The Indigenous World 2021: Peru
According to the 2007 Census, there are more than 4 million Indigenous people in Peru: 83.11% are Quechua, 10.92% Aymara, 1.67% Asháninka and 4.31% belong to other Amazonian Indigenous peoples. The Indigenous or Native Peoples Database (BDPI) reports the existence of 55 Indigenous peoples in the country speaking 47 Indigenous languages.
On the other hand, 21% of the national territory is covered by mining concessions, and these overlap with 47.8% of the territory of the peasant communities. Furthermore, 75% of the Peruvian Amazon is covered by hydrocarbon concessions. The overlapping of rights to communal territories, the enormous pressure from the extractive industries, the absence of land-use planning and the lack of any effective implementation of prior consultation are all exacerbating territorial and socio-environmental conflicts in Peru, a country that has signed and ratified Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and which voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.
2020 began with Peru seeking to overcome the major headache left behind by the political crisis of 2019: the dissolution of Parliament. The national agenda in January was largely dominated by congressional elections. A couple of months later, however, the national agenda – along with unfinished social policies and economic activities – had ground to a halt in order to focus efforts on the greatest health crisis the modern world has ever known: the COVID-19 pandemic. Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, together with the most impoverished sectors of society, ended up being the main victims of a global pandemic that had still not fully played out by the end of 2020.
The pandemic and a new political crisis have clearly exposed the structural social inequalities in Peru. Endemic problems such as Amazonian deforestation, the impact of mining projects, the vulnerability of the country’s Indigenous peoples, violence against environmental defenders, the criminalisation of protest, the impact on human rights and the precarious labour situation in the agricultural sector were particularly visible issues throughout 2020, a complex year that left more debts hanging than resolved.
Peru began the year without a Parliament. Former President Martín Vizcarra had dissolved Congress in September 2019 amidst a crisis generated by opposition sectors when they passed a vote of no confidence in the Cabinet of Ministers, then chaired by Salvador del Solar. The elections held on 26 January resulted in a legislature divided between nine political parties, none with an absolute majority. The historic level of abstentionism was noteworthy: 25% of eligible voters simply did not turn out. The divorce between the political class and the population had become evident once more, under the spotlight of the congressional elections.
Indigenous individuals tried for Baguazo finally acquitted
On 3 February, the Supreme Court’s Transitory Criminal Court acquitted the 53 defendants, mostly Indigenous Wampís, Awajún and Shawi, who had been prosecuted by the Peruvian state for hindering the functioning of the public services, rioting, disturbance and illegal possession of firearms. The origins of the trial lie in the conflict that occurred in Bagua (Amazonas) in June 2009 during the approval of decrees promoted by former President Alan García to bring the country into line with the Peru/US Free Trade Agreement, with the aim of liberalising Peru’s Indigenous territories. Indigenous protests and the authorities’ refusal to talk led to a confrontation that resulted in 33 deaths, including police and civilians, and another person disappeared.
The Supreme Court’s acquittal was interpreted as an act of justice towards the Indigenous individuals who had participated in this tragic event. The acquittal was passed by four votes in favour to three against and involving the casting vote of Judge Susana Castañeda Otsu who stated that her decision was based on an intercultural approach and the violations of the rights to protest, to prior consultation and to defend the Indigenous territory as enshrined in the Constitution and ILO Convention 169. Among the Indigenous leaders benefiting from this acquittal were Alberto Pizango, Santiago Manuin and Ronal Requejo.
State recognises three additional Indigenous languages
At the end of February, the Ministry of Education (Minedu) recognised three more Amazonian languages: Munichi, Omagua and Taushiro, bringing the total number of native languages officially recognised by the Peruvian government to 46. The Peruvian state thus has only two languages pending formalisation in order to reach the 48 submitted in 2019 within the context of the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Despite the efforts of Minedu and the Ministry of Culture, the potential disappearance of native languages continues to be a threat. What records there are note that 37 languages have now disappeared from the Peruvian territory, including Cholón, Culli, Puquina, Palta and Muchik. In addition, there are languages at serious risk of extinction such as the Amazonian Iñapari languages, of which there are only four fluent speakers, and Taushiro, with only one speaker remaining.
COVID-19 reaches Peru
March 2020 was to change the country's agenda forever. In the first week of that month, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in the country. A week later, with 71 confirmed cases, former President Martín Vizcarra decreed a state of emergency and suspended all international and domestic travel to and in Peru, as well as all non-essential economic activities. As expected, the first to be affected by these lockdown measures were the most vulnerable economic sectors. In the following weeks, a massive series of lay-offs was to take place involving large companies, and several smaller economic sectors went bankrupt due to their inability to trade.
In an attempt to mitigate the economic impact caused by the lockdown, at the end of March the Vizcarra administration announced the first in a series of vouchers that the Executive would offer throughout 2020. Nonetheless, these vouchers were to reveal one of the major problems of the national public administration: the lack of a registry of those in need. With the aim of granting vouchers to the most disadvantaged sectors, Vizcarra announced that they would be provided to people registered on the “Juntos” and “Pensión 65” social programmes, both targeted at people in extreme poverty. To begin with, however, several sectors were excluded from this economic aid. The National Agrarian Confederation (CNA) denounced the fact that this measure discriminated against the more than six million people engaged in agricultural work in Peru, including peasant farmers who were in a situation of poverty.
Virus hits Indigenous Peoples
A month later, in April, the virus reached the Indigenous communities of the Amazon and Martín Vizcarra himself acknowledged that the public and health services were inadequate: “The native communities are, right now, it has to be said, a sector that is not being reached as it should and we have to correct this as soon as possible and act immediately,” declared the Head of State on 14 April.
In early May, Loreto, the largest region of the Peruvian Amazon, became the epicentre of the pandemic in the country. With more than 1,500 people infected in six weeks and a rate of 40 deaths per day, the Peruvian rainforest was experiencing its deadliest period of the health crisis. In the midst of this situation, the National Human Rights Coordinator demanded that former President Martín Vizcarra develop a differentiated multisectoral plan to address the needs of the Amazon and its Indigenous Peoples. The improvised plan that the government had designed for the country's main cities, especially Lima, simply did not fit the realities of the Amazonian communities.
Thus, 100 days after the state of emergency was first declared, the Executive issued an emergency decree to implement an intervention plan led by the Ministry of Health with an allocation of a little over 88 million soles, or the equivalent of 1% of the stimulus fund allocated for business recovery. The plan was aimed at ensuring the purchase of protective equipment, diagnostic tests and improving the conditions in health facilities. By the time the Vizcarra administration issued this plan, however, the virus had already hit Indigenous communities hard.
In mid-May, leader Humberto Chota, President of the Federation of Native Ticuna and Yagua Communities of the Lower Amazon (Feconatiya) and leader of the Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the East (Orpio), died from the virus, due to a lack of access to oxygen. Chota was to be the first of a list of Indigenous leaders to die as a result of COVID-19 and a lack of healthcare. Among the victims taken by the pandemic in Indigenous communities were well-known leaders such as Santiago Manuin Valera, historic leader of the Awajún people; Silvio Valles Lomas, Shipibo mayor of the Masisea district; the Awajún brothers Hernán and Arturo Kinin Inchipish; and Marcial Quintana Litano, the living memory of the Tallán people, among many others.
The situation of Peru’s Indigenous Peoples, especially in the Amazon, declined yet more as 2020 progressed. By September, it was estimated that there were more than 20,000 cases among Indigenous Peoples, Loreto being the region most affected with 50% of the cases. The late intervention of the state, including its action and inaction, and the lack of an intercultural approach that could have adapted the emergency plan to the reality of the Indigenous communities left an historical and fatal legacy that has diminished the native population.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples, largely due to their lack of access to healthcare systems. In the Amazon, however, vulnerability was estimated to be 10 times higher than in urban areas due to climatic factors and the fact that its native population is particularly vulnerable to new pathogens.
The latent threat of the Amazon Waterway project
As if the pandemic were not tragic enough for the Amazonian peoples, in October the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep) denounced the government’s interest in building the Amazon Waterway, a massive river transport route that would require the dredging of millions of tonnes of earth from the main rivers of the Peruvian Amazon, affecting the Amazonian ecosystems, food security and worldview of the native peoples. The National Environmental Certification Service (Senace) made more than 400 comments on the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in 2019, which the construction company was unable to remedy in time.
Despite this situation, Cohidro – the consortium (including Chinese capital) that was awarded the project – is insisting on commencing the dredging of more than 2,600 kilometres of Amazonian rivers with the support of the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC), which has issued an addendum to the waterway contract to expand the dredging area without prior consultation. Uncertainty remains for the territorial, food and cultural sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, who reiterated their request for the project to be cancelled.
Rejection of the Escazú Agreement
One of the first actions of the Congress of the Republic, which resumed most of its activities in October, was to refuse to ratify the Escazú Agreement, an international agreement that establishes protocols for protecting the environment and its defenders. Despite requests from the executive, civil society, Indigenous organisations and the Ombudsman's Office itself, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee refused to ratify it, supported by the votes of members of Fuerza Popular (People’s Force), Acción Popular (People’s Action) and Alianza Para el Progreso (Alliance for Progress).
Even though more than 50 environmental defenders have been murdered in Peru over the last decade, Congress bowed to pressure from business sectors who accused the Escazú Agreement of interfering in the country's economic sovereignty. In the days following the Committee’s rejection, the judiciary called on Parliament to reconsider its decision and ratify the agreement; the legislature nonetheless filed the case.
The rejection of the Escazú Agreement is particularly critical for a country such as Peru. In 2020 alone, five environmental defenders were murdered: Arbildo Meléndez Grándes (Huánuco) and Benjamín Ríos Urimishi (Ucayali); in May, Gonzalo Pío Flores (Junín); and in July, Lorenzo Wampagkit Yamil (Amazonas), some of them members of Indigenous communities.
Vacancy, dictatorship and repression
In November, Peru was to experience its most politically turbulent weeks in recent decades. On the 9th of that month, Congress removed Martín Vizcarra – without investigation – on the accusation of “permanent moral incapacity” due to a series of audio tapes in which the president and his personal advisor were coordinating his defence against investigations being brought against him by the Attorney General's Office. Despite the opposition of most of the population, who considered it inappropriate to dismiss the president in the midst of a pandemic, and of some specialists who claimed that there were insufficient grounds to invoke moral incapacity, Vizcarra was dismissed and the then President of Congress, Manuel Merino, sworn in as the new President of the Republic, only to be subsequently and overwhelmingly rejected by a majority of the population. One hundred and five (105) Congressmen and women voted in favour of Vizcarra’s removal, with 19 against and four abstentions. Only the Partido Morado (Purple Party) and a few representatives of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and Acción Popular opposed the controversial decision.
Manuel Merino took office on 10 November, amidst a series of popular protests that were to develop over the coming week. Following the resignation of Martín Vizcarra’s entire ministerial cabinet, Merino waited two days after the swearing-in ceremony to appoint a new cabinet led by conservative politician, Antero Florez-Araoz. Protests took place throughout the country. Millions of people took to the streets to express their rejection of what they considered a “coup d'état” by Parliament. Merino responded only with repression.
The disaster that was Peruvian politics in 2020 was to reach its peak on the night of Saturday 14 November when the second national march against the Merino administration was convened. With millions of people demonstrating throughout the country, the National Police repressed the protests, resulting in the deaths of two young students: Jack Brian Pintado (22) and Jordan Inti Sotelo Camargo (24). With these deaths confirmed, the members of Florez-Araoz’s cabinet began to resign in the early hours of the morning of 15 November. Faced with an untenable political and social situation, Merino resigned from the presidency at noon on Sunday 15 November.
On Monday 16 November, amidst protests demanding a new Constitution, Congress appointed (by consensus) Francisco Sagasti, a member of the Partido Morado and opponent of the original dismissal, as the new President of the Republic. In his first speech, Sagasti apologised to the relatives of the victims of the Merino protests and ordered a minute’s silence in their honour. In early January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued an initial report of its investigation and noted that the Peruvian National Police had made “unnecessary and excessive use of force” against the demonstrators.
Agrarian strike and repression
Just as it seemed that 2020 might end on a calm note, a new protest emerged on the scene. It began in Ica on 30 November when a group of farmers went on strike and took over the Pan-American Highway demanding the repeal of the Agrarian Promotion Law, a law that created a particularly disadvantageous system of labour for sector workers. The protests spread to other regions such as La Libertad, Apurímac, Piura and Junín. The protesters were demanding decent working conditions, producing evidence of payments below the minimum wage and no social benefits or security. The agro-export business sector, beneficiary of this special system, rejected the protests and the National Police once again resorted to repression, resulting in the death of farmer Jorge Muñoz Jiménez (19) and Mario Fernández (24) in La Libertad. Faced with this social pressure, Congress repealed the Agrarian Promotion Law.
With a commitment to draft a new agrarian labour regime, the Congress of the Republic prioritised the debate and formulated a new law during the early days of December. However, by the 21st, after 15 days of peace, the protesters had once again blocked the roads, denouncing Parliament’s lack of speed and political will. Confrontations, road blockades, repression and Parliament’s lack of attention set the tone for the last week of 2020, a year marked by social, political and health crises.
Pluspetrol withdraws leaving environmental liabilities
At the end of the year, the transnational company Pluspetrol, which has had a presence in Peru for more than 20 years, operating the largest gas field in Camisea (Cusco) and the largest oil field in Plot 192 (Loreto), announced it would be withdrawing from the country and liquidating its assets. The company is accusing the Environmental Evaluation and Oversight Agency (OEFA) of harming it by determining that Pluspetrol was responsible for the spills that occurred in the heart of the Amazon at the Plot 192 facilities. The controversy lies in the fact that the company argues that an arbitration decision exonerated it of any responsibility for environmental liabilities dating back to the years prior to its entry into Loreto; however, the OEFA maintains that its ruling forms part of the sanctioning procedure, one of its main functions. Meanwhile, members of different Indigenous peoples and communities in the Amazon region affected by the spills in Plot 192 are demanding compliance with an historic process of environmental remediation and reparation.
Outlook for 2021
2020 came to a close with a second wave of coronavirus infections on the horizon and the campaign for presidential and parliamentary elections set for April 2021. Candidates will have to run campaigns that avoid large rallies of people and carefully consider the possibility that their electoral activities may well result in more infections.
The government has declared 2021 the “Bicentennial Year of Peru: 200 years of Independence”. The CNA issued a statement in this regard noting that the native Indigenous Peoples continued to be excluded, discriminated against and dispossessed of their territories and therefore have no independence or bicentennial to celebrate.
Regardless of the controversy over the actual date of emancipation from the Spanish Crown and the process of forming a nation based on citizens with rights, Peru entered 2021 still further from achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), immersed in one of the biggest economic and health crises of recent history.
José Carlos Díaz Zanelli is a journalist and academic. He is a member of the Servindi team and a Doctoral candidate in Latin American Cultural Studies at Rutgers University (New Jersey). This report was produced with support from Servindi’s press team.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 “¿Estamos preparados para la emergencia?” [Are we prepared for the emergency?], Servindi, 15 March 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/15/03/2020/estamos-preparados-para-la-emergencia
 “Vizcarra: ‘Las comunidades nativas no están siendo atendidas como debieran’.” [Vizcarra: ‘Native communities are not being reached as they should be”], Servindi, 14 April 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/14/04/2020/vizcarra-las-comunidades-nativas-no-estan-siendo-atendidas-como
“Cuestionan a Vizcarra por inacción para atender a pueblos indígenas.” [Vizcarra challenged for inaction in addressing the needs of Indigenous Peoples], Servindi, 7 May 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/07/05/2020/cuestionan-vizcarra-por-inaccion-para-atender-pueblos-indigenas
 “Indígenas amazónicos, hasta 10 veces más vulnerables a COVID-19.” [Amazonian Indigenous peoples up to 10 times more vulnerable to COVID-19], Servindi, 16 November 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-informe-especial/16/11/2020/indigenas-amazonicos-hasta-10-veces-mas-vulnerables-covid-19
 “Organizaciones demandan suspensión definitiva de Hidrovía.” [Organisations demand definitive halt to Waterway], Servindi, 15 October 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/15/10/2020/organizaciones-demandan-suspension-definitiva-de-hidrovia-amazonica
 “Comunidades indígenas demandan suspensión del proyecto Hidrovía Amazónica.” [Indigenous communities demand halt to Amazonian Waterway Project], Inforegión, 15 October 2020. https://www.inforegion.pe/278373/comunidades-indigenas-demandan-suspension-del-proyecto-hidrovia-amazonica/
 “Proyecto Hidrovía Amazónica pretende ampliar áreas de dragado.” [Amazon Waterway Project intends to extend dredging area], Servindi, 25 November 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/25/11/2020/hidrovia-amazonica-pretenden-ampliar-areas-de-dragado-sin-consulta
 “¡Primaron los intereses privados! Perú no ratifica Acuerdo de Escazú.” [Private interess prevail! Peru decides not to ratify Escazú Agreement], Servindi, 20 October 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/20/10/2020/primaron-los-intereses-peru-no-ratifica-acuerdo-de-escazu
 “Defensoría del Pueblo pide aprobación de tratado de derechos humanos en materia ambiental.” [Ombudsman calls for approval of environmental rights treaty], Ombudsman of Peru, 2 June 2020. https://www.defensoria.gob.pe/defensoria-del-pueblo-pide-aprobacion-de-tratado-de-derechos-humanos-en-materia-ambiental/
 “Perú es el cuarto país más peligroso del mundo para un defensor ambiental.” [Peru fourth most dangerous country for environmental defenders], International Network for Intercultural Studies. https://red.pucp.edu.pe/ridei/noticias/peru-es-el-cuarto-pais-mas-peligroso-del-mundo-para-un-defensor-ambiental/
 “Poder Judicial pedirá al Congreso ratificar Acuerdo de Escazú para mejorar y proteger justicia ambiental.” [Judiciary to ask Congress to ratify Escazú Agreement in order to improve and protect environmental justice], Justicia TV, 26 June 2020. https://justiciatv.pj.gob.pe/poder-judicial-pedira-al-congreso-ratificar-acuerdo-de-escazu-para-mejorar-y-proteger-justicia-ambiental/
 “Congreso aprueba la vacancia del presidente Martín Vizcarra.” [Congress approves President Martin Vizcarra's dismissal], Servindi, 9 November 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/09/11/2020/congreso-aprueba-la-vacancia-del-presidente-martin-vizcarra
 Arciniegas, Yurany. “ONU: policía de Perú hizo uso ‘excesivo de la fuerza’ durante las protestas de noviembre.” [UN: Peru’s police made 'excessive use of force' during November protests], France 24, 12 January 2021. https://www.france24.com/es/am%C3%A9rica-latina/20210112-peru-onu-informe-policia-uso-excesivo-fuerza-protestas-merino
 Silva, Christián, “Controversia entre Pluspetrol y OEFA por pasivos ambientales,” [Controversy between Pluspetrol and OEFA over environmental liabilities], La República, 5 October 2020. https://larepublica.pe/economia/2020/10/05/controversia-entre-pluspetrol-y-oefa-por-pasivos-ambientales-la-republica/
 ”Panorama de los ODS en los pueblos indígenas de la Amazonía peruana.” [Overview of SDGs among Indigenous Peoples in the Peruvian Amazon], Servindi, 26 November 2020. https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-noticias/26/11/2020/panorama-de-los-ods-en-los-pueblos-indigenas-de-la-amazonia-peruana