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Polarizing Presidential Election in Peru Has Implications for Indigenous

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Peru’s economy has been thriving for the past decade, with growth reaching an estimated nine percent last year. International investors are enthusiastic, and will be paying close attention to the June 5 presidential runoff between candidates Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala. Many indigenous voters, however, say the country’s growth has only meant increased economic and social marginalization for them—and at the polls, they’ll be voting for the candidate most likely to close that gap. Analysts and indigenous leaders alike say that’s Humala.

Indigenous peoples make up about 45 percent of Peru’s population—from the Quechua majority in the Andes, to dozens of smaller groups living in the Peruvian Amazon—but Gladis Vila, the president of the National Organization of Indigenous Andean and Amazonian Women of Peru, says that indigenous voters have hardly been addressed during this presidential campaign. Nonetheless, she says, indigenous Peruvians have three core issues that will guide their decisions at the polls. “The future president must address food security and climate change,” she says. “There needs to be more indigenous participation within the government to specifically attend to the needs of indigenous people. And the law requiring previous consultation with indigenous communities for projects in their territory must be approved and enacted.”

The extraction of natural resources that is driving the economic boom—such as gold, petroleum and natural gas—frequently involves indigenous territory, yet consultations with communities about these projects have been superficial or not even carried out.

In June 2009, there was a violent clash between indigenous protestors and police forces near the Amazonian city of Bagua over a move by current president Alan García to open up about 70 percent of the Amazon to exploration by transnational companies. The majority of those areas are indigenous lands, yet the affected communities were not properly consulted about the project, and it set off protests across Peru. Bagua became the epicenter of that anger, and dozens were killed in the ensuing conflict, the majority of them indigenous protestors.

One year later, a law to regulate and strengthen consultations with indigenous communities was passed in Peru’s Congress, but García refused to give it his final approval.

Javier Torres is a field coordinator with Servicios Educativos Rurales, which works with rural communities to strengthen citizen participation. He says that in the communities where he works, indigenous Peruvians strongly believe the next president must support the law governing consultations with indigenous communities. And most communities, he says, are backing Humala. “Humala has been critical of the way that natural resource extraction has been managed in Peru, because there were no consultations, and because the terms of these contracts are not favorable to the country,” says Torres. “As for Keiko Fujimori, it’s not an issue she has even touched. It’s not part of her agenda. Her campaign is based on continuing the good things her father [who was president in the 1990s] did, such as social programs for the poor, and increased citizen security.”

But Fujimori’s father, Alberto, also carries a stigma for many voters, particularly indigenous peoples. Though his regime managed to quell much of the violence caused by the Maoist guerrilla organization Shining Path, Alberto Fujimori was a heavy-handed and authoritarian president, and he was convicted of major human rights violations and corruption; he is now serving a 25-year prison sentence. While Keiko Fujimori has vowed not to release her father if she wins the presidency, many voters remain skeptical. “A lot of the indigenous people who form our base have very strong, negative memories of the crimes committed during the Fujimori years,” says Vila. “It’s hard not to associate Keiko Fujimori with her father.”

Fernando Tuesta, a political analyst at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, says that this election has been marked by polarization across Peru: “In polls, these were the two candidates that people most frequently said, ‘I could never vote for this person, under any circumstances.’ These two candidates are the candidates that, in the first round, had the most vocal opposition. Humala because he appeared radical to certain people, and Keiko because of the association with the government of her father.”

Torres adds that in the first round of this presidential election, places where there is a high level of conflict over natural resources—the Amazon, the area surrounding the controversial Camisea gas project near Cuzco, and highland areas near major mining projects—showed strong support for Humala. That trend, he believes, will only increase in the upcoming runoff vote. In addition to proposing a 30 percent increase in taxes on mining profits, Humala has vowed to redistribute resources more equitably, and has also endorsed the law governing indigenous consultation. While Vila says Keiko Fujimori’s proposed social programs would help indigenous communities, they would not provide the sort of decision-making power that indigenous Peruvians want, which is why she believes most indigenous people will vote for Humala this time around.

Since the first round of voting, Humala has led in polls, although his advantage has since narrowed. Tuesta says it still seems likely that Humala will win the runoff vote, but that nothing is for certain. Either way, he says, it seems very likely that the country will remain stable, and will continue to welcome international investment. “There’s still a lot of time. In Peru, a lot can happen in a few weeks,” he says. “If Humala wins, Peru will indeed become one more Latin American nation to move left. But Humala won’t have the majority in Congress he would need to make sweeping changes, and he has vowed to respect the mainstream, so I believe his would be more of a center-left government.”

Vila hopes that regardless of who wins, indigenous rights will become a real priority for the new government. “The next president has to discuss a way of redistributing material wealth and earnings [from natural resources]. But it’s not just about economics,” she says. “Natural resource extraction has physically damaged our environment, and it’s also destroying the fabric of our communities. The next president needs to talk about how to achieve a fairer distribution of resources, as well as how to protect different ways of living. And the only way to do that is by guaranteeing direct consultation with indigenous people.”