Eye Witness to Labor Struggle Unfolding In Peru

Workers Action

Allan Fisher

Allan Fisher teaches at the City College of San Francisco. He is a former president of his local, the American Federation of Teachers 2121 and is currently on its Executive Board. He represented the San Francisco Labor Council when he traveled to Honduras to investigate the recent coup.

I am visiting Peru with my wife (Ana) and daughter (Jessica). We are sad to see the situation in Cajamarca, Peru, which is very tense because the Yanacocha mining corporation (51% American owned) has drained some lakes in order to extract gold. This has damaged the water supply that the people rely on for survival. There have been many demonstrations for months, and here we can see that protestors have occupied the church grounds in the main square of Cajamarca and there is a hunger strike going on. People here are very courageous and upset, and we have seen protests and the army is out in force with their guns.

We have publically given a $100 contribution to express our solidarity, photos were taken of this transaction with applause from the protestors, then we three all spoke on the radio to express our solidarity with this movement.

In our 3 days in Cajamarca we have witnessed numerous demonstrations, including today a contingent of students who marched from the university to join the group at the main square. We have seen two occupy camps, one at the main square and one near the university, in this city of 200,000 people, the largest in the northern mountains of Peru, where the Inca chief Atawalpa was murdered by the Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro in 1532.

This afternoon we were invited to come to the occupy camp with numerous signs, a soup kitchen and medical area, all on the church grounds at the main square of Cajamarca. The fence surrounding the area is decorated with large posters with many visuals, slogans and readings relating to their struggle. First we interviewed Maria Olinda Marin Marin of Celendin, a city about 50 miles away where we had spent the night a few days ago before coming to Cajamarca. In Celendin, we had witnessed an evening demonstration, attended by several hundred local people, against the proposed Conga mining project. Celendin and Cajamarca appear to be the hotbeds of resistance to the mining operations and signs and slogans of resistance are evident all over these cities, spray-painted on kiosks, and walls and even printed on the mountain side. Conga NO VA (Conga will not go forward) is visible in large letters on the mountain side. Conga is the name of the new mining project moving forward here.

Conga is managed by the Yanacocha Corporation which is jointly owned by Newmont, an American corporation based in Denver (51.5%), a Peruvian corporation, and the IMF. As Maria Olinda and numerous others explained to us, gold mining needs enormous quantities of water and leaves very toxic materials (such as mercury) in the area. As a result of the gold mining many beautiful natural lakes have been dried up and wildlife harmed, especially fish. The mining has also negatively affected the drinking water in the area. The water has disappeared or been contaminated as has much of the land, we were told. Some of the people we talked to mentioned personally seeing lots of dead fish (trout) and said that the dumping of poisons goes on late at night. People said cancer is on the increase and blind chickens have also appeared nearby, they said.

According to Maria, although many local people have been hired by the company, the influx of money and people bring in corruption, prostitution, and a consumer culture that these people don’t like.

People told us of the repression that has occurred pointing out to us one leader in the crowd who lost an eye in a confrontation at the mine. Others have been beaten and at least one shot, who lost a kidney and is now paralyzed and needs an operation, we were told. (Since then five more protestors have been killed in the conflict).

Later we met with a former Presidential candidate — Dr. Ricardo Noriega Salaverry who was eating his meal at the soup kitchen and talking with some of the activists. While he talked with us, we were surrounded by a crowd of activists. Ricardo is doing everything he can to support these people and has a website where you can get more information about this struggle (www.despertarnacional.com). We explained who we were and said we would do our best to let people in the U.S. know about their struggle and collect money to send them. They pleaded with us to let the world know about their struggle. At that point Ana asked what had happened to the $100 we had contributed the day before, and the people said that they had bought food with our money to feed the protestors. They were very happy with our contribution and gave us another round of applause.

We all have been touched by this experience meeting these really humble people fighting for their lives and the future of their children. We are impressed by their solidarity and determination to resist. We are impressed by their awareness of the ecological connection of their struggle, one of their main slogans is “water is life”, and by their use of art and culture in their struggle. They are inspiring.

Teachers Strike

Next, we decided to go to Cusco in Southern Peru and are now in Aguascalientes, next to the Urubamba River at the base of the mountain that Machu Picchu lies on.

We have run into more protests here, this time the teachers. Teachers in this region have been on strike for 11 days now and about 150 have gathered here in Aguascalientes with more arriving every day.

They are making this the base of their protests since it’s the place where all the tourists arrive by train to go up to Machu Picchu. It’s a delicate situation with the vulnerable tourist industry and I guess the teachers have some leverage because of this. They are in a union, the SUTEP, and we saw several loud and spirited marches around this small tourist trap of a town along a rushing river in the deep lush canyon that is below the ruins. The soldiers are here (with machine guns) to make sure there is no interference with the tourist business. Yesterday afternoon we bought some snacks which we distributed to the protesters and talked to them, they make only about 800 soles a month on average (about $300) which doesn’t go very far in this country. They are demanding 30% additional income for class preparation. They are about 2/3 men and 1/3 women. Last night they gathered in front of the church with their banner on the plaza playing Peruvian music, singing and chanting and we joined them. They have songs they know about the struggle and about their towns. We made friends and they invited us to visit them after they return to their towns. We spoke and expressed our solidarity and they cheered and clapped and made us dance for a bit. Meanwhile several tourists stopped to check out what was going on. We helped translate into English some of their slogans that they will put on signs to communicate with the tourists (Peruvian teachers on strike, we demand a living wage; we can’t support our families on $300 a month; we ask for your support; tell the world about our struggle!).

This morning when I got back from my hike the teachers were marching again and blocking the road going up to Machu Pichu. There were several tourist buses coming down that couldn’t get by. Meanwhile the tourists had gotten off the buses and were walking by this scene. Several were clapping and taking pictures. The teachers began chanting “hermanos, touristas, los maestros estan en lucha” (brother and sister tourists, the teachers are in struggle). They had their new banner: (Teachers on Strike, fighting for a living wage, we need your support, tell the world about our struggle).

Soon the heavily armed police moved in (shields, batons helmets and some machine guns) but the protesters wouldn’t budge. A brief melee occurred as the police tried to push the teachers off the road. I saw a couple of little stones tossed at the police and then a woman was surrounded by others preventing any more stones being thrown. Things settled down and a standoff occurred. Then, another interesting thing happened. About 75 feet from the standoff, I noticed a crowd of about 50 people in a circle having an argument with a union rep about this event. A man whom I later identified as a tour guide was railing against the teachers saying that they had no right to stop the poor tourists who had paid so much money for this experience and warning of the repercussions to the tourist industry. A guy who might have been a reporter was taping the discussion and at one point I gave my two cents about tourists in solidarity with the teachers and workers of Peru. I didn’t get any photos because our camera had died. Anyway, after a while the teachers slowly began to march up the road and into the town and the empty buses got thru. Then we broke for lunch.

Back in Cusco

We ran into another demonstration by the SUPEP, the teachers’ union. This one much bigger with perhaps 1500 people. Some of the teachers

We had met in Aguascalientes were there. They recognized me and we shook hands. Then they pushed me to the front and had me help to hold up their banner as we marched ahead towards the Plaza de Armas in the center of Cuzco. (Cuzco was the capitol of the Inca Empire and many of the building are built on Inca foundations. There are many buildings from early colonial times including two incredible churches at the main square).

In Lima

We flew to Lima this morning, our last day in Peru. Walking back from the Plaza de Armas we ran into another demonstration at the Plaza San Martin, one of the busiest and most important places in the city center. This was the largest of the demonstrations we saw, perhaps 4000 militant and energized working class people. It was in solidarity with the struggle in Cajamarca, where five protestors had recently been killed. There were many young people and student groups, community groups and unions represented. I was surprised to see a contingent “”. There were speeches going on at a makeshift stage, and people distributing literature and selling food and drinks. Protestors had seized the area around the statue of San Martin (one of the liberators of Peru) and someone had spray-painted “Conga No Va” on the base of the statue. Soon the police moved in and cleared the area of protestors and, briefly, scuffles broke out. At this point I was thinking tear-gas, but luckily things calmed down and soon after we went to our hotel. Of course, the next day’s news coverage focused on the “violence at the San Martin statue.”

Allan Fisher, AFT 2121 – July 15, 2012

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