Not in Peru.
In the slums of US cities, livelihoods are not based so much on natural resources, but on wage labor at the bottom of the capitalist economy. But in Peru, and arguably in the majority of the world, the people struggling to get by live on natural resources. Their day-to-day survival depends directly on the productivity of soil, the abundance of water and the access to trees for cooking and shelter.
In Peru, I hear so many stories of rural folks organizing to defend their land, their water, their trees from the multinational companies that come to extract resources and sell them to the rich world. Yesterday, a man from somewhere in the jungle said that there were government engineers snooping around and marking off land 6km into the forest from the farthest villages. At first the engineers said it was protected land, but that villagers could still hunt animals and cut trees for their personal use. But then these engineers stated that no one was to cross this new boundary. Soon other people showed up. With saws. A Chinese company started hauling out the ancient trees by the truckload. The communities formed a “Defensa Ecologica”. The next time the government engineer came around no one would give him food or lodging. Except for one family who finally let him in. They gave him a place to rest…and when he was sleeping they stole his shoes. In the morning, the angry and now shoe-less engineer had no way to tromp through the forest…
Today I talked to Juan Santos Chavez, who has built a micro-hydro system for himself and 9 other families in the village of La Libertad. Juan knows the micro-hydro system depends primary on one thing: water. And water depends on the thickly forested hill hovering over La Libertad. He and the rest of the association has talked to the owner of the forested land about the importance of keeping in forest, to protect the river’s spring for the drinking water and electricity of the village. But the land owner has defended the idea of private property and cuts “his” trees when he pleases. La Libertad say they will try and negotiate, but they have decided to take all peaceful measures necessary to defend their water.
The bloodiest conflict in Peru in recent years was not a clash of the infamous Shining Path with their Maoist ideology, but rather a confrontation in July between police and indigenous activists protesting a law that facilitated access of oil and timber multinationals to the rainforest. It was defense of rights to land and natural resources that sparked this fire.
This theme is echoed in the fight against the mining companies in the mountains of Cajamarca. Peasants march, block roads, and hold vigils to protect their land and water. In an extreme case, the Ronda Campesina captured a helicopter pilot exploring for minerals and made him walk naked around the freezing highland village for days. A mercury spill that poisoned the town of Chorropampa haunts the public memory. In a society and economy based on agriculture, the quick riches of tearing down a mountain lure some but hold know illusions for others who know their wealth and ability to survive comes from the land.
Their wealth circulates from the field to the home, to their plate and back to the field. People don’t have much cash, but they eat hearty meals, have a roof over their head and adobe or wooden walls to keep out the rain. Nature provides and they are willing to defend her.