing oil and mining projects, and indigenous leaders worry that some projects—like the Pakitzapango dam proposed for the Ene River—will displace communities. Meanwhile, Peru’s indigenous people continue to suffer from the highest poverty and malnutrition rates in the country and the greatest lack of basic services such as education, health care and clean water. “Indigenous people generally have a bond with the land that signifies a material, cultural and, for many, spiritual basis for their existence, development and ability to support themselves,” James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, said in an interview aired by the Spanish cooperation organization Casa de América.
Although rights to land and resources are enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), that bond is strained in Peru, which is cashing in on its mineral wealth in an effort to increase economic growth and lower poverty rates. Most valuable minerals are in remote areas where the population is largely indigenous and the poverty rates are highest. With little direct government oversight of mining and oil drilling companies in those areas, conflicts are common.
Of the 237 ongoing conflicts registered in March 2012, more than half were “socioenvironmental” disputes, according to the Peruvian government’s ombudsman’s office. Most of those involved communities located near oil drilling or mining operations, and were triggered either by environmental damage or by accusations that the companies were not keeping their commitments to support the local communities’ development.
In the central highland region of Ancash, which has the largest number of conflicts, Quechua farmers compete for water with a hydroelectric plant on the Santa River. Although heavy rains this year have provided enough water for both farming and electricity, another drought could trigger a conflict like one in 2008, when farmers in the province of Dos de Mayo padlocked the sluice gates on Lake Parón, high in the Andes, saying the hydroelectric plant was draining the lake and would not leave enough water for their crops.
For highland indigenous communities, such disputes are aggravated by recent changes in rainfall patterns that scientists say could be due to climate change. Over the past 20 years, farmers in Dos de Mayo have watched the glaciers shrink on the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca, or White Mountain Range, and they worry that they may be left without water.
Water is also a concern in the northern highland region of Cajamarca, where Quechua communities are protesting a new mine that would destroy wetlands and four lakes. Dairy farmers downhill worry that their pastures will dry up.