Interviews with merchants during the “truce”

NOTE: In case you missed it, check out my first post from the field, in which I describe arriving to Madre de Dios just as the city became militarized and region-wide protests turned violent. See my second post from the field for a brief analysis of the strike, and this short video, a montage consisting of imagery and soundscapes from conflicts between protesters and police.


Many comerciantes (merchants) used dramatic expressions to describe business woes during the paro (strike), such as: “Queria ahorcar” (I wanted to hang myself), “Estaba aterrorizada” (I was terrified [of riot police]), “Tuve sacarse la mugre” (‘I removed the dirt’ is the literal translation, but it is an expression that means ‘I worked really hard’), and Nos estan dejar morir” (They [the government] left us to die.”

Puerto Maldonado has been relatively peaceful since syndicate leaders called a tregua (truce) during Semana Santa (Holy Week), as it is bad form to protest during important holidays like Easter. Indeed, some things are still considered sacred. The truce has been suspended until further notice, which is good news for residents in Puerto Maldonado – everyone from students and teachers to merchants, mototaxi drivers, and tourism agencies. The paro, which occurred from March 25 until April 17, is the longest strike the region has experienced in recent history. It was a relief to walk to the center of town during Semana Santa to find this view of residents enjoying the holiday (rather than chanting in protest “Death to President Humala!”):

Image(Semana Santa in the Plaza de Armas)

The paro had a significant effect on the regional economy with losses totaling over S/.5 million (~1.8 million USD). Agriculture and tourism market sectors reported losses of over S/.2 million and S/.1.5 million, respectively. The owner of the hostel where I am staying estimates that he lost ~70 percent of business for April (mostly from domestic tourism), while a friend who works for LAN Airlines said sales were down to about 50 percent. Last week, residents were afraid the paro would continue in the coming days, so I took advantage of the tregua and planned a short study to examine the effects of the paro on agricultural livelihoods, the most affected market sector in the region.

1512007_10152368621690449_2743373699954030366_o (Translation of sign on regional government building: “Long Live the regional strike! If there is no solution, the fight continues!”)

I recruited the help of a good friend, Tania, who is a graduate of Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios (UNAMAD). Tania’s support was invaluable, especially with regards to building rapport, translating slang, and understanding idioms and other locally specific expressions. Together we conducted 40 semi-structured interviews with comerciantes (merchants) of agricultural products in order to better understand from an emic perspective how local livelihoods were affected by the longest paro in recent history of Madre de Dios.

photo (12)photo (13)

(Tania and I with our field notebooks, ready for interviews at Los Milagritos Feria, which is only open during the weekends) 

I specifically chose merchants of fruits and vegetables because (1) they are a vulnerable population, most of whom live on the margins of the economy and are thus more vulnerable to market shocks and uncertainties; and (2) the commodities they sell are particularly risky, as surplus value can be quickly converted into surplus risk through the rapid process of spoiling (especially in humid environments, which is the case here in Amazonia Peru). The unique temporal variable (i.e. short shelf life) puts agricultural comerciantes at greater risk, especially in times of paros, which are designed to be market shocks. The paro was a catalyst that turned potential profit into potential loss and I wanted to learn how comerciantes coped with this shock.

10272768_10152382422515449_1118843140122532896_o(“intermediary” merchant at the Feria Los Milagritos)

One category of questions were designed to determine how much merchants typically earn per week or month (total sales, capital, etc. to get a baseline), how much they lost during the paro (in terms of spoiled commodities and loss of income), and how they mitigated further losses (e.g. by price adjustment, clandestine sales, support through special seller-client relationships, and so forth).

10273199_10152389406775449_7822840082734697005_o(fresh fruit at a small fruit market near Mercado Modelo, an important commercial area of town)

I was aware that many merchants are members of syndicates that participated in the strikes, so I also pursued these interviews as opportunities to better understand protesters’ motivations for supporting the strike (e.g. whether comerciantes marched out of obligation to their syndicate, coercion or fear of retribution if their businesses remained open, or on their own volition and in solidarity with other protesters). I was also curious about their attitudes toward new laws that sparked the paro (and thus, their political orientation to key issues, such as mining, government control of resources, among other controversial topics).

Furthermore, interviewing ‘huelgistas‘ (strikers) while they were back to work rather than marching the streets allowed me to explore a fomenting labor movement without greatly endangering myself; it was impossible to conduct interviews while a faction of protesters vandalized private property and attacked pedestrians and people on motorcycles, or while Peruvian National Police tear gassed  civic workers during a peaceful demonstration, and even opened fire at protesters and residents just a couple of weeks ago.

10256632_10152376149940449_2704810145575511807_o(the last day of protests prior to the Easter truce)

It is crucial to point out that comerciantes do not constitute a homogenous population. Thus, we interviewed comerciantes who occupy different levels of a market hierarchy to explore the variation of this population. Our study delineates the following categories of merchants:

  • mayoristas, who move large volumes of fruits and vegetables at the weekend-only feria (fair), most of whom have their own modes of transportation from Cusco, where much of their produce are grown, to Madre de Dios.
  •  intermediarios (intermediaries), who buy from mayoristas and typically sell at the major markets in town (e.g.  Mercado Modelo and Mil Ofretas, two of the market sites where we conducted interviews). However, some smaller business owners have their own small chakras (croplands) of plantains, passion fruit, yucca, and papaya here in Madre de Dios.
  • venderores, or street sellers who typically buy from intermediarios at the market and sell in small groups of other street vendors around the market (some put together bags of mixed vegetables for soups).
  • ambulantes, mobile vendors who sell fruit out of a cart.

10265432_10152388847215449_5961996358801943893_o(‘un ambulante’ – mobile fruit vendor who sells mandarins, polmagrantes, grapes, passion fruit, and apples near the Mercado Modelo)

1782394_10152386399110449_5218129050609458315_o(mayoristas at the Feria Los Milagritos)


I have not yet completed data analysis of these interviews but several patterns have already emerged from interviewing, digitizing field notes, and looking over data:

(1) THE AFFECTS OF LOSS: Though it is no surprise that every class of merchant lost a significant amount of money during the paro, most comericantes lost at least 50 percent of their monthly salary and several interviewees did not break even (they either took out loans or dipped into savings to cover business expenses). Many comerciantes used strong affective expressions to describe feelings of hopelessness during the paro, such as:

 “Queria ahorcar” (I wanted to hang myself), “Estaba aterrorizada” (I was terrified), “Tuve sacarse la mugre” (‘I removed the dirt’ is the literal translation, but it is an expression that means ‘I worked really hard’), “Nos estan dejar morir” (They [the government] left us to die,” and so forth.

(2) TEMPERING THE MARKET SHOCK: Another interesting finding is that comerciantes mitigated and minimized losses through a variety of strategies; the most salient include: (1) “descargar” (to offload or discharge) through clandestine sales of quick-spoiling fruits and vegetables in the “mañanitas” (early mornings, usually from around 3am to 6am) in various street locations or privately at a merchant’s home on their back patios, even though they were obligated to comply with syndicate rules that strictly prohibits selling; (2) street auctions of fruits and vegetables that were nearly spoiled in order to “recuperar el capital” (to recoup capital) i.e. break even on expenses; (3) private commerce with “clientes fijos” (fixed clients) in which comercicantes were reliant on pre-existing relations with repeat clients (e.g. restaurant owners, merchants for mining associations, etc.); (4) price adjustments, including price lowering to quickly sell spoiling goods and price raising to recoup losses during the month; and (5) cooperative pooling, in which merchants contributed resources for an olla comunitaria (communal pot), as food resources became more scarce. Merchants also took shifts watching over the market when it was closed to ensure no looters took from their fruit stands, which were only protected by tied-down tarps.

(3): THE MULTIPLE MEANINGS OF “APOYO EL PARO” (“I SUPPORT THE STRIKE”): Most interviewees participated in marches during the paro and expressed some degree of what they called “apoyo” (support). However, this term lacks a monolithic definition and should be understood as a complex signifier with multiple meanings:

  • Many comerciantes protested for a few days out of compliance or obligation to their respective syndicate president or they would otherwise receive a multa (fine).
  • Comerciantes who were independent also marched, though often under duress and out of fear that huelgistas (strikers) from out of town would retaliate against them by burning down their fruit stand if they did not participate in marches and demonstrations.
  • Comerciantes (including those who were members of syndicates) marched on their own volition and some did so for the entire length of the paro. While their reasons for protesting were manifold, the most common response given during interviews was “No somos narcotraficantes” (We are not drug traffickers), which was in direct response to a new government decree to put a quota on gasoline coming into the region on the basis that narcotrafficking is rampant (since the protests ended, the insinuation of narcotrafficking was dropped  from the decree and replaced with illegal mining). The reaction to the language of this decree was so strong that around 2000 members of indigenous communities traveled to Puerto Maldonado to participate in protests this April.

(4): OUTSIDERNESS: Conceptions of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ appeared in several interviews, but what was particularly interesting is the variation in who constitutes an outsider, including:

  • Foreign businesses from the U.S. (namely Hunt Oil, in reference to Lot 76 which is estimated to hold 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 90 percent of which inconveniently overlaps with mining concessions and protected areas for conservation and indigenous groups, see here), but also large mining operations based out of Russia, China, and other foreign nations. Many interviewees lamented that “Madre de Dios has been sold to outsiders.”
  • Miners, most of whom are migrants from the Andean region of Cusco or Puno. Some interviewees contended that “miners are not from here” and that they contribute very little to the local economy, while others were sympathetic to miners’ grievances that the central government is making it impossible for them to formalize. Statements like “no poner les trabas” (don’t put on the shackles) appeared a few times during interviews. Another dimension of outsiderness in relation to mining  is that informal work is increasingly becoming outside the law, and thus illegitimate in the eyes of the state, which is now retaliating with force.
  • National Police and politicians in Lima, who have a monopoly of power over determining the fate of the region. The state’s reputation has only worsened since the paro, when national police looted “ollas comunitarias” (community pots) and personal effects of residents in Mazuko (caught on tape), tear gassed civil workers on the Billinghurst Bridge, and opened gunfire at protesters and residents on the Interoceanic Highway in Puerto Maldonado. Lack of response from Lima only further signified the marginal status of Madre de Dios. “Does Ollanta [current president of Perú] even realize that we are in Perú?” – was a common rhetorical question asked throughout the weeks of protests.lote 76(Lot 76, which many protesters contend is evidence that the Peruvian government is ‘selling out Madre de Dios to foreigners,’ such as U.S. hydrocarbon company Hunt Oil)



Our requests to interview potential research participants were often met with curious (and sometimes suspicious) questions like, “para que?” (i.e. for what reason are you interviewing people?). I explained that as an anthropologist, I am interested in the social and material realities for people living in Madre de Dios and that most available information about the regional economy is from the perspective of economists in Lima and abroad rather than from the local population. Explanations like this encouraged merchants to share their experiences and discuss their contentions with a number of issues.

10317557_10152377656555449_3257417633883795650_o(the edge of Mercado Modelo, which was shut down for most of the paro)

The next step for this particular project is to convert interview data into a matrix and to systematically code responses using inductive and in vivo protocols to identify other patterns and to look for co-occurring themes. This will be a time-consuming task for 40 interviews and I am about to start another phase of research that will consume most of the daylight hours. Tomorrow we are heading into a remote part of the Madre de Dios region to spend time at a conservation concession, where I will work alongside ‘rangers’ as they patrol concession territory, conduct transects, prepare meals for tourists and groups of students taking field courses, and a number of other activities. I will likely not have reliable Internet access until July or August, but I will attempt to post a text-only blog entry in the coming weeks if time and radio-tower Internet speed permit. I am looking forward to the spectacular sunsets over the Madre de Dios River from the mirador (lookout), such as this one from fieldwork in mid-2013:

IMG_2550 (sunset of beautiful saturated colors over the Madre de Dios River)


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