Canadian Jana Bell went to Peru’s monumental citadel Machu Picchu in 2011 to celebrate a friend’s birthday.
“I saw we were next door to the Amazon rainforest,” Bell said. “So, we spent three days and I just felt I had to go back.”
Since that trip, she’s became the founder and president of Amazon Rainforest Conservancy (ARC), a charity that protects Peruvian forests.
“Right now we have two projects, one in the lower Amazon and one in the cloud forest, the headwaters of the Amazon,” Bell said.
One of the ARC offices is in Puerto Maldonado, capital of Madre de Dios province wedged between Brazil and Bolivia in southeast Peru. It has become a focal point of the conflict between Indigenous protesters and the government following the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo by the legislature.
“The protestors have put a blockade on the highway that connects it to the rest of the country,” Bell said.
However, last December, she had to fly back to Canada because of the disorder that followed Castillo’s failed self-coup attempt.
Professor of Sociology at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), Maritza Paredes, is the lead researcher in a project partially funded by the Canadian public corporation International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
The project documents the knowledge systems of Indigenous peoples in Chile and Peru to provide justice-informed adaption to climate change.
She has to travel to Tarapoto, in the Peruvian Amazon, next March 2023, “but the future’s so uncertain, I don’t know what’ll happen,” she said.
Political protests are not new to Peru.
In a peer-reviewed study, Professor of the University of California Riverside David Pion-Berlin and an expert on defense and security at Tulane University Igor Acácio, analyzed protests in Latin American democracies.
They found that, according to official sources of Defensoría del Pueblo, 1,803 conflicts took place in Peru from 2012 to 2018. In them, 73 people died and at least 31 of those deaths were caused by the police.
Defensoría del Pueblo is an institution that also publishes the official tally of deaths since the protests that started last December and the latest tally shows 63 people have been killed in the current unrest.
On the other hand, the government said in a Jan. 30, 2023, statement that more than 850 police agents had been hurt and 43 police stations had been “affected” by the protests.
Pedro Castillo’s presidency had not been quiet, with frequent changes in his cabinet.
“His speech is a coup, I don’t know what he was thinking. In response, the Congress and the current female president take power,” Paredes said.
What followed has been “an indiscriminate repression, which repeats patterns of racism against Indigenous peoples who are equated to terrorists,” he said.
Peru is a vast country, with a land mass of more than 1.29 million square kilometres. Maritza Paredes said that its geographical diversity, with dry Western coast, high mountains and humid forests, is part of the problem. The coastline is one area that receives greater benefits through economic policies while Indigenous southern areas don’t.
There are two kinds of Indigenous peoples. Those who live in the mountains are numerous, especially in the Southern provinces, and have been traditionally fragmented and poorly organized.
They identified with Castillo, so they’re the ones leading the protests, “but they don’t have leaders, which makes it hard to specify their requests,” Paredes said.
The government declared a state of emergency in six provinces in the South on Feb. 6, where roads are still blocked.
Puerto Maldonado is the capital of one of the provinces.
“The protestors came [there] to the governor’s house, threw rocks and broke windows,” conservationist Jana Bell said. “The governor is shooting them with his rifle and asking for the army.”
Behind the mountains, Paredes said “there are the Indigenous from the Amazon, where there hasn’t been massive protests, until now.”
But “there’s illegal mining and coca cultivation, which is increasing a lot”, she said.
Paredes has been doing research on mining, Indigenous politics and the environment since 2007, a year before she obtained her PhD at Oxford University. She said illegal activity is on the rise due to the lack of alternatives.
“There are huge investments in climate change by Norway, Denmark, or Germany that only think about creating big conservancy parks,” Paredes said. “They should be bargaining with the Peruvian government to promote a more competitive agriculture locally.”
Paredes thinks that democracy in Peru is in danger.
“What scares me the most is that I think we are an unequal society, conservative and, overall, very racist,” she said.
Bell, whose son Mac studies business at Humber College’s Lakefront campus, said she’s optimist for the future.
“Illegal gold mining camps are turning the rainforest into a desert landscape because of ponds polluted with mercury,” she said. “There’re only an estimated figure of 15,000 jaguars left in the world, and their last refuge is the Amazon basin.
“Our future doesn’t have to be a story of extinctions, pandemics and catastrophic weather events,” Bell said. “But we need to act now and shift how we relate to nature.”