Retrieving the Land

Fr. Peter Woodruff
February 1, 2010
Native Peruvians Fight Oppression

In Peru, Columbans have worked with people who are poor due to oppression and exploitation for many years.

Land in Peru

There have been key moments when some of us have been challenged to stand with the poor in a specific struggle.

Generally however, our standing with them has been in terms of a life-sharing solidarity, a context in which we affirm them as sons and daughters of God, as having been created in the image and likeness of God.

We treat them with a respect that they are not accustomed to receiving from persons of another social class.

In brief, history has ground into them the idea that they are of a lower order of being, that they are less than others.

Columbans have been part of a social process that communicates a more affirming message.

Recently, Enrique Mayer, a Peruvian anthropologist who has been teaching at Yale University for some years, wrote a book on the Peruvian agrarian reform (Ugly Stories of the Peruvian Agrarian Reform, Duke University Press, 2009).

In the introduction he writes of the land reform: “The whole process took seventy years.

Workers in Peru

Workers in Peru

It fundamentally changed rural relationships and the country itself.” Columbans certainly did not make that massive agrarian reform happen, but we have been part of the current of history that led to and subsequently helped consolidate the change.

The following article recounts some of the more significant events in Peruvian history and helps to establish the context in which Columbans work with and for the indigenous and poor people in Peru.

Peruvians farmed the land long before the Spaniards arrived in Latin America five hundred years ago.

Consequently they have long experience defending their land in the face of the rapacious designs of rulers and colonizers.

Recent history challenged them to recover land taken over by feudal estates, known generally as haciendas.

The hacienda owners had taken the best land, and its recovery was crucial to Andean freedom and dignity.

The recovery did not happen overnight, but rather the process went on for centuries, culminating in the land reform that was put in place in the 1960s and 1970s.

After Peru won political independence from Spain in 1821, the government of the new republic chose to modernize according to the liberal philosophy of the day, part of which proposed a society based on private property and individual endeavor.

This resulted in refusing legal recognition to the indigenous communities.

In this sense, independence from Spain was a huge step backwards for the indigenous peoples as the colonial regime had recognized the legal right of indigenous communities to own land.

However, maybe things had to get worse in order to get better; the situation had to become intolerable in order to stir the indigenous peoples and their allies into action.

They began to make some progress after Peru lost the War of the Pacific in 1884.

In the hard times following the war, both government and landowners put ever more pressure on the peasants to bear the economic brunt of defeat.

Peasants and others who were concerned for a more just society were beginning to look for a different way ahead.

The uprising in Ancash, in the mountains to the north of Lima, in 1885 may help illustrate the complexity of the social process in search of change.

Pressured by their own people, leaders from about 50 communities met and named Pedro Pablo Atusparia as their delegate.

He was tasked with presenting to the local government representative a request asking for the abolition or at least the reduction of the tax and the abolition of obligatory free peasant labor.

Moving the walls of the chapel to the new site

A local lawyer who was sympathetic to their cause redacted the legal document.

This provoked the ire of the government representative who imprisoned and tortured Atusparia so that he might give up the name of the lawyer who had collaborated with the peasant leaders.

The rest of the peasant leaders sent a delegation seeking Atusparia’s release but, to add insult to injury, the government official dealing with their case ridiculed them and had their braids (symbols of authority among the indigenous) cut off.

And so, the rebellion began.

Initially the rebels were successful and Atusparia named Manuel Mosquera as government representative, but he later proved to be of no use.

At that time, he was the political representative of General Andrés Avelino Cáceres, who opposed the Chilean puppet president.

Luis Montestruque, editor of a local newspaper that called for the restoration of the Inca Empire, was named secretary general of the rebel movement.

However, the movement had been born out of desperation, had no clear political program and inadequate leadership.

Atusparia was a local community leader who had been elected by his peers to present a complaint and a request to the government, whose representatives then provoked the peasants and their allies into a rash and desperate course of action.

The government sent military reinforcements to deal with the rebellion.

They defeated the rebels in a series of bloody battles.

Montestruque died in battle and his successor, Uchu Pedro, was eventually captured and executed.

A priest, Fidel Olivas Escudero, facilitated dialogue between the warring factions and so was able to prevent further killing after the battles were over.

Atusparia was captured but, thanks to the intercession of a number of prominent citizens and his willingness to urge his fellow community leaders to accept the new government representative, his life was spared.

In 1886 Atusparia traveled to Lima where he met the new president, Andrés Avelino Cáceres, who offered him a post in Huaraz, the capital of Ancash, but the indigenous leader turned down the offer.

Rather, he requested land, a school and better treatment for his people.

He returned to his community where little had changed and some accused him of letting down their side.

Atusparia died there in 1887 from poisoning, according to his son.

This heroic but sad tale comes out of a social situation of violence, oppression and exploitation common throughout Peruvian territory at that time.

Out of this was born the multi-faceted movement in favor of land reform.

One aspect of this reform process that I wish to highlight was changing the constitution.

The Constitution of Peru has been significant for Andean resurgence, in so far as its evolution provided a legal tool to help indigenous communities recover land lost to big land-owners.

From the beginning of the republic in 1821, peasant communities had no legal recognition and so were unable to legally own or reclaim land.

They finally achieved change in the 1920 constitution, which provided the legal basis for a long and complex process of land reform.

The Constitution of Peru was changed a number of times during the 19th century, but no version of the document from that century contains the phrase “community of indigenous.” Consequently such communities were not considered juridical persons, a legal state of affairs that made it easier for big landowners to pilfer their communal land.

Despite this there was effective resistance to the power of the landowning elite, especially after the War of the Pacific between Bolivia, Chile and Peru over ownership of lands containing lucrative mineral deposits.

In the central highlands, peasants together with other sectors of society had organized socially and militarily to successfully fight the Chilean forces.

With their base in Comas, Junín, a rural alliance proposed a vision of a federal state more in accord with local interests, as distinct from the centralized state with its political, economic and military base in Lima.

The federal project did not prosper, but the basis of a strong rural organization was left in place and with this the peasants defended themselves against the avarice of major landowners.

However, in the south and north of the country, big landowners did increase the size of their holdings at great cost to the peasants’ communities, especially during the period between the end of the War of the Pacific and the First World War.

The systematic stealing of peasants’ land provoked a series of rebellions in the south where the Andean communal tradition is deeply rooted.

Throughout the 20th century various versions of the Constitution of Peru reflected the increasing insistence of peasants and their allies that the state recognize their communities.

A brief review of various versions of this fundamental state charter indicates an evolution of national consciousness in this regard.

Article 41 of the Constitution of Peru (1920) recognized the communities of indigenous: Property of the State, of public institutions and of indigenous communities cannot be taken over and can only be transferred via public title, in the cases and the way established by the law.

The Constitution of Peru (1933) gives the topic more detailed attention, as it recognizes explicitly the indigenous community’s right to juridical personhood.

It states their right to be represented on municipal district councils.

It guarantees the integrity of the property of the indigenous communities.

The Constitution of Peru (1979) continues to develop the recognition of the place of indigenous communities in the life of the nation.

It includes native communities (mostly from the Amazon jungle part on the eastern side of the Andes) and commits the state to protect their traditions.

It commits the state to promote communal companies and cooperatives.

The Constitution of Peru (1993) also addresses the topic but does not go beyond the Constitution of 1979; rather, it makes it easier to sell peasant community land.

So, while it is true that the land reform process has not been a matter of turning the clock back and returning to some communal idyllic past, it is also true that a major result of the land reform has been Andean recovery of dignity and freedom.

Fr. Peter Woodruff and workers at a new chapel site

Fr. Peter Woodruff and workers at a new chapel site

Though Peruvians may exploit and oppress one another, their victory consists in not being under the thumb of outsiders.

After centuries of struggle, Andeans have retrieved their own space on the land.

The next chapter is theirs to write.

After many years in Peru, Fr. Woodruff recently returned to Australia to continue his work.