Peru: general strike against irrigation project shuts down Cusco

Beginning Sept. 21, the city of Cusco, Peru, was shut down by a 48-hour general strike in support of an ongoing protest campaign by residents of Espinar province against the mega-scale Majes-Siguas II irrigation project, which they charge will deprive campesino communities along the Río Apurímac of water in favor of coastal agribusiness interests. Transportation in the city was at a standstill, schools were closed by a student walk-out, and there was violence as student protesters clashed with police. Campesinos in the surrounding countryside meanwhile erected roadblocks, halting traffic through the region. Train service connecting Cusco with Machu Picchu was cancelled, and thousands of tourists stranded. Protest leader Nestor Cuti of the Espinar Defense Committee charged that property damage in Cusco was the work of police provocateurs and demanded an investigation.

The general strike was called after a Sept. 16 clash between campesino protesters and police in Espinar town left 18 injured and one dead, apparently a by-stander. The death may have been caused by inhaling tear gas. The injured—at least one, said to be 15 years old, suffering from a bullet wound—were taken to a hospital in Arequipa. The mayor of Espinar, Eloy Canchayauri, has called for a formal dialogue with the national government to resolve the issue. (RPP, Sept. 25; Poder 360, Sept. 22; La Republica, Sept. 21; Reuters, Perú21, RPP, Sept. 16)

Human rights groups fear the army will be sent to intervene in the conflict. On Sept. 11, in anticipation of the protests, the Peruvian government authorized the deployment of the military to support the police in Espinar under a package of "legislative decrees" promulgated by President Alan García 10 days earlier. The new laws allow for the military to be used in internal law enforcement, and for soldiers accused of abuses in such actions to be tried in military courts, not civilian.

"Using the military during these protests could put the protesters at a real risk of acts of excessive force committed against them with impunity" said Guadalupe Marengo, deputy Americas director at Amnesty International. "This new law is a regressive step. Past use of the military for law enforcement purposes in Peru has resulted in grave human rights abuses, which to this day remain in impunity. It should be seriously reconsidered."

The Majes-Siguas II project, which is to irrigate 95,000 acres of agricultural land in Arequipa region, has been mired in irregularities. Despite two judicial rulings suspending the tender process for the project and ordering an environmental impact assessment, the government has gone ahead with the bidding. On Sept. 13, Peru's private investment promotion agency ProInversion awarded the contract for the $400 million project to consortium Angostura