Impossible or Indigenous in Peru

QuechuaHighlands

In the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the Rio Tinto shareholder meeting, I mentioned a woman who spoke on behalf of the Mongolian herders whose livelihood is threatened by the Oyu Tolgoi mining project. Her name is Sukhgerel Dugersuren, and she is the Executive Director of the Mongolian NGO Oyu Tolgoi Watch. In her remarks, Dugersuren asked the company to recognize the herders as “indigenous” people (as the IFC does). That isn’t just a gesture of recognition or respect, a way of acknowledging that the herders were there first, or that they have a centuries-old claim to the land and the scarce water sources of the Gobi; it means that before moving ahead, the Oyu Tolgoi project would require – to use the language of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Article 32, paragraph 2) — their free, prior and informed consent.

I was reminded of Dugersuren and the case of the herders when I read yesterday morning that the Humala government in Peru now intends to exclude the Quechua people of the Peruvian highlands from “prior consultation” on mining projects.

President Ollanta Humala campaigned in 2011 on the idea of “social inclusion” and specifically on giving indigenous communities a voice in the consultation period before big mining projects begin. Prior consultation — the first law Humala signed upon taking office — codified into Peruvian law the idea of free, prior and informed consent. But only two years later, with $50 billion in mining projects over the next five years at stake, and with Canadian mining giant Newmont scaling back its investments and announcing a delay in its controversial Minas Conga project, it looks as if Humala wishes he could take it all back.

QuechuaProtestConga

Apparently Mines and Energy Minister Jorge Merino has prevailed; Deputy Minister of Culture Ivan Lanegra, who was in charge of administering the prior consultation law, is now making noises about resigning.

I haven’t yet seen anything like an official statement on the matter, but Humala and other Peruvian officials have already started offering reasons – if they can be called that — for excluding the Quechua from prior consultation. They read like a bizarre exercise in bad anthropology.

Attempting to legitimize its betrayal of the Quechua, the government resorts to revisionist history, crude caricatures and discredited ideas. So, we are told, the Quechua-speaking people of the Andes can’t be indigenous, because over the centuries, they mixed with Spanish colonizers (whose abuses the law of prior consultation was supposed to help remedy). To be indigenous would seem to require a weird exemption from history – to be at once the victim of colonial abuse in need of redress and yet to live in complete isolation or perpetual flight, and never to have had any contact with the Spanish.

The people of the Andes can’t be indigenous: they practice agriculture, we are told, which makes them not indigenous people but campesinos. “In the highlands,” said Humala, parsing the difference, “there are mostly agrarian communities … indigenous communities are mostly in the jungle.” The indigenous are not farmers, but jungle dwellers, presumably hunters and gatherers who have never cultivated the land. If they till the soil or produce, it seems, they must give up all claims to their heritage, or at least their legal status.

A third and final absurdity: the people of the Andes can’t be indigenous, because they “meet in public assembly” or, as Humala has noted elsewhere, they have “mayors” who represent them, and so they are not without a “voice.” To be indigenous is to be without representation, then — silent. It goes even deeper than that: it is to be without politics, or at least without the plaza or the public square. We are, I suppose, to imagine the indigenous living in an archaic and pre-political world, where assembly is unnecessary or the public world unknown.

You can see where all this is heading. It is virtually impossible to be indigenous, unless you live in a small foraging band of jungle dwellers without any political power, or even any idea of politics. Placing these restrictions on the law of prior consultation in Peru makes a travesty of free, prior and informed consent, which requires that states deal “in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions”; the very existence of such institutions would appear to be grounds for exclusion from the law.

Even with a law in place and gestures of good will at the start, the “indigenous” in Peru now risk being defined out of existence, or of having their right to consent sacrificed for the sake of big mining and continued growth. That is why it was especially curious and telling, in ways that are not yet wholly apparent to me, when I read this morning that just yesterday Peruvian ambassador Gonzalo Gutierrez Reinel and the Mongolian Minister of Foreign Affairs L. Bold “met to exchange views on mutual partnerships, particular[ly] in the sectors of culture and mining”: it is not at all clear that “culture” will survive the incursion of big mining in either country.

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