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Afro-Peruvians take their case to the UN

30 September 2009

Peru has garnered much international media attention recently over violence during indigenous people's Amazon land rights protests. However, largely unheard over the past several years are the simmering complaints about systematic rights violations affecting another of Peru's main ethnic groups: namely Afro-Peruvians.

No longer. In early August 2009 Afro-Peruvian rights organizations presented their first ever alternative report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in Geneva. The report highlights the racism, discriminatory treatment and marginalization their group continues to experience in the Andean country.

The document calls into question the image of Peru as a harmonious multi-ethnic, multicultural country and especially challenges the state's official report to the 57th session of the CERD. Instead, it describes Peru as, "one of the most racist countries in the world,"where discriminatory attitudes are widespread.

Afro-Peruvians may have strong grounds for their charges. During the recent crisis in the Amazon, Peru's president Alan Garcia was widely criticized – including by members of his own political party – for calling indigenous protesters "savages" and "a hindrance to progress".

Moreover, in September, London based rights group Survival International gave its 2009 award for the Most Racist Article of the Year in the mainstream media to Peruvian national newspaper Correo. This resulted from an article that, among other epithets, referred to indigenous Peruvians as 'cannibals', 'head shrinkers' and 'primitives', and strongly recommended the immediate napalm bombing of their communities.

Afro-Peruvians argue that such racist attitudes are deeply rooted in the country's colonial past of dispossession and enslavement. According to records, the first Africans arrived in Peru in 1533, along with the adventurer Francisco Pizarro who imposed Spanish rule on the indigenous Inca empire of Emperor Atahualpa and enslaved the population. During the Spanish colonial period, tens of thousands of men and women of African origin were also imported to provide forced labour in Peru's mines, plantations, and urban areas, until their emancipation in 1854.

Despite a more than 400-year presence in Peru and notable historical contributions to the society and culture, Afro-Peruvians as a group continue to experience an ongoing pattern of racism and exclusion. This includes under-investment in community infrastructure, official neglect of their issues by successive Peruvian governments and marginalization and discrimination in the social and economic spheres.

Afro-descendants are now thought to constitute up to 10 percent of the national population (24 million), however this is challenged by rights groups who claim that official censuses and surveys do not accurately reflect their numbers, especially given Peru's ethnically mixed population.

The 106 communities with the greatest concentration of Afro-Peruvians are mostly located in the southern coastal regions. According to the Alternative CERD Report, marginalization and discrimination have all but ensured that the Afro-Peruvians now represent a disproportional percentage of the nation's poor. In a country where 50 percent of the national population lives below the poverty line, the Afro-Peruvian rights organizations Centro de Desarollo Etnico (CEDET) and Makungo de Desarollo estimate that nearly 78 per cent of Afro-Peruvians live in poverty, with 22.5 per cent of that total experiencing extreme poverty.

Part of the problem is inadequate access to quality education in a country not noted for high public education standards. According to a 2003 National Survey of Homes published by the Instituto Nacional de Desarollo de Pueblos Andinos, Amazonicos y Afroperuanos (INDEPA), on average Afro-Peruvians receive only 7.48 years of education, and almost one in four has not finished primary school. Moreover, although a small number of Afro-Peruvians do make it to university, of these only two percent manage to complete their studies.

While surveys worldwide have shown that income levels are closely connected to educational attainment, discriminatory hiring practices can also play a role. Nearly 74 percent of the Afro-Peruvian men and women surveyed indicate they have a harder time getting hired compared to the rest of the population. They also have a well-known difficulty in become naval officers in Peru's conservative military. Even more worrisome is a general population survey carried out by MRG's NGO partner CEDET in which 98 percent of the respondents admit the existence of racial discrimination towards Afro-Descendants.

Discrimination affects very key aspects of Afro-Peruvian life. In addition to living in economically deprived areas with poor basic services and high crime rates, Afro-Peruvians encounter a special lack of access to real justice including negative stigmatization, corruption of judicial powers, and confinement without conviction.

Peru introduced laws against discrimination for the first time in the 1990s, during the term of the controversial Japanese-Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, and these were strengthened by his successor Alejandro Toledo, but they are general in nature and do not specifically address racial discrimination.

The Toledo administration also developed a 'National Plan on Human Rights 2006-2011', which recognizes state obligations to Afro-Peruvians and indigenous peoples as so-called "vulnerable populations" that require focused development initiatives. A Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) has also existed since 1993, however as the report points out, none of the existing institutions or processes are allocated sufficient financial and human resources by the state, nor do they have the legal authority to take the actions needed to eliminate racial discrimination in Peru.

As a result, Afro-Peruvian rights organizations are now calling for the establishment of specially dedicated state institutions that acknowledge and deal with the problem and its effects on their group. Among other measures they are recommending that the government develop a National Plan for Racial Equality as well as fully implement the existing National Plan for Human Rights. They also want the state to establish properly funded structures to deal with Afro-descendant issues in each government ministry and a technical secretariat to handle Afro-Peruvian concerns in the regions and provinces with the greatest group concentrations.

According to one Afro-Peruvian activist, "After over four and a half centuries the least our country can do is recognize the contributions Afro-Peruvians have made and continue to provide to Peruvian society and treat us with some dignity and respect. It’s our right".