Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Aymara population is estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000. The majority live in small towns, villages, and rural communities and are primarily small-scale farmers who may also work elsewhere as day labourers for part of the year. While in the countryside most men speak Spanish, many women, who seldom have occasion to travel to town, may be monolingual in Aymara. Language and dress are seen as significant in preserving traditional culture. The Quechua concept of pachakuti, a turning over of world/time (pacha), holds the possibility of a time when the pre-colonial order, at present below the earth, will return (kuti) to power. This belief is a source of inspiration for both Quechua and Aymara indigenous organizations. The majority of Peru’s Aymara live in the southern Andean region of Puno. Their way of life is in many ways similar to that of the Quechua but they have suffered less at the hands of Sendero.
Aymara were conquered in the mid-fifteenth century and incorporated into the Incan empire. During Spanish colonial rule, many Aymaras were exploited as a source of labour on farms, mines and within Spanish households. The Aymara began rebelling against Spanish colonial rule in 1780 and continued to do so until Peruvian independence was declared in 1821.
Aymara women have become active in shantytown organizations; there are also local radio programmes directed by women. These are aimed primarily at migrants and discuss topics such as terrorism, domestic violence and economic discrimination, and warn about the sale of unsafe contraceptives and agricultural fertilizer. In 2001 an Aymara woman from Puno, Paulina Arpasi, won a seat in the congressional elections, thereby becoming the first female indigenous leader in the Peruvian Congress.
Many Aymara reject bilingual education, protesting the need for a better education in Spanish in order to progress and to confront the racism of mainstream Peruvian society. Many prefer their children spoke Spanish rather than their native language, and there have been vociferous debates among local NGOs and indigenous intellectuals about the issue.
Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo de los Pueblos Andinos, Amazónicas y Afro-Peruanos (INDEPA) is a multicultural state institution which includes Aymara representatives. As yet, however, it has not been able to procure any major legislative or constitutional changes. Collective land rights remains a major demand of indigenous organizations in Peru, but no fundamental revisions have been made to the neoliberal policies instituted during Fujimori’s regime. These include the removal of the inalienability and indivisibility of indigenous communal lands, with slow or little progress on land title claims, plus an overall pro-extractive industries stance.
A key issue for the Aymara people is the seriously polluted state of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border with Bolivia. Waste water from neighbouring cities and towns goes untreated, and studies have shown that the water and fish are contaminated with high levels of mercury, cadmium, zinc and copper.
In July 2017, a court case against 18 Aymara community leaders concluded with charges being dropped against all except Walter Aduviri, who was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment and a massive fine. Initially, a hundred activists were being investigated, following their participation in the 2011 ‘Aymarazo’ protests against the Santa Ana silver mine, owned by the Canadian Bear Creek Mining corporation. The protests were regarding the threatened environmental damage and water contamination, as well as the Aymara communities’ lack of free, prior and informed consent. The government cancelled the contract, leading to a protracted arbitration claim by the company. The initial charges against the community leaders – with sentences of up to 28 years in prison – nevertheless underscored the pro-extraction posture of the government.