Walter Aduviri – hero or criminal?

Human rights defenders are being criminalized in Peru. John Crabtree highlights the unusual case of Walter Aduviri.

Walter Aduviri. Photo courtesy of

Walter Aduviri is something of a cause celebre in his native Puno, the region closest to Peru’s southern frontier with Bolivia. His case is due to come up shortly before Peru’s Supreme Court. It concerns the role he played in a major protest by indigenous Aymaran communities against a mining concession back in 2011. Facing arrest, he is currently in hiding. He is also a candidate for the regional presidency in the upcoming local elections in October.

Aduviri stands accused of inspiring the so-called ‘Aymarazo’. Tightly-knit Aymara-speaking communities across the southern part of Puno rose up in 2011 against the Santa Ana silver mining project due to its likely negative environmental and social impacts. The then government of Alan García, in its last days in office, found itself obliged to rescind the concession. The company involved, Canadian-owned Bear Creek, has since taken Peru to international arbitration over the payment of compensation.

Aduviri remains unrepentant about his role in the affair, hoping that his possible election victory in October will reinforce his case. Of those originally accused, he is now the only one facing trial. The Aymaran communities, which form his political base, will use their political muscle to defend their man.

Conflicts between mining companies and communities are commonplace in Peru where liberalizing economic legislation has sought to encourage foreign investment. Concessions awarded to mining companies tend to ignore the traditional land rights of communities within, or close to mining concessions. Rights to prior consultation are routinely ignored; the Peruvian authorities are reluctant to concede that Aymaran or Quechua communities in the Peruvian highlands are in any way ‘indigenous’.

Faced by hostile local interests across much of the Andean highlands, major international mining concerns have been obliged to shelve projects. In many cases, disputes have turned violent. The ‘Aymarazo’ was but one such incident in this part of Peru that turned into a trial of strength. With mining prices at the top of their cycle in 2011, companies were keen to move in and profit from Peru’s abundant mining wealth. But as prices slumped after 2013, that interest declined and the number of conflicts fell.

However, with prices rising last year and this, there is renewed interest among companies both to dust off shelved projects and to initiate new ones. At the same time, the monthly tally of conflicts (registered by Peru’s Ombudsman, the Defensoría del Pueblo) is again in the ascendant.

Human rights lawyers see in the Aduviri case a worrying precedent. The pretext for the case against him is as an ‘indirect perpetrator’ – a legal precept that has frequently been used in the past to convict people on terrorist charges. Moreover, judges maintain that Aduviri cannot be regarded as an ‘indigenous’ leader because, amongst other things, he has had a university education and is therefore presumed cognizant of the law regarding protest.

The criminalization of protest across the country is a matter of growing concern within the Peruvian human rights community. Human rights defenders, particularly in remote rural regions, frequently find themselves at risk of arrest or worse. Indeed, there is growing international concern – spearheaded by civil society organizations like the London-based Peru Support Group – about how human rights leaders are now routinely targeted by the authorities as a way of curbing anti-mining protest.

The Aduviri case highlights such concerns, alongside the defence of the rights of communities to express their opposition to seeing their land and rivers polluted by mining operations and their communities affected by the social malaise that usually accompanies mining activities.

There is still time to help human and environmental rights defenders in Peru by going to the Peru Support Group’s crowdfunding campaign.

John Crabtree is a writer and academic specializing in the Andean region. His latest book, with Francisco Durand, is Peru: Elite Power and Political Capture (Zed Books).