Across Peru, the central government and multinational corporations have come up against fierce resistance from local, typically rural, communities opposed to large dam and mining projects.

By the time the dam engineers came down the rocky path above the village of Tupen Grande on that night in June 2014, the peasant patrol was waiting, clubs in their hands.

For months, engineers from Oderbrecht, the Brazilian construction company, had been trying to enter the area to conduct surveys that would allow the construction of the Chadin II dam to move forward. That mega-dam on the Marañon River would flood Tupen Grande and neighboring villages. In response the villagers had formed a ronda, a peasant militia, to keep the engineers out. Their logic: no surveys, no dam.

The two groups met on the rocky path above town.

“We captured them and brought them back”, said Cesar Chavez Romero, the president of the ronda. Traveling with the engineers, Chavez added, was a “traitor:” Tupen’s schoolteacher. For months the teacher had been agitating in support of the dam; he encouraged children to pressure their parents; even was caught collecting people’s ID numbers to pass to Oderbrecht so that it could check their land titles.

The patrolmen of the Tupen Grande ronda pose in their uniforms beneath graffiti that reads "No to Chadin 2." Cesar Chavez is fourth from left. Photo credit: Danielle Villasana.
The patrolmen of the Tupen Grande ronda pose in their uniforms beneath graffiti that reads “No to Chadin 2.” Cesar Chavez is fourth from left. Photo credit: Danielle Villasana.

“We kept warning him to stop, but he wouldn’t,” Chavez said. The ronda deposited the engineers and schoolteacher back at the village’s casa communal, or community house, where by now the villagers were gathered, drinking. “There were people shouting all sorts of things: to punish them, to beat them,” Romero said. “It was very tense. We had to figure out what to do.”

National agenda hits wall of local defiance

This confrontation – with a peasant militia essentially kidnapping dam employees – exemplifies a larger pattern that has emerged in Peru over the past decade. Across the country, the central government and multinational corporations have come up against fierce resistance from local, typically rural, communities opposed to large dam and mining projects – whether it be copper at Tia Maria, gold at Yanacocha, or dams at Tupen on the Marañon River.

That antagonism often flares into violence.

There are over 200 ongoing social conflicts in Peru, the majority of which, according to the government ombudsman, are over the “use and control of natural resources.” Through all these heated battles, force has emerged as an effective strategy for local communities who want to protect their land.

Land and natural resources have been at the heart of conflict in Peru since there has been a Peru. The country is fabulously wealthy in minerals – Peru leads Latin America in production of gold, silver, zinc, lead, and tin. It also has rich farmland that grows lucrative cash crops, and mountain rivers suitable for mega-hydropower projects. But the price of these endeavors is often environmental disaster: clearcut forests; contaminated rivers; flooded communities; verdant mountains reduced to moonscapes by open pit mines, with little of the benefits or profits trickling down to local towns.

Peru’s highly centralized government prevents locals from having any say in whether that development will happen, where it will happen, or how, or even if, locals will be compensated for the degradation of their forests, farms, lands, livelihoods and villages. That’s because Peru belongs to “the people,” which is to say: the people running the government in Lima, which in Tupen’s case is hundreds of miles away and on the other side of a two-mile high mountain range – imagine the shouting, and maybe shooting match, if all decisions regarding mining projects in Idaho were made in Washington D.C. It is this far-off national government, which has the ultimate say on dam and mining concessions. And that government sends in the police if the locals resist.

The Baguazo legacy

Take, for example, the Baguazo, a famous revolt in 2009 in Amazonas province by the Awajun nation and other local people. In the past, Peru’s native communities earned and held relatively strong land rights, a progressive legacy wrestled from hundreds of years of violent exploitation. Indigenous people won the legal right to prior consultation on any laws that might affect them.

Then in 2008, the Peruvian Congress passed new forestry legislation, which indigenous groups feared would open their lands to unwanted mining and hydrocarbon exploration. One law gave the state the right to auction off forests, which indigenous groups feared could lead to the private sale of 45 million hectares of forest lands (173,746 square miles) – as much as 60 percent of Peruvian Amazonia. Then there was the law that allowed mining and gas companies to apply directly to the central government for concessions, which indigenous leaders feared would allow those companies to avoid consulting with and winning over local communities.

The legal changes happened in the background of a campaign by the central government to encourage mining and logging in Amazonia. In 2007, president Alan Garcia published a now-famous editorial in El Comercio, the nation’s oldest newspaper, asserting that developing the resources of Amazonia was in the national interest, and chastising indigenous groups for their “Dog in the Manger attitude,” after the Greek fable of the barnyard dog who won’t let a horse eat grain, even though he can’t eat it himself.

“There are millions of hectares for lumber that lie idle, other millions of hectares that communities or associations have not cultivated, nor will cultivate,” Garcia wrote, “as well as hundreds of mineral deposits that cannot be worked and millions of hectares of ocean which are never used for farming or production.” Peru, Garcia argued, needed these resources for the development of the nation as a whole.

But to native groups, the change in the forestry law looked like the lead up to a corporate land grab: especially since the land that “lay idle” was the land they lived on. After attempts to get the law repealed failed, the Awajun, in the time-honored manner of Peruvian social protests, turned to seizing property. They took over two foreign gas installations in the northern forests and captured several policeman, who they held as hostages.

When the government called a state of emergency in the region, which would allow it to send in troops, Alberto Pizango, a member of the Shawi nation and a protest leader, warned that “indigenous people are defending themselves against government aggression.”

As negotiations with the government stalled, the indigenous groups upped the ante: 2,000 Awajun took control of the highway leading into the provincial capital of Bagua Chica, in the wide-open rice country above the forests where the Awajun lived. At a spot on the highway outside Bagua called La Curva del Diablo, “The Devil’s Curve,” they set up camp and big communal kitchens; charged tolls to traffic; and waited for Lima to come to them. Behind the Awajun blockade, rice trucks piled up. Nothing like this had ever happened before: so many indigenous peoples out of their communities, challenging the state. It forced Lima to take notice.

Little might have come of the protests had the central government not overreached: on June 5, 2009, national police attacked the gathered Awajun, trying to dislodge them. There was a pitched battle on the highway, natives with spears against police with automatic weapons that would leave a dozen police and ten protesters killed – although there are persistent rumors, difficult to substantiate, of a civilian death count in the hundreds. When news of the attack reached the indigenous fighters in the forest, they killed their police hostages.

Though the Baguazo episode ended in tragedy and bloodshed, in many ways the indigenous groups won. On screens across Peru and the world, viewers watched police in helicopters shooting Indians with spears. Across Peru, labor unions and local defense organizations held a general strike, bringing the nation to a halt. Ten days after the Baguazo, the Peruvian Congress repealed the new forestry laws. Force had succeeded where negotiation had failed.

A house in the village of Tupen Grande located beside an irrigation canal that waters coca fields. If the Chadin 2 dam is built, all of this will be underwater. Photo credit: Saul Elbein.
A house in the village of Tupen Grande located beside an irrigation canal that waters coca fields. If the Chadin 2 dam is built, all of this will be underwater. Photo credit: Saul Elbein.

Rondas in defense of the Marañon

Three years later, and a hundred miles upriver in Tupen, villagers feared that if they didn’t stand up they’d be washed away: literally.

In Tupen, locals attested that Chadin II engineers had come pretending to be tourists or environmentalists, and secretly moved forward their plans to dam the Marañon River. It took relatives from Celendin – a town outside the canyon, but still in the Cajamarca region – to give the people the news. “They said, they’re going to destroy your town,” Chavez reported.

But the relatives also had advice: organize yourselves.

In Cajamarca, rondas, peasant patrols modeled on those created to deter cattle theft, had become instrumental in the fight against the Conga copper mine, a project spearheaded by Colorado’s Newmont Mining Corporation. The Conga was the planned expansion of Newmont’s notorious Yanacocha goldmine, the second largest in the world, which Cajamarca residents say has polluted their water with mercury and cyanide. In 2011, violent protests organized by Cajamarca rondas forced Newmont to postpone the Conga expansion.

When Newmont began talking about reviving the project in 2014, a Cajamarca rondero, Gregorio Santos, won the regional presidency on an anti-Conga platform – despite being in jail for corruption. The Cajamarca activists “urged us to form a ronda to keep the surveyors out,” Chavez said. A friend urged them to close ranks, “because if you let the company in, you aren’t going to be able to kick them out. Don’t make the mistake we did. No one else is going to protect you.”

So the men of Tupen formed a ronda. Emblazoned on their custom-made uniforms, stitched in gold thread, are the words “No to Chadin II, No to Conga.” Several times the ronderos went in force to dislodge engineers from the survey site – a couple of times they found themselves facing down armed police.

“They were there with their guns and we were there with our truncheons,” Chavez said. “Finally the [police] comandante told me, I’m sorry, I didn’t know; they said you guys [the town] supported the dam. If you’re against it, we’ll leave.” But the ronda had to walk a tightrope – be aggressive enough to scare the company away, without provoking a police reaction, or cries of “terrorism,” which since the days of the Shining Path guerilla insurgency in Peru has been a code word for ‘leftist rebel.’

The ronda wasn’t only concerned about the environmental harm the dam would do: like the Awajun, the people of the Marañon Valley feared that corporate money would penetrate their rural community and pervert peasant democracy.

“They come in and pay people to talk in support of the dam at the community meetings,” said Doralina Esparza, a farmer near the town of Nueva Esperanza. That’s why Chavez called the schoolteacher who was aiding the Chadin II engineers a “traitor:” he was a town resident who could help give the dam company a foothold, which could make it very difficult to dislodge.

The steep narrow river valleys of Andean Amazon River tributaries like this one are slated for dozens of dams, many of which will be highly disruptive to indigenous communities and ecosystems. Photo credit: Rhett Butler.
The steep narrow river valleys of Andean Amazon River tributaries like this one are slated for dozens of dams, many of which will be highly disruptive to indigenous communities and ecosystems. Photo credit: Rhett Butler.

On the night the ronda captured the Oderbrecht engineers, Chavez had to decide what to do with them, amid calls for violence from Tupen villagers. “Those came from people with less understanding,” he said. “They didn’t realize that if we go too far we could lose everything.”

Instead, the patrolmen led the engineers into the yard outside the communal house. There they endured a bizarre punishment characteristic of the highland rondas: “We made them do pushups, squats, situps,” said Chavez. And the teacher? Chavez looked cagey. “He wasn’t so lucky. We’d warned him several times. We punished him physically.” He didn’t elaborate. Others said that the man had been beaten and thrown out of town.

Chavez’ younger brother, 22-year old Emerson, sat by listening to our discussion, then spoke: “We say no to violence, no to slavery,” Emerson said. Which is worse, I asked? He hesitated, then half-smiled. “Neither is good. But better violence than slavery.”

Tupen’s new schoolteacher, a baby-faced athletic man from the market town of Cumbes, downriver, was more direct. “The children are sometimes afraid; they cry in class about what’s going to happen to their land and families. I tell them, ‘Your parents won’t let the dam company in.’” He looked up, excited. “They’ll fight with sticks, stones, with guns if they have to!”

Meanwhile, on the other side of Peru, people were doing just that – fighting a violent, lopsided battle against multinational corporations and the national government.

Trouble with the Tia Maria mine

Since 2011, in the mountains of Arequipa in southern Peru, local unions and peasant groups have been campaigning to keep Newmont and its partner, Southern, a Mexican mining company, from opening the Tia Maria copper mine – Southern has a 50-year history of environmental harm associated with its Peruvian mining projects.

Peru’s current president, Ollanta Humala – elected on a tide of populism and local support after the Garcia years – has backed the mine.

Throughout May and June 2015, the Tia Maria conflict devolved into running battles between protesters and police, fighting that reached the center of Arequipa itself. Southern’s president called the protesters “anti-mining terrorists” – that word again, with its frightening association to the massacres of the civil war. Humala’s government called out the army, and hundreds of people were injured in the fighting. But again, violence worked: Southern announced a “pause,” although the project could be resumed at any time.

The Tia Maria protests played out all winter on media screens across Peru, watched by young people with the same morbid fascination as the Ferguson protests in the U.S. The fighting was often discussed in the context of the Baguazo. “Look at Tia Maria, look at the Baguazo,” said Pedro Pena, a kayaker and anti-dam activist organizing on the Marañon. “They show you have to fight.”

Emerson Chavez mused about going to Tia Maria to show solidarity. Over and over, I heard the same point made: “You have to resort to violence with this government; they just don’t listen to anything else,” said Maya Campos.

What is surprising about this last statement is that Maya – not her real name – works for the Ministry of Education, the national government. Her defiant views echo similar opinions I heard from half a dozen other young, lefty federal employees. This could be a sign, as with the rural land use protests, of growing dissatisfaction toward the Humala government, which over the last four years has sidelined progressives in its organization against a background of worsening social conflict. Since Humala took office in 2011, 63 people have been killed and 1,935 wounded in conflicts over land and resources.

It isn’t just young progressives who are worried about this trend: violence in response to megaprojects has gotten bad enough that even conservatives are beginning to argue that something has to be done. In a front-page interview on July 5, 2015, in the conservative El Comercio, well-known center-right economist Hernando de Soto argued that the country has lost $70 billion in mining investment thanks to conflicts like those around Conga and Tia Maria.

De Soto argued that mining resistance has been led by the remnants of the Shining Path, a tired accusation made by the right. But he also argued that Peru’s terrible land rights record has created an opening for the radical left: “Call me a useful idiot,” he told El Comercio, but the government has to give ground if it wants mining investment to continue. “It’s a problem of property, of who the land belongs to.”

Big projects like Conga and Tia Maria, he said, “are long term projects and can’t change day by day. What’s Peru going to do if 22 important mining projects are paralyzed and the government can’t do anything? What would you do as an investor? Would you invest in this country? It’s a problem they need to resolve.”

Humala’s prime minister, reached for comment by El Comercio, asked why Hernando De Soto was advocating meeting with terrorists.

– This report was originally published in Mongabay and is republished by an agreement to share content.

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