Letter from Puno
10 April 2017
The Sunday market in Ilave brings farmers and traders from all over the southern Altiplano, a gathering that fills the town centre with brightly coloured plastic awnings. It looks like a fairly good agricultural year, following months of rain, fortunately not on the same scale as that which has afflicted other parts of Peru during the first months of 2017. The Altiplano is green, the crops plentiful, and the landscape full of yellow and orange flowers (at least until the dry season begins and these are burnt up by the unrelenting sun). But appearances can be deceptive. Puno is one of the poorest areas of Peru where the benefits of the super-cycle mineral boom are less in evidence than in other parts of Peru. It has not received the same sort of influx of money from the canon system as in neighbouring Cuzco.
It is also an area where agriculture is more at risk because of climate change. The rains of recent months were preceded by devastating drought. The region also suffered from extremes of cold which afflict agricultural production. As elsewhere, climate variation is increasingly erratic and hard to predict. Peasant communities, which over the centuries have developed sophisticated mechanisms for dealing with climatic variation, find it particularly hard to manage risk.
Climate change is also making for problems in other ways. Glacial melt is affecting agriculture in Puno as elsewhere. It is estimated that Peru’s snow cover has diminished by as much as a half over the last thirty years. Climate change has also led to the drying up of the marshy areas of the highlands, known as bofedales. This, for example, is affecting the quality of alpaca wool, since the animals are less able to find access to water sources. The answer for many has been to abandon agriculture and migrate to the city. The growth of towns like Juliaca, the region’s largest urban conglomeration, stand as witness to this.
The growth of extractive industries is also affecting Puno. After Apurímac and Ancash, it is the region with the highest level of extant conflicts with local communities. Almost without exception these are classified by the ombudsman’s office as ‘socio-environmental’, conflicts arising from the impact of mining development on community welfare in various ways. Such conflicts tend to flare up and die down, but the overall number of unresolved disputes remains well above the national average. However, these disputes tend to receive less coverage in the national media, in large part because Puno is not home to the mega-projects on which the economy of the country largely depends.
The most publicised conflict was that surrounding the Santa Ana project during the last months of Alan García’s government in 2011. The concession here belongs to Bear Creek, a large Canadian mining company, which ended up in violent confrontation with the Aymara-speaking communities of southern Puno, in and around Ilavi, which claims to be the ‘capital of the Aymaran nation’. Bear Creek also has concessions in the highlands of Carabaya, in northern Puno, which have also seen bitter conflicts.
Again, the main motive for conflict is the way in which mines lead to the diversion of water away from traditional agricultural activities. The grounds for conflict here were created many years ago by Southern Peru Copper Corporation’s appropriation of the highland bofedales to channel water into its two large mining complexes at Toquepala (in Tacna region) and Cuajone (in Moquegua). This was the background to the conflict with Bear Creek. According to Mourik Bueno de Mesquita, a water expert based in the city of Puno, “all the communities in the south know this story”. Political groups, some with links back to Sendero Luminoso, used these to animate what became known in Lima as the ‘Aymarazo’. For Bueno de Mezquita, the peasant communities of highland Puno, both in the region around Ilavi and elsewhere, are fighting a struggle for survival. In his opinion, this makes negotiation difficult. The highlands of Peru are key to the country’s capitalist development, whether it is mining, the building of hydro plants to export to Brazil, or the development of intensive agriculture on the coast using water from the highlands. The main obstacles to this development, he says, are the peasant communities of Puno and other highland regions. For both communities and companies, the scope for compromise is circumscribed.