Peru: In Defense of Land, Culture and the Female Body

An interview with Lourdes Huanca of the National Federation of Female Peasants, Artisans, Indigenous, Native and Salaried Workers of Peru (FENMUCARINAP)

George Ygarza
06/03/2016

Lourdes Huanca Atencio, president of FENMUCARINAP (Photo by George Ygarza)

During the Fujimori regime, the progressive left was decimated.  Dissidents were quickly branded as terrorists and silenced through defamation, marginalization or disappearances.  But far from being frozen in the past, the Peruvian left remained alive in the periphery as clandestine student groups, indigenous people and women continued to organize. Following the downfall of Fujimori, these groups took to the streets never to lose them again.  One of the first post-Fujimori organizations to emerge was FENMUCARINAP, the National Federation of Female Peasants, Artisans, Indigenous, Native and Salaried Workers of Peru.

The rise of FENMUCARINAP along with that of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori who is leading the polls exemplifies the paradoxes of Peruvian society.  While Keiko Fujimori is prominently portrayed throughout mainstream media, an appropriate counterbalance would be to hear from the daughters and sisters who escaped that forced sterilization program her father forced on thousands of Peruvian women.  Behind the prospect of Peru’s first female president lies a dark legacy of Fujimorismo defined by its authoritarianism, neoliberalism and reactionary policies.  I reached out to FENMUCARINAP to understand what feminism looks from the perspective of a grassroots movement on the periphery of a centralized postcolonial state.

Lourdes Huanca Atencio is president of the FENMUCARINAP.  The organization was founded in 2006 with the purpose of defending and fighting for the rights of women in Peru. These include struggles for the control and defense of the female body and political, economic and social empowerment. Rooted in an ancestral cosmovisión of their indigenous communities, a central struggle has been the fight for their subsistence, in maintaining land, water and seed sovereignty. FENMUCARINAP currently finds itself in 19 regions throughout Peru and counts on over 126,000 members.

The following interview was conducted in Spanish on April 7th, 2016, shortly before the country’s presidential and congressional first round elections. It was translated by the author.

George Ygarza (GY): Can you give a general background into FENMUCARINAP and the work it does?

Lourdes Huanca (LH): FENMUCARINAP was born on August 18, 2006. Our main goals, which as an organization comprised of women is not an easy thing, is control and defense of the territory of the female body which is often violated. Also for the political, economic, social and cultural empowerment as we [women] are the ones that sustain society and yet our work and contributions are not recognized. Finally, we also defend the sovereignty of our subsistence which is land, water and seeds, because a campesina without those things has no choice but to move to city where she then becomes extremely impoverished. It’s been a hard fought struggle for recognition because in this country, as in other countries in Latin America, it comes up against patriarchy, machismo and sexism.

FENMUCARINAP also involves itself in politics, which is currently manifested in the electoral campaigns. During the era of Fujimori and to a certain extent today, anyone [of the marginalized groups] that spoke out politically was labeled a terrorist. This was meant to instill fear into the indigenous people even after having experienced massacres ourselves committed with complete impunity. Despite all this, we continue to break through political taboos because we understand how important it is, and if we didn’t our organizing would be useless. Besides defending our nutritional sovereignty and subsistence, we also demand education for our children, complete health insurance so that hospitals and clinics treat us like human beings and not base our treatment on how much money we have.

One of the ways we organize to accomplish our goals is through the formation of decentralized workshops. One of our main themes of our workshops is highlighting the economy of which we contribute so much to as women. It is important to understand the power of our resources and to do that it is imperative we understand the judicial process, which at the very least can help us in understanding how our country operates.

One of the ways we organize to accomplish our goals is through the formation of decentralized workshops.  One of the main themes of our workshops is highlighting the economy to which we contribute so much to as women. It is important to understand the power of our resources and in order to do that it is imperative we understand the judicial process, which at the very least can help us in understanding how our country operates.

Peru is politically illiterate.  I shouldn’t be voting for the candidate that offers up the nicest words or is presentable, I should be voting based on their proposals for the development of my country.  With that, having looked at all the candidates’ proposals for one that has a place for indigenous groups, we found the best one to be Veronika Mendoza [Editor’s Note: Mendoza, hailing from the leftist coalition Frente Amplio, came in third place in the first round of elections and did not qualify for the runoff on June 5]. The other candidates just offer crumbs, enough to just hold back the masses.  But we have worked, coordinated and spoken with Mendoza since the start.  Now, this is not to say that we are entrenched in politics, no, we are in a learning process.

Too often we are labeled as anti-development, as if we do not want any development. We want development.  At the same time we push for social justice, we cannot completely say no to mining.  Here are two contrasting examples from the North and South of the country: In Maquegua, where I migrated from to Tacna over 20 years ago, Southern Peru Copper Corporation arrived more than 50 years ago— it lives there.  You can’t just tell them to get out because they are rooted there. What you do is confront them— “Hey, you have to pay me. You have to pay for all the damage you have done to the land because the land is life.”  You have to demand their compliance with the laws, that they stop poisoning and killing. Of course, radically speaking, we can demand they completely shut down but how many people who are working there will be left in limbo.  This is why analyzing the situation through its social context is imperative.

Now, what is different is the situation with the Yanacocha mine which in order to sustain itself it wants to kill the water. And what is water? It is life, without it we cannot live. So these are different conflicts with different context yet they label us rebels, terrorists, reds— but despite that we continue our struggle.

GY: How have the different intersections of race, class, ethnicity and gender come to define the state of Peruvian women today?

LH: This society today remains deeply racist which is why we are engaged in a permanent struggle against it. We suffer from multiple oppressions; we are women and indigenous. We used to see businesses put up help wanted ads asking for women with “good appearance.” Now, what did they mean by this? When we walk into a restaurant a staffer will often look you up and down as if you don’t belong there. We had a compañero a couple years ago who was thrown out of a business because he was wearing traditional clothing.

We struggle so our ethnicity does not disappear, so that our bloodlines do not disappear. We’ve been working with the Ministry of Culture on the Law of Languages, for example, in order to preserve our traditional languages.

There is a long struggle for social equality in the criminal justice system, in health care, in education, centered around languages. For example, people that come down from the provinces face many difficulties. New generations are often prohibited at home from speaking their maternal tongue not out of shame but because their parents do not want them to have a hard time in the cities. Let’s say someone from the Andes or Amazon who only speaks their own dialect and no Spanish goes to a courtroom and can’t understand the judge, we end up with many innocent people in prison. Under this Law of Languages we’ve proposed that multiple languages and dialects be made available in public institutions. Public defenders need to be able to speak the language of their clients.

In the Universities now they are requiring students learn English. That is great because it opens many doors and helps people defend themselves but, we are also demanding that they learn Quechua. Because these professionals have to represent their country and for that they cannot forget their culture. We cannot forget the traditions of our ancestors who never taught us to work individually but communally— we must cherish this. Our life goals are not to have two cars parked outside. We want our land, water and seeds – self-determination!

We face many obstacles. The current president [Ollanta] Humala hasn’t referred to us as third class citizens or “dogs in the manger” like [former president] Alan Garcia did but has sent the military after us while passing laws which keep us from raising our voices. You say something to an officer or get in a scuffle and are automatically sentenced to eight years.

GY: The law of impunity is still on the books, right?

[The law of impunity or Law 3051 declares police forces “exempt from any responsibility” if a civilian is injured or killed in a protest while police carry out their responsibilities.]

LH: Yes. We have yet to receive any justice for the dozens of campesinas and campesinos who have been killed.

More than 300,000 women were forcibly sterilized. They blamed us, the women, for the rise in poverty; for this we continue to struggle. And now that [Alberto] Fujimori is in prison they are asking us to forgive him. God can forgive him but I am not the one to forgive. He must pay for his crimes here and rot in that cell. Who was he to take our fertility from us? With what right did they have to say we were responsible for poverty? There are things that hurt you deep in your soul. Centuries will pass but the wounds will remain. This is what our original people are suffering from. I often imagine, what would it have been like if 300,000 men had a testicle removed? Would it have been forgotten? Because we are rural women, because we cannot read or write, our rights our taken from us.

GY: But they’ve mistaken, because organizations like this have raised hell…

LH: This is what we’re proud of. We are working with 126,000 women. We have a congress in August and are going region by region meeting women on the frontlines struggling for justice. We are proud of a shifting consciousness in society demonstrated this past April 5 in the national mobilization against Keiko Fujimori. Plaza San Martin in Lima was overflowing with over 50,000 people. The collective consciousness is finally awakening. We have to analyze this politically and see what it means for our country, what it means for establishing a lasting unity. Unity is crucial in order to forge lasting development here.

GY: Can you expand more on the hegemonies - social, political and economic - that hold back women and indigenous people in this country?

LH: Under neoliberalism we have major exporting enterprises that send well-packaged goods abroad. But you have to ask yourself, who does this employ? In the provinces some 70 percent of those workers are women, while these companies get richer at the expense of their exploitation and health. In 2008, unions were beginning to organize in places where it was previously prohibited.

The conditions were atrocious: there would be one bathroom in every two hectares of land. Workers had five minutes to reach bathrooms that were blocks away or got it deducted from their pay. Workers would have no lunch breaks, working from 4 AM and not leaving till 6 or 7 PM. This is what is going on in these major capitalist corporations. In some, women who worked in and out of freezers were not allowed to wear sweaters, causing many women to get sick. These women do not have insurance and have no time to go to the clinic during the day when it is open. And being a woman you also put up with sexual harassment. All of this if fomented by these large companies that claim they generate prosperity.

What do these free trade agreements mean for the people? It means displacement, it means increased poverty and marginalization for indigenous communities.

Monsanto, for example, wants to introduce genetically-modified seeds. A recent moratorium has succeeded in halting their entrance into the country. If they proceed we will be turned into consumers as we become dependent on only their products. These seeds typically only have a two-year lifespan, affecting the campesinas. We live by planting, growing and picking the best seeds and repeating the process; Monsanto would prohibit this autonomy.

It is important to keep the presidents who would let them in out of office. If these presidents came in and allowed Monsanto to operate in the country, poverty would skyrocket. We have power at the moment precisely because we have secured our food sources and homes. But we are up against a neoliberalism that is destroying pachamama and she is reacting the way she should— she has the power to cause great damage as we are seeing with climate change.

Neoliberal education offers many professions but their central theme is the self— it’s me first, second and third. They only teach you to generate profits like a robot. These universities are teaching to keep people in the urban setting never to return to the provinces. This is aided by a flawed thinking in our communities that the only way to get out of a cycle of poverty and to see our children do better than we did is by sending them to the city. But why don’t we place good schools in the countryside?

GY: Returning to the issue of mining, what alternatives or routes guided by social philosophies beyond the state are developing strong challenges to extractivism in certain regions?

LH: The main problem with mining is water. Those of us confronting the corporations are few. We cannot rely on NGOs because some of them have been influenced by mining corporation’s money. These mining companies want easy profits.

Our ideology is of course considered that of the left. Today the left is fragmented in a million pieces - it’s screwed. Frente Amplio has tried to form a coalition but we have failed to bring in most of the left.

In Cajamarca we have Goyo [Gregorio Santos] who is in prison. Now, I welcome anyone to run for president but one must look at what the best way forward for our country is. Selfishness divides organizations in a way that makes it harder to bring them back together.

If we do not come together we are relinquishing our country to the others. It becomes harder when many NGOs come offering money. For this reason FENMUCARINAP does not work with the World Bank. We learn our lessons as we go along as to who we consider allies.

GY: Finally, the Peruvian woman has a rich legacy and a fascinating history. What can this generation learn from the past and what does the future hold for the Peruvian woman?

LH: Micaela Bastides, María Parado de Bellido, Bartolina Sisa, we have to mention all our heroines. We hear you, Tupac Amaru! But were they alone? Manuelita Saenz was fighting alongside Simon Bolívar. How do we remember these women, as the wives of these powerful men? But these men wouldn't be who they are without these equally powerful women who oftentimes were the brains of the operations and did complementary work.

So where are we going? To take power. We are not looking to be handed any power out of pity but because we deserve it and should be recognized for our work. Our ascension shouldn’t be put into question because we are women. This is what they are doing to Mrs. Mendoza now, questioning her ability. But how can you question our ability if we come with the experience of managing our households, there we are educators and doctors. Therefore we are well prepared to acquire power in leadership.

We also must believe and respect in the pachamama through a collective cosmovision. We have to articulate our strength and look at ourselves as equals. Your academic background is not superior to the University of Life which I learn from every day— that makes me a survivor. I earned my doctorate in the streets taking over highways and I earned my Masters when they took me off to prison for defending my territory.These two experiences, the intellectual and non-intellectual, are complementary. It is similar to the yoke in the field that has two oxen. You need to have two oxen, a young strong one and an elder one. The older ox will lead along the proper straight line and the young ox provides the strength. We must look at life in the same way; respect our elders and respect young people. If our mother chews coca leaves we must respect that. Respect our cosmovisions. It’s a beautiful thing.


George Ygarza is a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, interested in counter-hegemonic forces in the Global South.  He is engaged in various political education projects and social movements in the U.S.  

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