So far, Peru has been an interesting experience. The change in climate, culture, and views has been somewhat shocking. The 20+ hour bus ride to get to and from our first mining town was also an ordeal in itself.
I stayed two days at a mining town deep in the mountains and was able to see first-hand how Peruvian miners live. Unfortunately, although this was supposed to be a case study on a successful union fighting for fair working conditions, the successes have been quite small. The workers were able to organize a strike and a union, which is very difficult, almost impossible, in Latin America, but their living and working conditions were far from just. Being there just two days, I could feel and see the pollution being dumped from the mine into this poor town. On top of that, the measly salaries of the miners barely covered the expensive necessities in the town.
It was difficult to experience and heading on the bus out of the town, I oscillated between anger, depression, and guilt. I felt guilty that I was able to leave that place and come to a comfortable hotel in Trujillo. I also felt guilty that these people looked to me and my boss for answers to their problems, which we certainly did not have. We had come to learn from them, but in two days, I still could not understand how this town could put up with these conditions day in and day out. I felt anger that I could not do more, and how development work is often about very small changes and often takes more than it puts in. My main contribution would be to tell this town’s story and hopefully build some international support for their cause, but is that enough? With millions of similar stories around the world, and the massive changes that would need to be made, my depression set in. Am I truly contributing to change or are these small wins not enough to confront the tide of rapid expansion, globalization, and neoimperialism?
On the bright side, it seems that the next union we will visit has achieved some more concrete successes. Change is a long process, fraught with failures, and many times, it feels like “one step forward and two steps back.” In the end, I just hope that the small steps forward will be enough to overcome the many steps back, and that my role in creating change will be much clearer and more contributive.
Trying to sum up the week is proving to be challenging. Where to begin? Mexico City is a beautiful place, minus the pollution and traffic. It’s filled with rich history, contemporary culture and some US influences (for better or for worse). It’s also HUGE, so I’m still learning how to get around the city! So far, so good!
Tomorrow is my first official day of work. This past week has been an intense training and crash course on organizing, research, and corporate accountability. The organization I am interning for, PODER (Project on Organizing, Development, Education and Research) aims to find ways to create long term corporate accountability in Latin America by organizing civil society and training them to use strategic corporate research to make sure companies are truly held accountable for their actions. What does that all mean? Basically, PODER wants to equal the playing field so that civil society can have leverage over companies to make sure they do the right thing. Easy to say, hard to do. In Mexico, although the laws protecting workers are the most liberal in Latin Americam, those in power find ways to circumvent the laws and keep things in their favor, unfortunately,
We have some deep conversations throughout the week about corporate accountability and whether PODER can truly accomplish their mission. The interesting thing about them is that they aim to incentivize companies by making them internalize their externalities. However, this is definitely more complicated than it seems, and strikes or workers threatening to cost the company money, are not the only tactics one should use to achieve this. The nagging questions arises though, is capitalism in general as a profit maximizing structure to blame tor these issues? Can we truly make companies be responsible? How do we make people care enough to keep corporations accountable in the long run and not get lost in the next crisis flavor of the month? I’m an eternal optimist so I hope that we can, but just looking at the BP oil spill and the joke of a clean up effort makes me wonder.
Fortunately, one of my projects this summer is to go to Peru and interview mining workers who, through organizing and perseverance, were able to get the rights they deserve. I’ll be doing research all this week before I head to Peru on the 16th, so I’ll update you all once I am there and learn from some true fighters! In the meantime, keep the faith, and enjoy this Mexican YouTube sensation:
For my internship, I recently travelled to Ayacucho, Peru, a region whose name means, “Land of the Dead” in the local, indigenous dialect. It is called “Land of the Dead” because as far back as the rule of the Inca, many bloody battles took place in this region. In more recent history, Ayacucho has continued to earn the name “Land of the Dead”, for it was in a rural university campus in this region that Professor Abimael Guzman formed the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path in the 1970s. What started as a revolutionary movement soon turned into an armed guerrilla organization that committed horrendous atrocities against political opponents and citizens alike. The Peruvian government responded by sending armed forces-which were equally brutal-into the region and between 40,000 and 60,000 people were killed or disappeared in the resulting civil war. Many of the victims were indigenous people from Ayacucho.
The aftermath of the civil war is still felt in Ayacucho today. Although in the last decade the region has experienced peace and is now safe for visitors, it still remains very poor. In addition to the poverty, there are a lot of social problems. Many people have turned to alcohol to numb the painful memories of the civil war and often times alcoholism leads to domestic abuse and incest.
The organization I am working with, CHIRAPAQ, is an indigenous-led organization that seeks to build up leadership potential among members of Peru’s indigenous populations. The project I am working on is a series of educational workshops for indigenous youth on sexual and reproductive health. The organization seeks to empower these youth with knowledge of their bodies and an understanding of their rights. CHIRAPAQ hopes that through the workshops it will help reduce unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, both of which are very high in Ayacucho. As sexual and reproductive health is still a taboo issue between parents, teachers and youth in this region, I strongly believe the work CHIRAPAQ is doing is both important and effective. This week I am off to the Central Jungle for our next workshop. I will keep you posted…