Master’s Research: Theoretical Foundations, Part 6

Indigenous Politics & Rural Lifeworlds

Historically the Peruvian State has been responsible for the seizure, exploitation and destruction of indigenous communities’ lands (WRM 2011). All of which began during the Spanish colonization, continued throughout numerous presidencies, and arguably, still outlasts today. For the purposes of this paper, attention will be paid specifically to the Presidencies of Alan Garcia and Alberto Fujimori. The reason for this is because of the intimate connection between their individual political maneuvers and the larger neoliberal hegemony of land management and industrial agriculture. Then the focus will extend beyond the indigenous politics of Peru specifically, and provide cross-disciplinary theoretical groundwork from scholars who specialize in studies of indigeneity.

The Double Edged Sword: Garcia & Fujimori

Alan Garcia’s first term (1985-1990) supported a strong capitalist ideology and has been characterized as heavily anti-communist (Drinot 2014b). Part of this ideology was the idea that indigeneity was an obstruction to Peruvian national advancement. So much so, that Drinot (2014b) describes Garcia’s presidency as “an attempt to overcome indigeneity, to de-indianize Peru” (p. 172). Drinot (2014b) goes onto explain that Garcia’s solution to the numerous problems the country was facing—such as the occupation of Sendero Luminso and debilitating poverty levels— was “[…] a Peru free from the backwardness of its indigenous population, or, more precisely, from the threat to the neoliberal revolution represented by the backwardness of the indigenous population” (p. 181, emphasis in the original). In other words, Peruvian indigenous populations’ “alternative pathways” for living—their culture, lifestyles and survival strategies— were considered in direct contradistinction to the neoliberal hegemony that Garcia was attempting to push forward (Hess 2007).

This much was true for the Presidency of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) as well. Under the Fujimori government, the rights of indigenous populations were further subordinated by laws that subjugated the inalienability of indigenous communal land. Despite the 1970s agrarian land reform, which was responsible for decentralizing millions of hectares of land previously dominated by large haciendas and granting them back to farmer cooperatives, Fujimori’s government returned to large-scale, industrial land ownership (Burneo 2011). Fujimori’s agrarian reforms allowed indirect management, mortgage and sale of Peruvian lands (to foreign investors), as well as corporate ownership of lands. Following the 1990s, 36,150 hectares were sold by small farmers in the Chira Valley, an important farming area off the Pacific coast. Of these, 13,500 hectares were acquired by just five companies (Burneo 2011).

In addition, Fujimori declared any ‘uncultivated’ lands to become property of the State. This declaration led to the appropriation of many farmers’ properties who strategically allowed their land to fallow in between cultivations (Burneo 2011). In her book about French colonialism in North Africa, Davis (2007) outlines a similar process carried out by the French and inflicted upon the Algerians. What the two scenarios have in common is that they each shed a light on the necessity for capitalist and neoliberal land management regimes to constantly consume land, because after all, any uncultivated land is unproductive land. They also elucidate the controversy that can arise between two opposing ways of knowing and interacting with the natural environment.  The indigenous perspective understands fallow land as an important step in the process of agricultural cultivation, while the capitalist and industrial perspective understands fallow land as an irrational waste of space.

Articulations and Assumptions of Indigeneity  

The presidencies of Garcia and Fujimori have a couple things in common when it comes to their treatment of the indigenous populations in Peru. They each were successful at subordinating and detaching indigenous Peruvians from their traditional lands on behalf of (neo)liberalizing their economy. In addition, they each constructed visions for their country, informed by neoliberal economic theory and land management policies, that did not align with the “articulations of indigeneity” that were also present at the time. Muehlmann (2009) explains that articulations of indigeneity “are used to denote the way that groups come to express particular collective political identities and manage to connect these identities to wider discourses and social forces at different historical conjunctures” (p. 476). In other words, the ways in which indigenous populations construct their collective identity, and the ways in which governments construct their political agenda, as well as the visions of their citizenship, can sometimes be in resonance or contradiction with one another. In identity politics, articulation helps explains how certain viewpoints (indigenous or not) are created and employed in order to agree or disagree with the wider political and ideological trends. In indigenous politics specifically, this conceptualization helps shed light on which indigenous articulations are deemed agreeable and for what reasons, as well as, which articulations are considered failures (Muehlmann 2009). This sort of complexity reminds us that “environmental conflicts are never just about the environment” (Muehlmann 2009: 477) but instead, are also highly politicized, ideological and cultural.

The GMO moratorium in Peru is a curious case. On one hand, we see an articulation of indigeneity that has been, and still is, in opposition to large scale industrial agriculture and the usage of transgenics.  This articulation contradicts certain government agencies, such as MINAG and INIA, as well as multinational corporations attempting to open trade with Peru. On the other hand, we see an articulation that is gaining social and political traction. Both governmental and non-governmental agencies, such as MINAM and PPPLT, resonate with an articulation of indigeneity that seeks to preserve diversity and rural lifeways. The moratorium is largely a political maneuver, however, much of its support arises from indigenous populations themselves and activists for indigenous rights. There seems to be then, a bifurcated articulation of indigeneity that directly contradicts proponents who support an industrial and biotechnological vision of the future, while simultaneously agreeing with other political actors and their desires for a non-transgenic Peru.

Ultimately what Muehlmann’s (2009) conceptualization elucidates is the difficulty with defining and identifying ‘indigenous’ or ‘indigeneity’— no matter whether that identification comes from outside or inside of the indigenous group (Kuper 2003).  Related to that is the difficulty to delineate what indigenous needs and wants are or should be. Part of that is because of their historic and systemic alienation from important decision making processes about their own livelihoods. It also has to do with the saliency of assumptions and mythologies built into many Western or non-indigenous imaginaries of indigenous populations (Kuper 2003; Redford 1991).

One of these myths is that indigenous individuals and communities are inherently averse to development. Their aversion then, is a product of the “fact” that their ways of living, predicated on harmonious interaction with the natural environment, is perfect and needs not to develop. This assumption of inherent superiority—when it comes to land management, subsistence living and natural resource usage— is what is responsible for the creation of the ‘ecologically noble savage’ (Redford 1991). This ideal articulation of indigeneity, built upon its previous conception, the ‘noble savage’, is the idea that indigenous lifestyles do not denigrate the environment, and because of this, are superior to industrial or developed strategies, suggesting that they should be preserved and even replicated (Redford 1991). However, evidence from within the field of anthropology shows us that this is not necessarily the case (Kuper 2003; Redford 1991).

In reality, contemporary indigenous populations, much like the ones in Peru, have undergone continual socio-cultural change. Very few groups, if any at all, have lived in complete isolation. Instead they have migrated, merged, changed languages, social organizations and modes of subsistence (Kuper 2003). Much like group identities in urban settings or developed nations, in rural areas there is constant intra- and inter-group redefinitions or articulations of indigenous identity, material ways of living, and epistemological ways of knowing. In discussing older indigenous groups Redford (1991) explains, “these people behaved as humans do now: they did whatever they had to feed themselves and their families. “Whatever they had to” is the key phrase in understanding the problem of the noble savage myth in its contemporary version. Countless examples make it clear that indigenous people can be either forced, seduced, or tempted into accepting new methods, new crops, and new technologies.”

This much is true for what is occurring with the GMO moratorium in Peru. The ecologically noble savage articulation of indigeneity is being summoned as one the major anti-biotech arguments.  Redford (1991) explains, “to believe that when confronted with market pressures, higher population densities, and increased sedentism most indigenous peoples will maintain the integrity of their traditional methods is not only to argue against the available evidence, but worse, to fall into the ideological trap that produced the ecologically noble savage.” Instead, he argues, “we must face the fact that in many cases, when we dream of the ecologically noble Indian whose knowledge will save us from the consequences of modern development, we dream an old dream, whose roots stretch back to the Garden of Eden and beyond.” Redford (1991) is not meaning to downplay the importance of indigenous groups and their traditional knowledge systems and ways of living. Instead he is making a call for a more realistic, less essentialist conceptualization of indigeneity. One that is not based in mythological assumptions, but rather, one built on the grounds of indigenous self-identification and determination.

The summoning and employment of the ecologically noble savage in order to argue against biotechnology in Peru is not unique. This phenomenon extends from the micro and localized interactions occurring within Peru to the macro and global trends of indigenous politics more generally. The actors and institutions responsible for spreading neoliberalism in the world system have now inserted themselves into the economic and socio-cultural spheres of Peruvian indigenous politics. In discussing the intersection of neoliberalism and indigeneity, Hale (2002) argues that one of the problems “behind the advance of neoliberalism is the absence of utopian language to talk about, inspire and imagine political alternatives” (p. 524). In other words, in the current neoliberal rhetoric, there is no space for language that clearly defines the necessity for diverse articulations of indigeneity and alternative pathways to living. Due to this grim reality, Hale (2002) explains, “to engage in progressive politics in Central –and South] America today— perhaps more than any other moment in the last century— is to travel uncharted territory, with maps from a past era that must be consulted, but often end up being more a hindrance than a guide” (p. 524).

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