Friday, May 11, 2012

Paro en la Panamericana Sur

For the third day running, transport and communications in the south of Peru have been paralized owing to a blockade of the Panamerican highway between Lima and Arequipa by approximately 6,000 "informal" miners protesting against government decrees declaring their activities illegal.

My personal stake in this issue is that I was supposed to travel to Lima tonight and had already bought my ticket. This can be postponed and is no big deal, supposing the strike is lifted in the next couple of days. Over time and repeated visits to Peru, I've come to understand that holding strikes and blocking roads can be an understandable, even necessary, response to the inability of groups of citizens to have their legitimate issues considered through normal institutional, democratic channels. However, such strikes and the way they are resolved also represent the inability of the State to exert authority (except in disastrously heavy-handed ways; viz, the tragedy at Bagua in 2009) and to act as a just, independent guarantor of the "public good". Rather, it seems that the State is merely a passive conduit for conflicting private interest, with the most powerful at any one time prevailing. While the government gave the Conga mining project conditional approval in spite of what seems to be the opposition of most of Cajamarca, here the Prime Minister hurriedly offered to modify its edicts to give the miners two more years to "formalize" their activities -- still not good enough for the miners to lift their strike.

The arguments behind the current miners' strike are considerably more dubious than in some other cases where citizen groups have opposed the (perceived) loss of their territory or livelihoods. Informal mining is undertaken by between 500,000 (official sources) and 1 millon (the miners' estimate) Peruvians, so is a significant source of employment and income. However, the uncontrolled use of mercury is severely damaging to the environment and has resulted in significant pollution of waterways in the areas where it is prevalent, including some leading into Lake Titicaca. It's likely that the majority of the population in districts affected by informal mining would not support its continuation. In addition, the untaxed income from informal mining is rather high, with a gram of gold (a conservative minimum collected per day) worth S/. 70, more than what is earned by the majority of workers in farming, commerce or services whose livelihoods are currently being put on hold.

The surprise manner in which the highways were seized meant that many vehicles were on the road and have been trapped at the various blockade points. Around 2,500 bus passengers are stuck between Kilometres 590 and 640 on the Panamericana and are suffering hunger, thirst, heat and cold. Already one elderly man has died from a heart attack due to the long distance he had to walk from the blockade in the sun. La Republica reports that the mayor of the district of OcoƱa has declared a state of emergency, with agriculture and commerce paralized and a growing shortage of food, medicines, gas and petrol.

With tensions running high on all sides, tomorrow will surely produce some kind of (hopefully peaceful) solution.