by Hugo Blanco
[The original of this important historical essay and polemic appeared in Servindi http://servindi.org/actualidad/51290 in September 2011. This translation is not copyrighted, and permission is given in advance to reprint it in part or in full there. Hugo Blanco's first-person account of the peasant struggle in Peru in the 1960s was published as Land or Death (Pathfinder, 1972). C.K. Starr]
Peru: An agrarian country
Ours is an agrarian culture that developed over ten thousand years. Among other things, we live in one of the world’s eight great centers of the domestication of food plants. Our ancestors domesticated 182 species, including 3000 varieties of the potato.
This comes not from any superior intelligence on our part but from our good fortune to live in an area with very diverse climates and microclimates. These include a part of the Amazon, the world’s most extensive tropical rain forest. We have the Andes with their great variation in elevation. This long mountain chain runs north-south, rather than east-west, so that the climate at 1500 meters near the Equator in the north is quite different from that at the same altitude in the south, far from the Equator. We also have the Pacific coast, which, despite its dryness, harbors vegetation typical of a variety of microclimates. And, as if this were not enough, we have a bountiful marine fauna. The cold Humboldt Current flows northward off our tropical coast, so that the warm waters from the deep rise to the surface to produce not just horizontal but also vertical movement. The moving water carries both phytoplankton and zooplankton (microscopic plants and animals), which feed a great diversity of fish.
It is only natural that the people indigenous to such a paradise should evolve a rich agricultural culture, whose roots go back before the Incan Empire (Tawantinsuyo). Today we can still see the signs, such as:
- the experimental fields of Moray, with their various temperatures at different altitudes.
- terraces or walkways on the slopes as a measure against erosion.
- the remains of the waru-waru in the cold high plains of Puno. These are alternating strips above and below ground level, so that during rainy years the water collects in the lower strips without affecting the crops in the upper strips. During dry years the lower strips act to keep the upper strips wet. In addition, the sun’s warmth accumulated and stored in the lower strips during the day counteracts the night’s frost.
- the Raqchi ruins, which give evidence of the large storehouses against times of food shortage.
- remains of irrigation canals.
- the Tipón ruins, a veritable architectural poem in celebration of water.
There was central planning of agriculture at the level of the Incan Empire (Tawantinsuyo), which determined what to cultivate in each microzone and the deployment of people. Communities at mid-elevation sent part of their populace in rotation down to the “forest’s brow” [ceja de selva] to grow coca and another part up to the puna to raise alpacas.
The European invasion
Pizarro’s armies had the honor of initiating the destruction of our country that continues today in the monstrous form and pace set by the multinational companies, using the national governments as their underlings. The Spaniards eliminated planning, broke up the canals and the waru-waru, and damned the root crops as allied with the devil. This especially applied to the potato [papa], to which the devil had given the same name as the Holy Father [Papa]. For this reason, the Spaniards changed its name to patata, in which form it has passed into English and some other languages. They condemned kiwicha (amaranth) and coca because the natives regarded them as divine.
The Incas were an oppressive caste. Even so, although it was not a democratic society, the economy was directed toward meeting the needs of the populace, which involved taking good care of the environment. With the invasion this stopped being the economy’s reason for being. It was turned instead to the production of gold and silver for shipment to Spain. That is, it was directed toward meeting our overlords’ needs.
This continues to be the case today. After gaining independence from Spain, we became an economic colony of the British Empire. Then, when it weakened through the world wars, we turned into an economic colony of the USA. Now we produce what our present bosses, the big multinational enterprises, demand from us.
From the Spanish invasion up to now, the needs of our impoverished people and the preservation of the environment are off the agenda. All that counts is to satisfy our bosses’ wants. Before the invasion in our continent, the land did not belong to the people. Rather, it was the people who belonged to the land.
The Spaniards brought with them the feudal system of agricultural work, which served the economy’s mining focus. They instituted the encomiendas and repartimientos to make the natives work the great plantations expropriated by the invaders in the interior. For the coastal plantations, on the other hand, they imported African slaves. The native communities were left with the territories ruined by the big landowners.
The “war of independence” did not set the native people free. The encomiendas and repartimientos were turned into haciendas, where the natives continued their unpaid labor in exchange for the privilege of cultivating a small plot of the landowner’s territory. This was the basic pattern throughout the highlands, where it turned the natives into a class of servants. The women had to do domestic service for the landowners, while the menfolk were made to act as beasts of burden, hauling products of the hacienda to the city. In practice, the landowner was above the law in his domain, with license to punish his natives physically, rape the women, etc.
The native communities retained their own territories, but these were increasingly reduced, including by way of legal proceedings that favored the Spanish landowners. In the rain forest the territorial rights of the native communities were recognized, although these were permanently reduced.
On the coast capitalist haciendas were established that utilized agricultural laborers and others within the system of yanaconaje. In this, the peasant paid for the use of a plot of the landowner’s property not in labor but in products. There was no slavery, in the strict sense, so that the coastal peasants were freer than those in the highlands.
Part of the history of agrarian exploitation was the criminal pillage of the guano found on islands off the coast. This had been used by our ancestors to fertilize their crops, but now it was taken away to fertilize the soil in England. It is on account of this robbery that Castilla has often been called the best of Peru’s presidents.
The end of the hacienda system
The revolution that overthrew this system also had repercussions in Peru. There rose a nativist current in the urban middle class that had its influence in literature, music and painting, although it did not go so far as to resonate with the native population. There continued to be rebellion among the native people, which in time was defeated.
In Brazil and other countries the hacienda system was gradually replaced by capitalist exploitation by the big landowners. In Peru the weakening of the hacienda system by the advance of capitalism was greeted by the native populace as a development in its favor. Let us examine what happened in the department of Cusco. [Peru is divided into 24 departments, each composed of a number of provinces. Tr.]
An hacienda was bought by livestock capitalists, who used its stables and the rural proletariat, with the intention of removing farmers, as they needed the land but not the people living on it. These people had inhabited the hacienda for generations while working small plots for themselves. They were not about to accept this “legal” expulsion.
The problem was even more extensive in the forest’s brow of La Convención province and an adjacent valley. In this zone, lying between the Amazon rainforest and the highlands, they were able to grow crops for export, such as coffee, cacao and tea. The landowners got the government to cede to them large tracts of land at negligible cost to be “settled”.
The Amazon natives, being “savages”, with little understanding of the civilized custom of working for someone else, preferred to retreat into the interior of the forest. In order to get the laborers they needed, the landowners recruited natives from the highlands, promising that they could earn a lot of money by growing products for export. Some farmers and commune-members moved to the forest-brow haciendas. The system of labor, with its servile farmers, was taken from the highlands. The landowner allowed the native a plot to work for himself, in exchange for which the native worked a certain number of days.
There was great suffering from the outset. Natives from the cold highlands were moved to an alien climate with unfamiliar food. They suffered from new illnesses in an area where they didn’t know the natural medicinal plants, and the women kept wearing clothing suitable for colder zones. There was terrible mortality from malaria.
Furthermore, the work was very hard. After they had cleared the rainforest, it took four years for the trees they had planted to bear fruit. The landowners’ greed led to force some natives to keep working those four years and then, when the tree crops were first maturing, to drive them off the land. This did not occur in the highlands, where the crops are annual, and the plants die back each year. In the forest’s brow the landowners gained possession of plantations by this stratagem.
In the highland haciendas the number of working days and other obligations to the landowner had been established for decades or centuries, while in the forest’s brow these were set quite recently and often at the boss’s whim. The landowner wanted to get the greatest possible number of days’ work from the native laborers, while the native wanted to work as little as possible for the boss in order to devote more time to his own plot.
This contradiction led to the foundation of unions and later to a labor federation. Grievances led to legal negotiations on decreasing the number of work days for the landowner with respect to the eight-hour day set by law, the restriction of additional duties, etc. An agreement was signed, and working conditions improved.
However, there remained a problem that could not be resolved. To the landowners, with their old-fashioned outlook, it was inconceivable that they should negotiate terms of service with “their Indians”. They thought the solution was to “jail the ringleaders”, as they often did, since they had the police and judiciary working on their side.
The peasantry of the zone mobilized with meetings, marches, traffic blockages, etc, to demand that the prisoners be freed. They had some success, but there remained the problem of the landowners’ absolute refusal to recognize the unions or to enter into talks about working conditions. As in the highland haciendas, authority was exercised by the landowner, who meted out physical punishment and other abuses of “his Indians”. In the face of this situation, the only means of struggle available to the native peasants was to “go on strike” by refusing to work on the haciendas’ crops.
If we compare this form of strike with that used by industrial workers, a key difference stands out. While an industrial worker his salary or wages during the strike, the native peasant’s labor served as payment for the use of his plot of land, so that there was no sacrifice. On the contrary, the peasant gained by having more time for his own garden. The “agrarian reform”, in which land is for those who work it, has its roots in this form of strike.
Those native peasants whose bosses had refused to recognize the unions were in a better position than those that signed agreements about a decrease in their obligations.
Naturally, the owners of the haciendas that were “struck” were furious. They started carrying firearms, shooting in the air and threatening to kill the “thieving Indians”. When the native peasants complained to the police about these threats, the police said the bosses would be perfectly within their rights to shoot them down “like dogs”. The peasants took their grievance to the assembly of the regional labor federation, which agreed that, given the threat posed by the landowners and the complicity of the police, armed self-defense should be organized. As they were aware that the union to which I belonged, Chaupimayo, was under the greatest threat and was already preparing to defend itself, I was unanimously chosen to organize and lead our self-defense measures.
When they became aware of this, the landowners ceased their threats but got the military dictatorship of General Pérez Godoy to direct the police to suppress the strikes. Along with this repression, the government promulgated its “Agrarian Reform Law” in this area only, which they had no thought of actually implementing. (There is more to real agrarian reform than a redistribution of land, but in Peru we use the term in this narrow sense.) The regional federation of peasant unions agreed to call a general strike until the law was applied.
This was in 1962. Government repression came face to face with the peasantry’s armed resistance in the zone, with deaths on both sides. The police brought massive force to bear, dissolved the peasant self-defense organizations, and imprisoned their members. Nonetheless, the government realized that it would be very hard to get the natives back at work for the bosses after many of them had been months away from it. Accordingly, it decided to implement its own Agrarian Reform Law, which specified, among other things, that part of the land should remain in the bosses’ hands. The law was applied in this form in some haciendas, while in others the native peasantry applied its own agrarian reform, leaving the former landowner without a single square foot of land.
Extending the “Agrarian Reform” nationwide
By legalizing in practice the liquidation of the hacienda system in La Convención province and an adjacent valley, which the native peasantry had made a reality, the government pacified the zone, but it provoked protest in the rest of the country. During the Belaúnde regime, which replaced the military junta, there were many hacienda seizures by peasants who demanded that the land be turned over to them, as in La Convención.
The government responded with bullets, massacring peasants. During this period, two guerrilla movements arose and were crushed. Faced with this scene, the military decided to stop Belaúnde from setting Peru on fire. In 1968 they made their move to take power and extend to the country as a whole what had been implemented in La Convención in 1962.
The Velasco Alvarado government liquidated the haciendas, not just those in the highlands that practised what was effectively serfdom but also the industrialized haciendas on the coast. The latter were converted into cooperatives. These were not democratic and so became corrupt and weakened, and the greater part reverted to private ownership. This process of re-privatization was accelerated by later governments.
In the highlands many haciendas returned to native community ownership, while others were combined into huge cooperative enterprises: the Social Interest Agricultural Society (SAIS), Social Production Agrarian Cooperative (CAPS) and Social Property Rural Enterprise (ERPS). In theory, these cooperatives worked for the benefit of their entire native membership. In practice, they were bureaucratic organizations in the service of the top brass: the director, the president and a handful of others above them. The native peasants wanted these lands to become true communal property.
In 1975 the Velasco regime was replaced by that of Franciso Morales Bermúdez through a rightist coup d’état. The return of lands by the bureaucratic cooperatives in the province of Anta, Cusco began during this government. Later, as a director of the Peruvian Peasant Federation (CCP), I became involved in the recovery of 1.25 million hectares under control of the bureaucratic cooperatives that were taken over by peasant communities in the department of Puno during the first Alan García administration (1985-1990). It was a fight against the government, against the National Agricultural Confederation (CNA) founded by Velasco in support of his agrarian reform, and against the Shining Path (SL) guerrilla movement. The latter called us traitors to the peasantry for maintaining that armed struggle was not the only form of struggle. SL killed some of the peasant who had led in the land appropriations. Today there is still a number of bureaucratic cooperatives.
Despite the setbacks and because of this process of agrarian reform, Peru now has the greatest percentage of small landowners — whether individual or collective — in all of Latin America.
The neoliberal offensive
Neoliberalism began to impose itself strongly on Peru around 1992, during the Fujimori dictatorship and the civil war between the government and SL.
SL had decided to unleash armed struggle as a way to eliminate the marked social inequality in the country. At first it had the support of the poorer sectors of society, especially the peasantry in the interior, suffering from the abuses of the rich and the police, judicial and legislative authorities. However, the rise of SL provided the governments of Belaúnde, García and Fujimori with a pretext to carry out massacres, mostly of poor peasants but also of urban dwellers. Later SL began to commit massacres of its own of those that it considered its enemies in both rural and urban areas. Later still there arose the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA), which did not have SL’s sanguinary character. This gave President Fujimori a pretext to carry out a coup against his own government by dissolving parliament and assuming dictatorial powers.
During 20 years 70,000 Peruvians, the majority of them native peasants, died in the civil war. It weakened the peasant federations to a point from which they still have not recovered. Fujimori instituted a law aimed at dissolving the native communities. Its success varied, so that some communities remained relatively intact. He did this in expectation that a fragmented peasantry would be more vulnerable to land usurpation and other outrages. (In the same period the Salinas government in Mexico introduced a similar law.)
Attack on the environment
As in most of the world, neoliberalism is conducting a relentless assault on the environment and its human population. This is seen, for example, in privatization of public services and fundamental natural resources, and anti-labor legislation favorable to penetration of the economy by big multinational corporations.
In the rainforest the extraction of hydrocarbons poisons the waters. The Amazon forest is cleared for its lumber, for livestock raising and for plantations of oil palm and other biofuels. It is also cleared to set up plantations for cocaine production, while the native populace is under repression for its traditional use of the coca leaf.
In the highlands, aggression against nature is seen in open-pit mining, which destroys mountains while robbing water from small farmers and poisoning what remains. The proposed Inambari hydroelectric plant calls for the removal of thousands of native people and other peasants from three departments in order to build a dam to provide electricity to Brazil.
Another attack comes in the form of agroindustry, which uses science and technology not for the consumers’ good but for the profit of the enterprises, while poisoning us with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and agricultural chemicals. While the peasantry uses natural organic fertilizers, practises crop rotation and grows crops associated with ecologically sound methods, agroindustry is the agriculture of monocultures and the intensive use of agricultural chemicals (synthetic fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides). Agroindustry is unconcerned that its practices destroy the soil, as the company can then move on to another country and continue its devastation.
The signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States represents yet another neoliberal attack on small farming. For one thing, it favors the industrial cultivation of asparagus and artichokes, which require inordinate quantities of water, for the North American market. The tarif from this does not benefit the poor people of Peru but the big multinational agroindustrial companies.
In addition, it harms the native producers of wheat and other flour grains, who cannot compete with North American wheat from businesses subsidized by their own governments. No one subsidizes the Peruvian peasantry. The final result of this is a worsening of our people’s nutritional state, as their diet is no longer based on such native products as tarwi, qañiwa and kiwicha (the Quechua name for amaranth) but the cheaper pasta from subsidized American transgenic wheat.
If the Peruvian people allow the small farmers who feed them to be driven from the land by being robbed of water, we will instead be fed by an industry that fills us with GMOs and unwholesome chemicals. It is, therefore, in the urban populace’s interest to prevent the theft of water from small agriculture.
In this way, the colonial development model introduced by Pizarro is being perpetuated. We produce what the master of the time demands, without regard to the needs of the Peruvian people or our environment. Multinational capital’s insatiable drive for profit make the assault ever more furious.
In our time, the fundamental struggles in Peru are those of the small farmer. The peasants, both native and of immigrant ancestry, fight and die in defense of their environment. This is the reality of rural Peru today.
The triumph of the people of Tambogrande, Piura over the Manhattan mining company is still remembered a decade later. The struggle included a plebiscite in which more than 98% voted No to the mine! It also brought the murder of militant leader Godofredo García, an assault by the police, and solidarity from students in the capital city, as well as from environmentalists in the company’s home country, Canada.
On 5 June 2009, World Environment Day, about 200 natives — the official figure was 10 — were murdered on orders from Alan García as they defended the Amazon. In April of this year García had three defenders of the environment assassinated in Islay, Arequipa. This year on the Day of the Peasant, 24 June, he had six peasants killed in Juliaca, Puno.
A few weeks ago the Macrosur Front for the Defense of Water and Life was organized to unite activists in southern Peru. In addition to small farmers, it includes the urban populace of Tacna and Moquegua, which have already felt the effects of the mining company’s water theft.
Our fight is the same as that of the Huicholes defending Wirikuta in Mexico, the people of Mendoza, Argentina against the San Jorge mine, the demonstrations in Santiago and other major cities in Chile against the construction of hydroelectric plants in Patagonia, the Dongria Kondh in India in defense of their sacred mountain, the 20-kilometer human chain in Germany against nuclear power, and the Italians voting in a plebiscite against nuclear power and in affirmation of water as a public resource not to be privatized.
We native peoples are in the frontlines of this struggle. The reason for this is plain. Although no one can live without the products of the natural environment, native peoples are most conscious of our dependence on nature. In recognition of this, the French Greens call their newspaper Pachamama (Quechua for Mother Nature), a word that the Catalonian environmentalists have also adopted into their vocabulary.
However, the native peoples of the world are united by more than our love and defense of nature. We share other principles, of which I will mention a few:
The problems of collectivity are resolved collectively. In any continent with native people you will find native communities with a horizontal, democratic structure. In some countries these are organized at the next level into communities of communities, such as the Cauca Regional Native Council (CRIC) in Colombia, the Kuna people of the islands of Panama, and the Zapatist autonomous municipalities and caracoles [decentralized regional organizations] in Mexico.
Living well. This is the view that happiness is not attained by the accumulation of money and possessions but by living in a satisfying manner.
Devotion to both ancestors and descendants. Elinor Ostrom, Nobel laureate in economics in 2009, expressed her gratitude to the native people of North America for teaching her the importance of “thinking seven generations ahead” and acting today so as to benefit and not harm the seventh generation. This is in contrast to the ethic of many people today who are fully aware but do not care that their grandchildren will be without clean water.
Respect for diversity. In the struggle in the Peruvian Amazon we saw a variety of peoples with different languages united in struggle. This is in contrast to the intolerance for diversity that the capitalist system tries to inculcate in us.
The fact of a shared ethic among peoples on different continents, which is most highly developed in the most primitive peoples, is reason to regard it as the original human ethic. In my view, humanity faces a life-or-death dilemma. Either we return to our ancestral ethic or we face extinction within a century.
The capitalist system is in its final crisis. This crisis is economic, environmental, political and ethical. Its downfall is certain. What is not certain is whether it will be swept aside by humanity as a whole or if it will die by killing everybody, including the capitalists themselves.
A recovery of the primitive ethic does not mean a return to primitive life. When science and technology cease working in the service of big business and instead serve humanity as a whole, we can continue to enjoy their benefits without putting at risk the survival of our species.