The Collegian
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

In Peru, students witness a country and people torn asunder

CUSCO, Peru -- As President Alan Garcia's approval rating continues to plummet, various bloody protests have amplified chaos and killings throughout Peru, notably in the northern Amazon region.

Violent uprisings in the north of the country have disrupted transportation, education and tourism, generating international attention as Garcia pursues investment and development projects at the expense of the general public. Along with numerous riots and strikes reeling Cusco, more than 30 police and Indians were killed in the northern jungle in response to the Garcia administration's exploitation of the rain forest's natural resources.

I, along with four members from our group of 11, took an independent trip to the southern Peruvian rain forest for three days. After returning from a weekend of canoeing, mosquito nets and remarkable wildlife, we were reunited with the rest of the team in Cusco.

While the five of us were trekking through the humid jungle, watching monkeys and macaws meander above our heads, the seven other group members were in Cusco, reading about violent killings occurring in the Amazon. Fortunately, the closest we came to death was when our sweat — and insect repellant-drenched bodies — came dangerously close to an irritable jaguar that growled as we frantically struggled to escape through the thick, unforgiving forest. Safe in the southern jungle, we were unaware that residents in the northern Amazon were demanding the government dismantle plans to use the rain forest as an investment for future development projects. As a result, several people were speared to death.

These natives have exceptionally limited services, receiving little — if any — education, health care and basic infrastructure, among other essentials. Garcia seeks to capitalize on the region's copious natural resources, including water, oil, minerals and natural gas, regardless of the adverse effects such pursuits have on the residents. The natives have a strained relationship with the Peruvian government because they won't receive any benefits from international corporations exploiting such resources. Because these citizens are not granted any political authority or rights, they resort to violence and protests, actions that result in deaths and block transportation and tourism.

Along with violence in the rain forest, riots continue to surface in other regions, including Lima, the capital, and Cusco, the country's Incan city renowned for its proximity to Machu Picchu — a popular tourist destination. Protesters in Cusco continue to block roads, disrupting all forms of transportation. Peak tourist season in Cusco is from June to September. The strikes appear to be coordinated to affect this highly lucrative business, further discrediting the stability of the government and Peru's international status. Residents of Cusco are angered by Garcia's mining and hydroelectric projects, including the privatization of their water sources. In response to the government's ambitions, residents act out in the only way they can — through primarily non-violent attempts to block roadways.

Professor Rick Mayes — a University of Richmond associate professor of public policy who led our group — was personally involved in an uprising while riding in a taxi. A mob of residents unexpectedly blocked the road, surrounded the taxi and rolled large rocks between the wheels to prevent them from escaping. The angry residents then smashed the windshield of the vehicle and began pounding on the sides and hood of the taxi.

"I haven't had many of these in my life, but I began experiencing a rush of adrenaline and a 'fight or flight' feeling surged through my body," Mayes said. "I was really scared that the people might completely flip out and attack the driver and/or me."

Not soon after the residents began to attack the taxi, a group of soldiers came to assuage the anger before anyone was injured. Professor Mayes walked home.

Peru has recently engendered international concern as Garcia's pro-investment policies and manipulation of highly coveted natural resources have led to increased violence and instability. Labor unions, such as the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP), continue to respond to the administration's injustices in order to protect citizens' rights.

As I boarded the plane to JFK, I thought of the group scattered on their flights, returning to separate lives in cities throughout the United States. Although we were arriving in different towns with different lives, we had one thing in common: we witnessed a faltering country consumed with struggle. The palpable corruption, public health issues and conflict in Peru will always remind us that we live in a world where opportunity is a luxury, not to be overlooked.

Contact reporter Fred Shaia at fred.shaia@richmond.edu

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