New Internationalist

Food last!

Issue 418

Hungry Peruvians are taking to the streets while the Government and foreign corporations feast on the spoils from the country’s natural resources. Stephanie Boyd reports from Cuzco.

Photo: Miguel Araoz Cartagena
Indigenous protesters rally against APEC and high food prices in the ancient Peruvian capital of Cuzco. Photo: Miguel Araoz Cartagena

With cries of ‘Down with the cost of living!’, thousands of angry marchers filed past crowds of startled tourists in Cuzco’s main square. Over 500 years ago the last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru, was decapitated in this plaza by Spanish conquerors, and 200 years later his great-grandson was executed in the same square for leading an indigenous uprising. Now their descendants are rebelling against a new form of colonialism. Their enemy – the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) has chosen Cuzco for its annual meeting.

The nationwide strike – one of a dozen held during the past year – was called by Peru’s largest labour organization, the General Workers’ Union. Strike leaders blame rising food prices on the Peruvian Government’s neoliberal economic model, and on recent free trade agreements with the US and Canada. They accuse the Government of providing a banquet of opportunities for foreign corporations at the expense of its own citizens, many of whom can’t afford a basic meal.

Peasant farmers joined forces with urban merchants, labourers, students, teachers and other professionals, but onlookers were most intrigued by a thin young man, dressed as Uncle Sam, riding a fat white horse. ‘He’s President Bush riding Peru’s “Crazy Horse” (a popular nickname for Peruvian President Alan Garcia),’ the man guiding the horse explained.

Like the Spanish conquerors of old, APEC’s powerhouse nations such as the US, Canada and Australia want easy access to Peru’s gold, silver and other natural resources. The Spanish used religious doctrine to justify their exploitation: indigenous people needed the saving grace of Christianity. But in today’s enlightened world, transnational corporations have exchanged the bible for the doctrine of neoliberal development, and bloody conquest for free trade agreements. They say they are ‘helping’ the ‘poor natives’ to develop and modernize.

Daily bread

Photo: Miguel Araoz Cartagena
Puma Laura Nemeso complains that the price he gets for his potatoes barely allows for survival. Photo: Miguel Araoz Cartagena

But after nearly 20 years of neoliberal reforms, an increasing number of citizens in Peru –and indeed throughout the region – have seen little by way of results. A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank found that food inflation is skyrocketing throughout Latin America. And as usual it is the poor who are hit hardest. The study found that in Peru, food price inflation stands at 12 per cent, the food share of the Peruvian consumer price index is ‘one of the highest in the world’ according to the country’s Central Bank. Citizens living below the poverty line now spend 60 per cent of their income on their daily bread.

Natalia Vargas, a young woman who joined the march in Cuzco, supports her four children by selling vegetables in the city’s San Pedro market. She says prices have nearly doubled in the past month but salaries have remained the same, so people aren’t buying as much food. ‘The money that we earn isn’t enough,’ she says. ‘We have to sell our vegetables almost at cost and there’s hardly anything left over.’ And Peru is not alone. From tortilla marches in Mexico to protest the high cost of corn, to violent food riots in Haiti, which is dependent on food imports, to a farmers’ strike in Argentina against taxes on farm exports, Latin America is becoming immersed in a virtual war over food.

Puma Laura Nemeso, a farmer from Cuzco’s Paucartambo region, travelled for three hours by bus to attend the APEC protest. He says that although food prices are continually going up, peasant farmers aren’t receiving any more money for their crops. The young farmer smiled with pride as he told me that Peru is the birthplace of the potato, and home to more than a thousand indigenous varieties. But the price of potatoes is so low – 11.5 kilograms sell for 2 soles, or 75 US cents – that Puma Laura’s entire crop for this year is worth only 100 soles (less than $40).

Brave new world

In their luxurious hotel accommodation beyond the police barricades, APEC delegates heralded recent free trade agreements between Peru and the US and Canada as the beginning of a brave new world. Out on the streets, however, protesters like agronomist Hector Chipana pointed out that the agreements expose Peruvian farmers to massive dumping of subsidized farm goods. The US Farm Bureau Federation estimates that free trade will boost US farm exports to Peru by more than $700 million a year. 

From tortilla marches in Mexico, to violent food riots in Haiti, to a farmers’ strike in Argentina, Latin America is becoming immersed in a virtual war over food

Chipana is President of Cuzco’s Agrarian Federation, which provides technical support to farmers. He says cheap US food imports would worsen – rather than alleviate – the food crisis by putting local farmers out of business and making Peru reliant on food imports. Instead of courting foreign governments, Chipana believes Peru should provide credit and support for its own farmers in order to stimulate the local market.

Human rights groups caution that 97 additional laws have been drafted to support Peru’s free trade agreements and that these pose a direct threat to the country’s marginalized groups. The Government’s actions are part of an aggressive, covert policy to convert arable land and nature reserves into concessions for oil, mining and gas. According to Peruvian Government statistics, there are 589 mining operations already in production, which together have been granted more than 10 per cent of the country’s land area. The thirst for precious metals and energy threatens one of our most basic needs: the cultivation of food.

Even biofuels, the celebrated new ‘green’ energy alternative, are having a negative effect on the food situation. Biofuels use the energy from organic crops like sugar cane and corn to produce ethanol, an alternative to fossil-based fuels. But international aid agencies like Oxfam say biofuels are contributing to the world’s soaring food prices by taking arable land away from food production. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales made a dramatic speech in April to the UN, stating that supporters of biofuels were putting luxury cars ahead of human lives. But not surprisingly, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has championed the biofuel cause – his country is the world’s largest producer of ethanol made from sugar cane, and he claims that the industry provides a profitable energy crop for developing nations. Critics, on the other hand, say Brazil’s Amazon (which absorbs large amounts of carbon) is being cleared at an alarming rate to make way for biofuel production. Between August 2007 and August 2008 around 8,200 square kilometres of Brazilian jungle was razed, representing an increase of 64 per cent in the rate of deforestation.

While critics have succeeded in pointing out the villains in Latin America’s food wars, solutions have remained elusive. Programmes to support small farmers and open up new markets, for example, are glaringly absent from most government agendas.

Plans? What plans?

Javier Kapsoli, President of the APEC meeting in Cuzco, told us not to worry about the global food crisis, maintaining that Peru’s Government is developing several proposals to address the issue. 

‘Could you give us some examples?’ interrupted a pushy foreign reporter.

He looked at me in confusion.

‘Yes, some concrete plans,’ shouted out an eager local reporter. The 20-odd journalists in the room snapped to attention: finally a topic that didn’t require knowledge of global interest rate fluctuations and bond market prices. We held our breath as Javier shuffled his papers and squirmed uncomfortably.

‘The truth is, there aren’t many new proposals,’ he admitted. ‘We talked about the usual solutions used in the West, such as subsidies and support for the less-fortunate sectors.’

Not one to admit defeat, however, Javier quickly launched into a glowing report on Peru’s economy. In 2007 Peru’s economy grew 8.3 per cent – the country’s largest increase in 13 years. This is credited mainly to the growth in investment, which rose by 25.5 per cent (most of it mining). In fact, a glance at the APEC press kit made it seem as though Peru was doing as well as Canada. Of course, the authors forgot to mention that little glitch of income distribution: the economy may be ‘booming’, but 40 per cent of the country’s population can barely afford to eat.

Instead of addressing the root causes of the food crisis, the Government’s response has been to criminalize social protest and repress the poor. Amidst the wave of strikes and protests, Garcia enacted a law allowing him to turn the military loose against the civilian population should there be ‘suspicion or danger’ of violence or terrorism. Previously, the military was only allowed to intervene during a state of emergency.

In effect, the Government has declared open season on civil protest. Four protesters died during a nationwide strike against rising food prices in February. Witnesses said that two of them were shot by police officers, but the Government denied responsibility and instead enacted a law giving police officers impunity to shoot protesters. While Peru’s poor are fighting for their daily bread in the streets, Alan Garcia, whose party was founded on socialist principles, has sold his leftist roots to corporate interests. The pay-off is clearly visible in Crazy Horse’s expanding waist-line and extra chins.

Stephanie Boyd is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker who has been living and working in Peru for the past 11 years.

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