Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America; click to enlarge
Above, Marlith Amasifuen Ishuiza and her son Bryan Sangama at a community water tap in Aviación, a rural town of about 300 people in Peru’s northern Amazon region. With support from Oxfam, women in Aviación worked together to cultivate a traditional garden, which protects their indigenous Kichwa culture while providing an additional source of food and income for their families.
I thought of my 2012 visit to Avación when I read “The Kids Left Behind by the Boom,” a moving op-ed by journalist Marie Arana that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. With the story of 12-year-old Henrry Ochochoque, Arana touches on many of the same issues that Oxfam’s programs in Peru seek to address: the stark inequalities between the flourishing capital city and the struggling rural villages; the environmental and human costs of out-of-control natural resource extraction; and the still-persistent discrimination that leaves many indigenous people shut out of the country’s recent economic boom.
As Arana points out, these problems affect kids first and foremost. Henrry, and many others like him, are getting “an education that will leave [them] drastically unprepared for the 21st century. … 78 percent of Peru’s indigenous children live in poverty. A third of all rural children suffer chronic malnutrition. … For Henrry, despite his A’s and sunny optimism, the Peruvian boom may as well be on the moon.”
In the face of challenges like this, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. But for Henrry’s sake, and Bryan’s too, I hope we’ll see some changes before they grow up.
Small-scale miners look for gold near Romtom. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
If you go to a meeting in the community of Romtom, don’t be surprised if you hear some contradictory information about the effects of industrial mining on the indigenous Kuoy people here.
A foreign-owned company is moving in to mine iron ore on nearly a thousand square kilometers of land, and taking up community-held land used for growing rice, as well as small-scale gold mining. The Kuoy people here are also concerned about the loss of forest land. The “spirit forest” is an integral part of their culture as well as an area where they gather nuts, fruit, and other products they can sell.
“So far we’ve had some issues between the company and community,” says So Sea, the commune chief and an ethnic Khmer. “But these have been resolved. Presently there are no problems.”
One minute later Ouk Kong, one of the elders of the Kuoy village here paints a different picture. “One area where we used to pan for gold has been lost to the company, and in another area we can’t plant rice anymore. It’s making life very difficult here.” Read the rest of this entry »
When Aniceto López looks out on the mine pit at the Marlin Mine, he sees what used to be there: forests and animals, an area he says was “full of life.” Now he says it is disgraceful what has happened to the area, as massive trucks take a steady supply of ore up and out of the pit gouged out of the side of the mountain.
López is the coordinator for FREDEMI, the Frented de Defensa Miguelense or San Miguel Defense Front. Members of FREDEMI, and of other groups in the area that are critical of the mine, are urging the government to suspend operations there. This is putting many of them at risk: People have been shot, beaten, arrested on dubious charges, and endured intimidation via death threats and near misses from gun fire. It’s a tense situation in all the areas around San Miguel Ixtahuacán in Western Guatemala.
We’re just launching a new video called “Spirit of the forest” that features Chanthy Dam, a woman I met in northern Cambodia last September who is doing courageous work helping indigenous communities protect their land rights. Chanthy and many others in Ratanakiri province survived some of the most tumultuous decades in the 20th century in her country, so I asked her a lot of questions about her experience growing up there. In this post I want to share some of her personal story that did not make it in to the video or the magazine article coming out this week, they serve to round out the story of her life and her struggles:
Growing up in Ratanakiri
Chanthy grew up in a community called Andoung Meas, which means “Golden Well” in the local language.
“There are no words that can describe my childhood…I was so poor. My parents were farmers, they hardly earned enough to eat. My family was too poor and illiterate.
“The most delicious food we had was cassava leaves, my mother put them in a pot of boiling water with a lot of salt. It was our most delicious meal. The most delicious desert was ripe bananas, we put them in a hollow bamboo and cooked it. On special occasions my father would get a civet cat, we would grill it in bamboo like that.
“I saw people reading, and I asked if I could look at what they were reading…I wanted to read those letters. I looked at them and did not understand anything. I was maybe 12 or 13 at the time. I decided to teach myself to read, and I started to read to myself. But I could not write. I dropped it because we were so hungry, and I just had no time.
“In the late 70s Vietnamese soldiers were in the province, and they were growing cassava and sweet potatoes…we were struggling and did not have food and I did not understand why they had so much food… So I went in to their fields to steal some and they caught me and told me I should have just asked and they would have given me some. I realized it was bad to steal. And I told myself that when I grow up I would have a big farm and grow a lot of things and not be hungry.
Sap Lan grows rice in her village Lalai, in Ratanakiri, Cambodia. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
In Cambodia’s northern-most province of Ratanakiri, Sap Lan shows visitors her rice field. The indigenous Kavet woman says that normally by this time of September the plants are up to her waist. Late rainfall this year means her rice plants barely reach her ankle. She is counting on harvesting wild fruits and vegetables from the surrounding forest for food and to earn money to buy rice.
Indigenous people in this province like Sap Lan depend heavily on nature, especially rain and forest resources. Their community forest is thick with huge, magnificent trees, some as wide as five people joining hands in a circle. They soar into the sky. It is dark in the late afternoon in the woods, and when you break out into the rich light of the rice field, the bright green shocks your eyes.
There are 11 people in 29-year-old Lap’s extended family; all living in one small house near their 2.5-acre rice field. Last year they made up for a dry growing season and a shortfall in rice production by gathering the fruit from samrong trees. In some places people can pay $10 for a kilo of samrong fruit. The family earned enough to buy a motorcycle and fix up their house.
The struggle for survival here may become even more challenging: The family is hearing that a mining company is exploring for minerals in the area and that the company has a 20,500-acre concession from the government, granted without consultation or permission from the local people in the village of Lalai, on the edge of a large stream flowing into the Se San river, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.
Hanging bridge over the Rio Chixoy. Photo by James Rodtiguez/Oxfam America
From the hills above the Rio Chixoy, Guatemala, it’s hard to even tell there is a bridge across the river, but it is really there. Getting closer to it confirms its existence: It consists of 12 half-inch steel wires stretched across nearly one thousand feet between the high river banks, with wood slats wired unevenly into place. The entire thing wobbles back and forth, and bounces up and down, so as to make it hard to fit your feet firmly on the wood treads.
You don’t want to look down when walking on a hanging bridge such as this, but you have to in order to ensure your feet don’t just fall between the slats and into the clear space between the wires.
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.
In recent weeks indigenous people in Peru have been protesting against new laws that will allow the government to grant foreign companies access to oil, gas, and mineral resources on their community lands. Indigenous people have the right to be consulted about these sorts of decisions under international law, but the government says the resources belong to the entire country. This past weekend there were violent confrontations between the protesters and the police resulting in 50 deaths. Both sides are accusing the other of human rights violations.
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