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LAND [image, unknown] A peruvian invasion

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[image, unknown] Peter Stalker
New Internationalist
[image, unknown] Issue No. 123 :Editor, Peter Stalker

This land is my land
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A small piece of land — to work or just to live on - is a vital necessity for most of the world’s people. But land can also be a focus of national pride and even patriotic fervour.
Peter Stalker looks at the difference between living on the motherland and living for it.

THERE are mites here, millions of them,’ says Cesar, ‘all burrowing away just underneath us.’ He starts to scoop away at the sand for me to see. ‘They dig in underneath the skin; you get a disease called acariasis.

I remember the sand that has slipped down the side of my shoes, the sand in my hair, the sand in my pockets. I’m not sure that I want to hear any more.

‘It’s something to do with the rubbish.’ He points to a nearby ravine into which the Lima city authorities have been tipping refuse for years. A couple of young children are racing down the side of an almost vertical slope raising a cloud of flies from the pile of bottles and cans at the bottom.

Six weeks ago this same spot was deserted except for the mites — just a sand dune next to a rubbish dump. Now six hundred people call it home. And they have christened it ‘The Martyrs of San Juan de Miraflores’.

The population all arrived at once. At eight o’clock one Saturday morning they appeared — a long straggling procession, handcarts, bundles, children, matting and flags. They trudged up to the top of the hillside and started to divide the sand dune into plots. Finally they had found a place of their own.

Civil Guard vehicle with water cannons stands by in Lima.
Photo: Peter Stalker

The Martyrs of San Juan de Miraflores is one of the newest of Lima’ s ‘young towns’ —the pueblos jovenes that creep out from the frayed edges of the Peruvian capital to colonise the sandy wastelands, the rock-strewn hillsides — and the refuse tins.

But why such an elaborate name — a form of religious dedication? Not a bit of it; the martyrs in question were soldiers not saints— fallen Peruvians in the battle of San Juan de Miraflores. This historic engagement took place quite close to here in 1879 during the War of the Pacific with Chile.

‘We thought,’ says Cesar, ‘that if we used a good patriotic name we would be safe; the authorities would think twice about pushing us off. How could they bulldoze a community named after national heroes?’ This same forlorn faith was also the inspiration for the Peruvian flags which the procession carried and which, somewhat tattered, hang red, white and defiant from their homes to this day.

Those tattered red and white rags and the name they gave to their new settlement express a patriotism ironic for a community that has benefited so little from the government of la patria — the motherland — for which the martyrs of San Juan de Miraflores laid down their lives.

Governments may sweep all the nation along in a fervent dedication to Ia patria but they are very selective about who gets the right to use it Belonging to a country and having access to the land within it are clearly two different things.

‘The Civil Guard came the same evening.’ Cesar remembers. ‘They brought their guns— though they didn’t have to use them. They said they had orders to make us leave and pushed us around a bit and hit us. Some of our people did get frightened and decided to go.

‘But then a group of women went right up to the guardsmen and shouted at them: "We only want land to live on, what else can we do?". I think the guardsmen were nervous about attacking women so they went back to their barracks. But they wouldn’t leave us alone. Night after night they came and we had to post look-outs. But we refused to go —no matter what they threatened — and they eventually gave up.

Looking around the sandhill now, you would wonder what all the fuss was about; it’s not exactly picturesque. A few flimsy pieces of cane matting, bolstered with the occasional cardboard box, make up most of the houses. And as for the land itself, just to walk between one cane hut and another can mean ploughing ankle-deep through that soft, infested sand. But this land belongs to the government of Peru and those who occupy it can expect a response from the guardians of the mother country.

This not the occupants’ only dispute with the State, however. Most of the people who have settled on the sandhill make their living as ambulantes — itinerant street traders —working in what economists call the ’informal sector’. The women wheel ingenious wooden vehicles round the streets, opening them up to reveal mobile snackbars— serving cebiche, a raw fish salad The men have mobile clothes racks, or shine shoes, or stand on street corners selling bootleg tapes of Julio Iglesias.

All this makes for lively pavements in the centre of Lima. But in the eyes of the government they are a bit too lively— and give tourists a bad impression. The ambulantes, said the government, would have to go. And the firehoses of the National Guard duly swept them from the smarter of the city’s shopping streets — just as they had tried to sweep them from the sandhill. The streets, like the sand, belonged to Ia patrio, but only to certain of the people.

All in all, Cesar and his friends seem to get relatively little of value from the Republic of Peru— which, while it is clear about the duties of all who live on its territory, is a lot less clear about their rights. It operates, of course, in the ‘national interest’. But the ‘national interest’ and that of the occupants of the sandhill do not seem to coincide as much as they might.

Cesar Molleda - alias 'Calientito' - and the settlement they call the Martyrs of San Juan de Mira flores.
Photo: Peter Stalker

Rejected by the government, they have therefore taken government into their own hands. They even have their own ‘junta’, or— to give it its full name — the ‘Junta Directiva de Ia Asociacion de Pobladores de los Martires de San Juan de Miraflores — a mouthful that contains rather more words than it does members. A dozen of the 600 people have been elected to a management committee that organises and defends their new territory.

Cesar Molleda is the General-Secretary. Twenty years old, he looks scarcely more than a boy — bouncing around in a track-suit, the cheap all-purpose garment that seems now to have been adopted as the national dress in Peru. I was first introduced to him as Cesar but in fact everyone seems to call him Calientito— ‘little hot one’. This, I found out, refers not to his character, but to his job. Calientito is a drink made with sugar cane, tea and lemon. Brewing and selling it is how he makes his living.

‘When we first came here’ he says, ‘no-one knew anyone else’s name. So when we had the meeting to elect our officers no-one knew who to vote for. I had been going round the houses selling drinks so everyone knew me. When it came to choosing a General-Secretary someone shouted "I vote for Calientito!" That’s how I got the job — and the name.

All of the 450 or so pueblos jovenes in Lima have some kind of community organisation. Formed initially for self defence, they then try to unite the people for the long and frustrating process of turning a plot of land into a community.

Land invasions started in the city in the 1940s and now around 80 per cent of its five million people live in the kind of unfurnished houses they all seem to consist of. Travel around Lima and you will see every settlement frozen at one stage of growth or another. From cane house they move on to corrugated iron, to breeze blocks, to concrete — from one storey to two storeys. Nothing ever seems to be complete; wires and pillars jut out from the walls at odd angles in the hope of future addition.

Land may be obtained just by occupying it. But everything else has to be seized the way everyone else seizes it — with money. An electrical connection costs around $450 — if you can persuade the electrical company to do it. And for a community to get water and drains they would have to club together to produce $1,200 per house— a daunting prospect when you may be earning less than $420 per week.

Calientito and his friends seem light years away from such developments. Their frail cane matting houses look as substantial as canvas windbreakers assembled round a family on a beach. But the sand here is such that it is impossible for even a heavy-duty water tanker to get through. So their water has to be carried bucket by bucket up the hill from friendly neighbours in an older settlement at the bottom. One of their first community projects will be to collect rocks to make a track for the tanker, so they can buy their water — at 25 ¢ a barrel

So far the State’s only participation has been through the Civil Guard — either to try and move them from their homes or to clear their ramshackle stalls from the streets.

Shelters made of cane matting are the cheapest and quickest to assemble.
Photo: Peter Stalker

The Civil Guard is a common sight on the streets of Lima — and this is one of Latin America’s more liberal regimes. But Peru is a country where the wealthy 11 per cent take a hefty 68 per cent slice of the national cake, the 25 per cent at the bottom must make do with a three per cent sliver. President Belaunde’s nervousness is understandable.

All of these people are Peruvians however — and all are equal before the law. Some clearly benefit more than others. Does this mean that some are more Peruvian than others? Well, no. It isn’t possible to be slightly Peruvian; either you are or you aren’t. The Aguaruna Indians in the upper reaches of the Amazon, the managers of the busy Volvo truck plant, the ambulantes from the pavements of Lima — however well or badly their government treats them, they have all somehow to be united under the red and white flag of Peru.

What keeps such countries together, as often as not, is military force; half the governments of the developing world now have governments controlled by the military.

But there is another form of cohesion— and one so strong that many countries rely on this alone to keep the people dutifully quiet during the national anthem. That force is nationalism — a strange collection of human traits that build into an even stranger ideology. According to the ideology of nationalism the essence of Peru lies not just in its diverse peoples, but in its very soil.

Nationalism is, above all, steeped in history. The martyrs of San Juan de Miraflores died for la patria. And the soil has been so enriched by their sacrifice that it has become even more worth dying for.

Any government which invokes this kind of sacrifice, however, which causes its people to rally round the flag, has a reason for doing so: most commonly to divert attention away from the real divisions within a country —focussing attention and trust not on fallible people but on the infallible land— which will always remain blameless and can go on soaking up blood and tears forever.

It is possible to feel a real identity with the land you live on — no matter how sandy or mite-infested. But when you are asked to respond to loyalties on a grander scale — that is when the suspicions start to arise. Those nations which have recourse to the loudest calls for patriotism are usually the most divided.

Even on the smallest scale the divisions have a way of creeping in.

Calientito has a problem. One of the other committee members has come to him to complain about a woman who lives on the edge of the settlement It seems that she now has three plots: one of her own, one given to her by her mother, and one handed over by a friend who lived next door for a few weeks and then moved out.

There are, however, rules to deal with this. If three nights in a row you haven’t slept on your plot— and you haven’t had permission from the committee to stay away— that land is forfeit Calientito goes off to sort it out. ‘While everyone has the same,’ he says, ‘we can manage. Not easy, but we can manage. But when some start to get more land than others..

Coming next month...
This land is my land
A new map of the earth

Next month's New Internationalist will not be a magazine at all. It will unfold into a large full-colour world map.

This will be the first ever English edition of the Arno Peters projection - a new way of looking at the earth which we explain here.

Click here to read that issue.

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