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Reports about recent conflict in Peru have me thinking about a day I spent last November, riding around in the back of a truck in Cajamarca. I was with Father Marco Arana, a Catholic priest, writing a story about his work for our magazine.
At one point we passed a contingent of heavily armed men. Father Arana whipped out his phone and called his office to report their location. The men were elite police officers, he explained to me after he’d hung up, part of a DINOES unit (Dirección Nacional de Operativos Especiales, sort of like a SWAT team). They are used to quell violence that occasionally flares up near the Yanacocha gold mine when local farmers and indigenous people protest a lack of water or other problems that they attribute to mining. This type of violence is part of a pattern: indigenous people, farmers—those without sufficient political clout to get their local government to address a problem—sometimes block a road, or seize an oil well, anything to get someone to pay attention. Hopefully their protest will spur an official to come and talk with them, maybe promise to fix a problem, and everyone can go home.
Or DINOES can come.
Back in 2004, Father Arana helped negotiate a peaceful solution to a confrontation between local farmers and the police. Conflict arose over whether the Yanacocha mine could explore for gold on Cerro Quilish, a mountain from which most of the city of Cajamarca’s water flows. Many could have died if not for the efforts of Father Arana and others.
On our way up the mountain last November we saw streams and irrigation channels snaking along the mountainside, draining ever downward. We drove around the mine, the thin, fresh air deliciously cool in our faces as we rumbled up the road. We visited an elderly indigenous woman, Maria Castrejon, who was preparing to plant potatoes. She had refused to sell her land when the mine came because she did not want to move to the city. So she remains, scratching out a living at over 12,000 feet. When it was time for us to leave, it began raining, and she gave us a blue plastic tarp; we huddled under it as we drove back down the mountain to Father Arana’s office.
“People here have strong roots in the land,” he said as we descended. “Their history and roots compel them to take care of it.”
Part of the current conflict in Peru stems from recent laws passed by the legislature that make it easier for the government to allow companies to access oil, gas, minerals, timber, and other resources. This is part of an effort to promote investment in Peru under the new free trade agreement with the United States. Indigenous protestors say that they were not properly consulted about this legislation; it will affect their land, which they have a special responsibility to protect, and special rights to do so under national and international law. This morning we are now seeing reports that the decrees opening up indigenous land to resource projects like logging and oil wells are overturned by Peru’s congress.
When I read all the stories about indigenous people in Peru now in the media right now I think about Maria Castrejon, her blouse safety-pinned closed under her pink sweater frayed around the edges, talking to Father Arana about her dwindling cow herd and her undiminished determination to stay on her land.