WHY CIVIL SOCIETY IS ON STRIKE
Over the past two days the soundscape of horns, whistles, megaphones, and screaming has been replaced by the sounds of children playing on the street, emulating the conflict between protesters and police as they vocalize the sounds of tear gas explosions, city-wide sirens and emergency vehicles, repeating chants from strikers and the descriptions of vandalism and looting as reported in the local news. “Maldito!” one of the children screams as the other throws a rock at the wall as if he was a huelguista (striker) while proclaiming “¡Viva la huelga!” (Long live the strike!).
(huelguistas, some throwing stones at buildings while marching)
Last weekend we roamed freely through the streets before things escalated and as leaders called a two-day “tregua” (truce) so that protesters could rest and stock up on supplies. This weekend we are afforded another tregua, which is a relief because the city is running out of food and the cost of basic staples is significantly rising (we ate the last of our mangos and mandarins yesterday for lunch). Small stores and street kiosks have begun to sell food at inflated prices – reports have come in that 1kg of chicken currently costs about 16 soles (~5.75 USD), a tin of tuna is 7-8 soles (~2.50 USD), and mototaxi drivers are charging twice as much now that there is a fuel shortage in town. Hopefully supplies will soon arrive to town.
(mototaxi driver, apparently a risky job during la huelga)
The Peruvian Marines arrived yesterday to provide support for the national police and to guard Padre Aldamiz International Airport. Some welcome the marines with hopes that peace will be restored, while others resent the increased militarized presence in town and conclude that “para este gobierno la solucion es la represion” (for this government, the solution is repression). While the airport has received additional security protection, main roads leading to it have been blocked by large tree limbs, incinerated trash and tires, and scattered concrete chunks and large boulders. One might encounter this impasse if they are unfamiliar with backroads through town (photo courtesy of La Revista MDD):
(Avenida Dos De Mayo- a main road is blocked by a fire)
This strike is not simply another paro minero (miner’s strike); Madrediosenses (residents of Madre de Dios) have several grievances that extend beyond policies that strictly affect the mining sector. For instance, some residents have expressed anger with the lack of government support after the region experienced tremendous flooding during the months of January and February, which affected over 8,000 people, 15 educational institutions, and caused 80 million soles (~28.5 million USD) worth of damage to agricultural lands (e.g. plantains, cassava, rice, maize, and papaya) and fish farms, leaving some who invested in large plots saddled with significant unpaid debts. Read more about it here and here.
(recent flooding in Puerto Viejo, old town in Puerto Maldonado, photo courtesy of La Revista, Madre de Dios)
Another grievance is that civic workers have received meager raises (e.g. 100 soles per month, or ~35 USD) compared to politicians in Lima who enjoy raise increases by several thousand soles. Economists celebrate this developing country whose GDP has grown significantly in recent years despite worldwide market vicissitudes and the global economic recession, but many Peruvians contend that they are excluded from the benefits of ‘development’ and ‘growth’ while inequality continues to characterize much of the relationship between Lima and its peripheries, a model described as centralismo.
(distribution of national budget, per each department)
Building on these myriad disenchantments, FEDEMIN (The Federation of Mining in Madre de Dios, the regional syndicate) has successfully built solidarity with workers from other market sectors in the region and spearheaded the ‘Indefinite Strike of Civil Society.’ Many people in this region agree that the central government’s efforts to eradicate much of the gold mining sector in Madre de Dios over recent years is leaving thousands of people with few economically viable alternatives. As one miner told me in 2013, “What am I to do, let my family starve? What other options do I have?”
(children who live in one of the many mining riverine communities along the Madre de Dios River)
The current strike was mobilized against Decreto Supremo N° 015-2013-IN, a decree which establishes the Régimen de Control de Combustible (Fuel Control Regimen). The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) seeks to address what they call “tráfico de combustibles” (fuel traffickers), an indirect measure to eradicate illegal gold mining operations in the region, though the government also claims that the fuel is used to process cocaine and transport it through the region. “No somos narcotraficantes” (We are not drug traffickers) has been a common chant in protests this past week. Officials claim that the new fuel restrictions will only affect illegal activities; however, tap associations claim that the economy in 12 regions will be affected (see here).
(a medium-size boat carrying large cylinders of gasoline, taken during a trip up the Madre de Dios River in 2013)
In 2012, 147,840 gallons of gasoline were supposedly sold for vehicles in the region. According to these figures, each vehicle in Madre de Dios consumes the absurd amount of 110 gallons per day, an estimate inflated by the informal fuel market. I began to learn about this issue during preliminary dissertation research in the region during 2013 (one motorista told me about parts of the Interoceanic Highway where he used to stop at night and wait for someone to come out of the bush to sell him fuel).
(miners in Laberinto hauling gasoline and other mining equipment to the boat launching area, taken during fieldwork in 2013)
How does this new fuel decree relate to mining? Most of the machinery used in gold mining runs on small or mid-size motors that require gasoline to operate. For example, Chupaderas, which use two motors to move water and slurry through plastic hosing and pvc pipes, burn through a 50-gallon cylinder of gasoline every 12 hours.
(caranchera operation on the Madre de Dios River, taken from fieldwork during 2013)
During fieldwork last year, I often sat at the top of the terraces overlooking the Madre de Dios River and monitored the supply boats going up and down the river. A cargo completo (boat that carries maximum capacity) usually contains several dozen crates of Cusqueña beer or 50-gallon cylinders of gasoline, both of which ‘fuel’ mining, but in different ways.
(boat carrying several 50-gallon cylinders of gasoline to mining towns on the Madre de Dios River)
In an interview with El Comercio, the High Commissioner on Affairs of Mining Formalization and Interdiction of Illegal Mining and Environmental Remediation, Daniel Urresti, said, “[W]e will cut off the blood of illegal mining.” The strategy is two-fold: (1) to regulate fuel through a checkpoint on the Inambari bridge, which divides Puno, Madre de Dios, and Cusco; and (2) to create a register for buyers of mercury and arsenic (which are used to separate gold from other materials) to further regulate access to crucial mining supplies. This ‘chemical inputs’ strategy compliments recent military interventions in the region. Just last year, the military destroyed 897 mining operations in Madre de Dios, including many gringo balsas and chupaderas (these are different mechanized and semi-mechanized mining methods of primarily alluvial gold extraction). The government still has its eye on over 4,000 operations in the large deforested mining landscapes of Mega 11, La Pampa, and Huepetuhe.
(large, now-illegal dredger, taken in 2010 before the ban on alluvial mining went into effect)
Much remains unknown regarding how the government plans to address the manifold grievances of people in this region who are currently striking, but one thing is for certain – the move towards formalizing the mining economy is not reversible and the government will continue to aggressively address illegal mining activities (see here for a description of the difference between informal and illegal mining, and here for an infograph from SPDA, the Peruvian Society for Environmental Rights). Many people in the region support the government’s efforts to tackle issues associated with illegal mining, including deforestation, mercury contamination of waterways and food sources, loss of biodiversity, and numerous social problems such as human trafficking, prostitution, child labor, and debt servitude.
For others, the problem is more complicated and the solutions are not so clear; one salient pattern I have identified after conducting ethnographic interviews with over 100 people in the region from 2010-2014 (many of which have worked in ecotourism or in other conservation-based lines of work) is that gold mining has played a significant role in sustaining households and providing education for children and young adults. For many people who endure the hardship of temporary work contracts in other market sectors, gold mining can provide quick, reliable cash injections into the household to pay for basic needs. As part-time work in mining becomes a less viable livelihood strategy, people hope the government will help to provide alternatives – this hope unifies many people regardless of their position on mining, and it is one reason people have taken to the streets to petition their government.