New Internationalist

Country Profile: Peru

December 2012

Peru is said to be booming but the poor would never know it. Stephanie Boyd reports.

The affluent boardwalk on Lima’s Pacific Ocean is littered with professional dog-walkers huffing to keep up with their charges. Signs warn owners of heavy fines for not picking up the pooches’ solid bodily functions. The lush flower gardens and manicured green parks must be kept clean for the high-income residents.

Meanwhile, in the city’s dusty shanty towns and the country’s interior, many children work collecting fares on buses or hawking wares in the market to help feed their families. The ambitious go to school in second-hand uniforms, often without breakfast.

S Boyd, Guarango, GRUFIDES
Demo against government clampdown on social protest S Boyd, Guarango, GRUFIDES

Such are the daily contradictions in Latin America’s latest boom economy. Peru led the region with 6.9 per cent economic growth last year but underneath the glowing statistics is a country divided between rich and poor.

Instead of combating poverty by investing in social programmes, successive governments have concentrated on the art of statistical manipulation. Last year the government lowered the poverty line, based on the skewed logic that, despite rising prices, Peruvians actually need less money to cover their basic needs. Anyone earning more than $102 a month is now considered ‘middle-class’, even though the legal minimum wage is $300 a month. Even by the government’s suspect figures, over eight million Peruvians live in poverty, with nearly two million in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day. 

Nevertheless, the World Bank, in its infinite wisdom, has labelled Peru an ‘Upper Middle Income’ country and aid organizations have left in a mass exodus for more grant-rich pastures. The sudden drop in non-profit organizations, coupled with lack of government spending on essential services like healthcare and education, has increased the divisions in society.

S Boyd, Guarango, GRUFIDES
Protest against a US mine in Cajamarca, with communal food S Boyd, Guarango, GRUFIDES

Ironically, most of Peru’s wealth comes from its neglected countryside. The economy is based on resource extraction, led by mining and followed by oil, gas and timber. But the profits have never gone to local communities.

The looting and pillaging of Peru began 500 years ago with the Spanish conquest, fuelled by Europe’s lust for gold. More recently, a military government in the 1970s, hyperinflation in the late 1980s and a 20-year civil war made Peru a virtual pariah for foreign investors.

As the country was emerging from this crisis in the early 1990s, then-President Alberto Fujimori began a full-scale auction of natural resources. Once again foreigners stampeded to a new El Dorado.

Fujimori is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and crimes against humanity, including torture, kidnapping and murder. According to the country’s Truth Commission, at least 70,000 people were killed or disappeared during the civil war. But the Commission’s recommendations have not been implemented, especially in the area of reparations for victims. Many perpetrators of abuses remain at large.

Presidents since Fujimori have continued his neoliberal economic policies. Peru is now the world’s sixth-largest producer of gold and second-largest of copper, but the benefits have failed to trickle down to mining communities, who are instead left with contamination and social conflict.

Last year discontented voters elected Ollanta Humala to the presidency on a promise of bringing about a ‘Grand Transformation’, with development and equality for Peru’s indigenous and marginalized peoples.

Humala passed a law on the rights of indigenous peoples to prior consultation, but loopholes allow the government to approve new concessions on indigenous land even if communities are opposed. Moreover, his first year in office has seen a major clampdown on protest and violent repression by police and military.

It seems as though Peruvians are going to have to wait a bit longer for the Grand Transformation.

Country Profile: Peru Fact File
Leader President Ollanta Humala Tasso
Economy Economy: GNI per capita $5,500 (Bolivia $2,040, Canada $45,560)
Monetary unit Nuevo Sol (PEN).
Main exports Gold is top, with other minerals looming large: copper, silver, zinc, lead. Also petroleum, fish products, coffee, asparagus and textiles. The economy has been growing at an average of over 6% per year for the last decade but remains dependent on global commodity prices.
People 29.4 million, 9 million of whom live in Lima. Population growth rate 1990-2010 1.5%. People per square kilometre 23 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality rate 15 per 1,000 live births – a major reduction from 40 a decade ago (Bolivia 42, Canada 5). HIV prevalence rate 0.4%. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 370 (Canada 1 in 5,600). Wealthy Peruvians get Botox, breast implants and penis enlargements in expensive private clinics, while public hospitals lack equipment and personnel for basic services.
Environment Deforestation of the Amazon, which covers 35% of Peru’s territory, continues at an alarming rate. Since 1980 Peru’s glaciers have lost a fifth of their ice. Annual carbon emissions per capita 1.5 tonnes (Canada 15.3).
Culture Indigenous 45%, mestizo (mixed indigenous and white) 37%, white 15%, others 3%.
Religion The official religion is Catholicism, although evangelical churches are on the rise. Peru’s Catholic church is divided between conservative and progressive elements.
Language Spanish 84.1%, Quechua 13%, and Aymara 1.7% are all official languages, though many other languages are spoken, especially in the Amazon.
Human development index 0.725 – 80th of 187 countries (Bolivia 0.623, Canada 0.908).
Sources
Country Profile: Peru ratings in detail
Income distribution
As money flows in from mining and the drug trade, the gap between rich and poor is growing.
Life expectancy
74 years (Bolivia 66, Canada 81)
Position of women
Although women have made gains in politics and higher education, Peru is still a machista society. Women face barriers exercising their sexual and reproductive rights, and domestic violence remains high.
Literacy
90%. Rich urban youth send text-messages on their cellphones while their rural cousins still often do their homework by candlelight.
Freedom
Tough new legislation criminalizes social protest and gives the military and police the right to fire on civilian protesters. Human rights defenders, including journalists, are spied on, threatened, harassed and suffer physical violence. The mainstream media is heavily censored.
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is legal and anti-gay discrimination punishable by a jail sentence. But there is no official recognition of same-sex relationships.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Indigenous and farming voters believed in Ollanta Humala, who promised to create a more just and equal society. But once in office Humala cast off his blue jeans, donned a suit and cuddled up to rightwing business and political élites. During his first year in office, social conflicts rose, 17 people were killed in clashes with armed forces and over 100 human rights defenders were arrested under draconian new laws against social protest. It seems Humala hasn’t learned from past mistakes. He was accused of human rights abuses under the Fujimori dictatorship.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 458 This column was published in the December 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Country Profile: Peru

Leave your comment