Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, other indigenous languages
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic and a growing number of evangelical Protestants), indigenous religions
Indigenous peoples include Achuar, Aguaruna, Asháninka, Shipibo, Huambisa, Quechua and Aymara, who together comprise 45 per cent of the population. There are 51 indigenous peoples in Peru. By far the most numerous are the highland Quechua, who comprise an estimated 83.1 per cent of the indigenous population according to the 2007 Census of Indigenous Communities. The Aymara population of some 500,000 is concentrated in the southern highland region near Puno. Lowland indigenous groups include Achuar, Aguaruna, Asháninka, Huambisa, Quechua and Shipibo. Around 80 per cent of Peru’s over 31 million inhabitants self-identify as either indigenous or mestizo (mixed).
Minority groups include Afro-Peruvians, persons of Chinese descent (also known as Tusan) and persons of Japanese descent (Nikkei).
Despite the historical lack of a ‘national’ indigenous movement in Peru and a notable emphasis on class identity among peasant communities in Peru, highland organizations joined together in 1999 to form the increasingly ethnically minded Confederación Nacional de Comunidades del Perú Afectadas por la Minería (CONACAMI).
Native leaders in the Amazon (from Aguaruna, Huambisa, Asháninka, Shipibo-Conibo, Amuesha and Cocama-Cocamilla communities) formed their own ethnic federations as early as the 1970s. In recent years they have focused their efforts on protesting against oil company intrusions and demanding government recognition of their territorial rights. According to the Asociación Interétnica para el Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP), created in 1980, Aguaruna communities have successfully reclaimed land invaded by settlers for production of cocoa and coffee.
Since the late 1990s umbrella organizations such as the Conferencia Permanente de los Pueblos Indígenas del Perú (Permanent Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples in Peru, COPPIP) have been established to unite Andean and Amazonian interests under one ethnic banner. In contrast to national and pan-national ethnic movements in Ecuador, indigenous activism is less visible in Peru, but it is no less present and manifests itself in multiple ways.
Peruvians of African descent tend to be concentrated in the southern coastal regions. In response to their experience of poverty, marginalization and racism, they have created organizations such as the Asociación pro Derechos Humanos del Negro and Asociación Palenque, which fights for the full achievement of equal rights.
After Peru abolished African slavery, it turned to China for cheap labour. Thousands of indentured labourers arrived during the mid-1800’s to work in the guano mines and in agriculture. Their descendants developed a unique culture merging Chinese and Peruvian influences, and today Peru is home to the largest ethnic Chinese (called Tusan) community in Latin America.
Peru was among the first Latin American republics to establish diplomatic relations with Japan. Migration of Japanese to Peru began in the late 1800s, many of whom were employed as contract workers on sugar plantations and mills. In 1990 a Japanese-descendent agronomist, Alberto Fujimori, became president. Many Japanese have been owners or operators of small shops and bars, and they have made a significant contribution to the Peruvian economy. Today they constitute one of the country’s most influential ethnic minorities (called Nikkei), both in economic and political terms.
A new census was conducted in October 2017. For the first time, respondents were asked to self-identify by ethnicity, in order to disaggregate socio-economic indicators by ethnic groups. However, representatives of the communities of Chinese and Japanese descent criticised the fact that only indigenous and Afro-descendant options were explicitly listed; census officials responded that they should mark ‘other’ and then fill in the blank.
Updated July 2020
Resource extraction continues to be a major issue facing many indigenous communities. While the government has in recent years announced plans to strengthen protections, there have been extensive illegal or otherwise problematic activities linked to exploration and resource extraction. For instance, indigenous peoples affected by projects have not received access to necessary water and sanitation facilities, leading to chronic health problems. They have also struggled to have demands met for impact assessments conducted by independent third parties, for findings to be made public, and for serious violations to be pre-empted or addressed. The Las Bambas copper project in Apurímac has been a particularly large source of controversy. The project, which entailed construction of a highly polluting molybdenum plant, has failed to adequately communicate with indigenous communities throughout its development and operations. In September 2015, tensions resulted in open conflict that resulted in three deaths and several wounded; another protestor was killed and operations were nearly halted by demonstrators in 2016; and days-long protests erupted in early 2017. Another operation which has especially attracted opposition linked to pollution and reduction of water supply has been that of Newmont Mining. In May 2017, Peru’s Supreme Court ruled against the company – asserting that it illegally occupied land in the construction of a US$5billion gold mine.
A further key issue regarding resource extraction is the still-pending clean-up of Peru’s northern Amazon, following the large-scale pollution caused by the US oil company Occidental Petroleum, a Peruvian counterpart Petrolperu and the successor to both companies’ concessions, the Dutch-registered company Pluspetrol. This followed the successful lawsuit in the US courts by the Achuar people. The case was initially dismissed in 2008, when a federal district court ruled in favour of Occidental and agreed that the case should be heard in Peru. This was overturned on appeal – a decision that became final when the US Supreme Court refused to review it in 2013. Occidental extracted oil in the region from 1970 to 2000, while at the same time causing nine billion gallons of untreated waste water – heavily contaminated with cadmium, lead and arsenic – to pollute local waterways. Leakages have continued under Pluspetrol’s management, as well as from a pipeline still operated by Petrolperu. Achuar communities have documented the extensive harm caused, including premature deaths, miscarriages and birth defects. Aside from the Achuar communities which brought the law suit, Kichwa, Kukama, Quechua and Urarina communities have also been badly affected. According to the 2015 Act of Lima, the government established a US$15 million contingency fund and committed to having Pluspetrol clean up the lots previously held by Occidental and Petroperu. The government has designated the clean-up of 32 contaminated sites in the Corrientes, Pastaza and Tigre basins a ‘priority’. Sadly, several years later, little action has been taken – an initial tendering process ran into trouble in 2017 when all the bids to undertake the clean-up were rejected.
Indigenous peoples and Afro-Peruvians report higher levels of discrimination than the general population. In recent years the national Ombudsman’s Office has played an active role in the fight against discrimination and racism. Besides processing and resolving complaints, although it has no sanctioning power, it launched a number of initiatives. One example is the Race against Discrimination, with more than 6,000 participants. The Ministry of Culture also launched an online platform, Warning against Racism, aiming to provide information and to promote interaction on issues related to ethnic and racial discrimination. The website provides tools to empower citizens and generates updated statistics on acts of ethnic and racial discrimination that occur in Peru. The resulting information is intended to influence the formulation and design of public policies in the immediate future. The Ministry of Culture has implemented other initiatives, such as the translation of the Law on Water Resources into five indigenous languages and the release of a handbook for police stations in Quechua, the most widely spoken of indigenous languages.
Peruvian media has long disseminated gross stereotypes of both Afro-Peruvians and indigenous peoples. After concerted efforts by civil society groups and strong criticism in 2014 from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, two derogatory caricatures (‘El Negro Mama’ and ‘La Paisana Jacinta’) were pulled from regular prime-time slots, although they have repeatedly cropped up again – highlighting the persistence of racism in Peru.
Despite steady economic growth during recent years, health investment in Peru remains among the lowest in Latin America. This lack of investment is especially felt in poorer areas, where indigenous and Afro-Peruvian populations are predominant. These include the marginalized urban colonias around Lima and the rural communities along the Pacific coast, in the Andes mountains and in the Amazon rainforest. Inequality in health service access is reflected in the contrast between the maternal and infant mortality rates of the richer urban areas, compared to those with majority indigenous and Afro-Peruvian populations. Critics have argued that in general there is a lack of a clear policy, appropriate financing and adequate service delivery to these populations, especially given their culturally specific health needs. The official focus is curative more than preventive, with an emphasis on reproductive health that ignores the non-reproductive and preventable illnesses that also affect women, including hypertension and diabetes. Adding to the economic challenges that impede access to proper health services for indigenous and Afro-Peruvian communities are the racism and discrimination connected to their cultural and ethnic identity. The perception of many indigenous women is that they are treated with contempt bordering on abuse in some health centres because they are poor and also come from indigenous communities.
As in other countries in the Americas, the healthcare situation is complicated by language. In Peru health professionals very rarely speak the languages of the indigenous communities they serve. Therefore, it is often impossible to explain the prescribed treatment or to obtain informed consent. This in turn promotes more anxiety and mistrust, which influences the choice of many indigenous women to use traditional medicine and give birth at home. This indigenous cultural preference can produce added bureaucratic challenges. Some health centre personnel refuse to provide live-birth verification to indigenous babies born at home or whose parents have not been able to pay a punitive fine for not submitting to official prenatal control. Without this document, the child cannot receive the official birth certificate, which is needed to obtain national identity documents.
Another ongoing issue in Peru is the reluctance of the government to grant communal land titles. There is currently no official government agency that is responsible for land titling. Only 19 indigenous land titles were granted between 2006 and 2010. As of 2016, there were 666 indigenous communities in the Amazon who still have titles pending.
Peru is located on the Pacific coast of South America. It borders Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil and Bolivia to the east and Chile to the south. Geographically, it has three distinct regions: a narrow coastal strip, the wide Andean mountain range and the Amazon rainforest. The coastal strip is mainly desert. The Andean region has wet and dry seasons, although the eastern Andes generally receive much more rainfall than the western slopes. Peru is divided up into 25 departments: in five of these (in the Andes) – Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cusco, Huancavelica and Puno – indigenous Peruvians constitute a numerical majority.
There is evidence of advanced cultures existing in present-day Peru as early as 1000 BCE, however the region containing Peru was not unified until 1400 ACE when the Inca conquered much of the territory that now makes up Peru, Bolivia, northern Argentina, central Chile and Ecuador.
The rapid expansion of the Inca empire began in 1438, when the emperor Pachacuti defeated Aymara rivals near Lake Titicaca. The empire was short-lived, lasting less than one hundred years, and following the fall of the Inca Empire in 1532, Peru fell under Spanish rule and in 1534 was established as a colonial Viceroyalty. The indigenous population in the ensuing years was decimated by disease and repression, including forced conscription in mining work – a principal source of wealth for the Spanish empire. Yet as Peru became a major colonial hub, the Spanish authorities nevertheless relied on collaboration with local indigenous leaders to maintain control, particularly in remote areas.
While the rest of Latin America fought for independence, Peru remained largely loyal to Spain due to the conservative Peruvian aristocracy, large Spanish population, and the fact that Lima was the base of Spanish military power in the region. However, growing resistance to the Spanish regime culminated in the wars of independence (1811 – 1824). Peruvian independence was declared in July 1821, mostly through the efforts of Argentine-born José de San Martín who eventually withdrew, leaving power to Simón Bolivar. Bolivar left Peru in 1826 before a stable government had been established. The government experienced numerous changes and Spain did not officially recognize its independence until 1869. In 1920, a new Constitution was adopted that included the protection of indigenous lands.
The country remained dominated by a largely white landowning oligarchy who maintained control well into the twentieth century, when the emergence of an energized populist movement saw a challenge to these vested interests and a period, beginning in the 1930s, of political fluctuation between democratic parties and the affluent traditional elite. The military repeatedly interfered in the country’s politics, preventing elected leaders from taking office and staging coups, including in 1968 when General Juan Velasco Alvarado seized power.
From 1968 until 1980, Peru was ruled by a military junta with Alvarado as its head until 1975. The junta embarked on a programme to control key industries and public services and in 1969 initiated a far-reaching agrarian reform process, with the objective of breaking up the hacienda system in Peru. However, the reform had more impact on the coastal region than the highlands, and, when undertaken in the highland regions, it largely involved the installation of state-run farms rather than the direct restitution of lands to indigenous and peasant communities. This helped to create rather than appease social conflict: a number of illegal land invasions took place during the period due to the lack of a state presence in the Andean and Amazonian regions. As a result, grassroots rondas campesinas (civil defence patrols) were formed in northern Peru to combat the local thefts, delinquency and land invasions after agrarian reform.
The Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces, led initially by Velasco, incorporated indigenous symbols into its identity. It recognized Quechua as an official language in areas with a high proportion of indigenous people (1976), promoted bilingual education and issued legislation to protect the rights of native and peasant communities in highland and lowland regions (1974). In 1987 the Peruvian Congress introduced a new agrarian law which threatened to expropriate ‘unused’ communal land in the highlands and make it available for business and development. The clause was withdrawn, however, after a major protest by national farming organizations and international support groups.
In 1980 the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) burst onto the national political scene. It originated in the province of Ayacucho but gradually spread to other regions, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency in more than half of the country. Initially many indigenous peasants supported Sendero, which appealed to excluded Andean populations as a grassroots ethnic movement, but its economic and political ideology disregarded and sought to destroy distinctive features of Andean life. Indigenous communities became increasingly wary of the organization’s extensively violent methods. Despite the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzmán, Sendero has remained active, although it no longer poses a significant threat to the Peruvian state. In total, the conflict has claimed between 40,000 and 60,000 lives. Indigenous people have suffered the most; 75 per cent of the victims have been Quechua-speakers and approximately 600,000 Quechua campesinos have been displaced.
In 2001, Alejandro Toledo, of Quechua heritage, became the first democratically elected indigenous president in South America. In the ensuing years there have been a number of positive steps in the area of indigenous peoples’ rights, though ongoing conflicts around issues such as mining on communal territory persist.
In the 1990s several important advances were made in the area of indigenous peoples’ rights. The Peruvian Constitution of 1993 declared it the state’s duty to protect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation. It also acknowledged the right of indigenous communities to practise customary law. In April 1997, Congress passed a new law criminalizing racial discrimination. However, President Fujimori (1990-2000) also reduced the status of international treaties concerning human rights and rolled back indigenous land rights by removing the inalienability and indivisibility of indigenous communal lands. Seeking to encourage foreign investment and increase the exploitation of Peru’s natural resources, he granted a large number of licences to forestry and oil companies, which have had a particularly negative impact on indigenous communities living in the Amazon basin.
In June 2011, former army officer Ollanta Humala won the presidency of Peru. Before his election, Humala – who campaigned as a populist – sought to assure companies they could proceed with existing and new multi-million dollar resource extraction projects. At the same time, to help ease community concerns over mining and oil drilling, he promised that Peru’s natural resources would be used to improve the lives of the mostly poor indigenous and Afro-Peruvian people in the country. Nevertheless, during 2011, increasing social conflict over mining in both the indigenous Andean highlands and lowland Amazonian rainforest threatened the implementation of large-scale mining and oil extraction projects. The result was an increase in mining protests involving as many as 200 disputes nation-wide.
In a positive step, in July 2011 the Law for the Preservation, Development, Revitalization, and Use of Indigenous Languages was passed. This law officially recognized indigenous languages and required the Ministry of Education to update a national register of indigenous languages. August 2011 then saw passage of the ground-breaking Consultation with Indigenous Peoples Law, making it mandatory in Peru to seek indigenous peoples’ consent before development projects are allowed to proceed on their lands. It was one of the first instances in the Americas where a binding legal framework has been developed to implement International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The new law also mandated that indigenous peoples be consulted before Congress can approve any proposed law that could affect their rights. However, implementation of the consultation law has ignored Quechua-speaking groups in the Andes through claims by government officials that they are not indigenous due to their integration with Spanish colonizers several centuries ago.
In December 2013, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights launched the National Commission against Discrimination, in collaboration with other ministries. The Commission monitors developments and advises the national executive branch on public policies on equality and non-discrimination, with the aim being to address the different structural causes of discrimination in Peru.
Humala’s term ended in 2016 and was characterized by what became known as paquetazos normativos, largely incoherent legislation that violated territorial rights and lessened environmental monitoring. One of these includes Supreme Decree 001-2015-PCM which allows companies to obtain the agreement of community leaders in various extractive projects without giving them clear and detailed information first. Another concerning piece of legislation was Law No. 30327, which among other things, allows for the granting of rights over lands the government deems under-utilized to large-scale projects. Despite the government’s assertion that it would not apply to lands belonging to indigenous peoples, many organizations opposed the law.
In parallel to the government of Peru, a landmark development In November 2015 was the formation of the Government of the Wampis Nation, Peru’s first autonomous indigenous government. Its first elected president, Wrays Pérez Ramírez, fully recognizes the legitimacy of the Peruvian state, but sees the creation of the Wampis Nation as an important step aimed at protecting the Amazon from environmental harm. In March 2017, the Wampis Nation won a major victory when the Fourth Constitutional Court of Lima ruled that a prospecting license granted to an oil company had been incorrectly issued without the Wampis government’s consent.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Asociación Negra de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos
Centro de Estudios y Promoción Afroperuanos (Lundu)
Centro de Desarrollo Étnico (CEDET)
Centro de Desarrollo de la Mujer Negra Peruana (CEDEMUNEP)
Asociación Interétnica para el Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP)
Asociación para la Conservación del Patrimonio del Cutivireni
Centro de Investigación y Promoción Amazónica (CIPA)
Comunidad Indígena Asháninka (CIA)
Aymara and Highland Quechua
Centro de Communicación, Capacitación y Cultura Arunakasa
Consejo Indio de Sud-America
Coordinadora de Trabajo con Mujeres de Ayacucho
La Confederación de la Nacionalidades Indígenas de Perú
Red Nacional Mujer Rural
Comisión Andina de Jurista
Confederación de Nacionalidades Amazónicas del Perú
Sources and further reading
Hooker, J., ‘Indigenous inclusion, black exclusion: race, ethnicity and multicultural citizenship in contemporary Latin America’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2005.
Luciano, J. and Rodriguez Pastor, H., ‘Peru’, in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, MRG, 1995.
Reid Andrews, G., Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.
World Bank, ‘Indigenous and Afro-Peruvian development project’, 2000, URL: www.wds.worldbank.org
Green, S., ‘Getting over the Andes: the geo-eco-politics of indigenous movements in Peru’s twenty-first-century Inca empire’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, 2006.
Rainforest Foundation, NGO-based in the UK [has helpful information about the Ashanika in the Amazonian region; tells readers about the problems they face such as road building and illegal logging] http://www.rainforestfoundationuk.org/
The Forest Peoples Programme, NGO based in the Netherlands and the UK [raises awareness about indigenous communities in the Amazon that have chosen to live in inaccessible areas] http://www.forestpeoples.org/
Aymara and Highland Quechua
García, M.E., ‘The politics of community: education, indigenous rights and ethnic mobilisation in Peru’, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 30, no. 1, 2003.
Green, S., ‘Incas, Indios and indigenism in Peru’, NACLA Report on the Americas, vol. 38, no. 4, 2005.
Remy, I.M., ‘The indigenous population and the construction of democracy in Peru’, in D.L. Van Cott (ed.), Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America, London, Macmillan, 1994.
Comunidad Tawantinsuyu NGO [has useful information about traditional medicine practices among indigenous communities in Peru] http://www.comunidadtawantinsuyu.org/
Portal Cultural de la Región Andina [tells readers about recent news, events and different indigenous organizations in Latin America] http://www.quechuanetwork.org/
Allen, C.J., The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community, Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution, 1988.
Federación Internacional de los Derechos Humanos, Alternative Information to Peru’s Report sumbitted to the Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, March 1999.
Leyton, M. and Patrinos, H.A., ‘Estimating the number of indigenous peoples in Latin America’, in G. Hall and H.A. Patrinos (eds), Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development in Latin America, New York, Palgrave, 2006.
Peru Support Group, Mining and Development in Peru with Special Reference to the Rio Blanco Project, edited by A. Bebbington, M. Connarty, W. Coxshall, H. O’Shaughnessy and M. Williams, London, 2007.
Poole, D. and Renique, G., Peru: Time of Fear, London, Latin America Bureau, 1992.
Starn, O., Degregori, C.I. and Kirk, R. (eds), The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics, London, Latin America Bureau, 1996.
Takenyaka, A., ‘The Japanese in Peru: history of immigration, settlement and racialisation’, Latin American Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 3, 2004.
Van Cott, D.L., ‘ “It is not a priority”: the failure to form viable ethnic parties in Peru’, in D.L. Van Cott (ed.), From Movements to Parties in Latin America: The Evolution of Ethnic Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.