The glare of a single incandescent lamp illuminates a small room with a dirt floor and no furniture. It shines on a dozen campesinos – autonomous peasant patrolmen from El Porvenir, a community on the outskirts of Celendín – who have come to the home of their leader, Eduar Rodas Rojas.
Sitting in a circle, the “ronderos”, as the Cajamarca campesinos are known, pass around lime and coca leaves, which they chew continuously, producing balls that fill their cheeks – a traditional custom of Peruvian indigenous people known as “chacchar.” While they chew, the men debate and make decisions by consensus, fulfilling their role as their community’s official legal representatives.
The top priority on the agenda this night: how to halt the construction of the Chadín 2 hydroelectric project, one of the most emblematic and problematic of the 20 large dams which their nation has planned for the main stem of the Marañón River, one of the Amazon`s principle tributaries. Chadín 2 and the other dams will flood huge swaths of agriculturally productive land, and destroy the livelihoods, homes and small villages of the people living along and near the river.
Chadín 2 is, in the view of these ronderos, just as bad as Yanachocha, the world’s biggest gold mine, which after 20 years of operation has not improved the lives of the region’s campesinos nor promoted development in Cajamarca, one of Peru’s poorest states. The ronderos don’t want hydroelectric plants, which, they say, will only benefit multinational mining companies, and which will be used to power new extractive industry projects like the massive Conga goldmine.
“Neither Conga, nor Chadín. We will fight to the end!” the men exclaim, repeating their mantra against the dam and the proposed mine, which in 2012 converted Celendín’s central square into a deadly battleground, pitting indigenous people against the police.
“We don’t need electricity. Generators are enough for us,” says Rodas, and he is backed up by the patrolmen. They discuss tactics for effectively protecting their communities, and determine what sanctions they will impose on the employees of the company charged with building the dam.
Ronderos protect and serve
The campesino patrols watch over the Cajamarca region. They arose there during the 1970s, and were replicated in rural areas across Peru in the 1980s to defend against the violent acts of the Sendero Luminoso terrorists, and to make up for the lack of official presence and law enforcement.
The Peruvian constitution and Law 27908, passed in 2003, recognizes the campesino patrols as the legitimate judicial officials for their communities – charged with defending the land and the environment. Backed by this law, the ronderos have become a pebble in the shoe of the Peruvian government and the large corporations chosen to carry out its mega dam and mining projects.
The “ronderos” are also recognized by international accords such as the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, which protects indigenous traditions and the identities of first peoples.
Federally and internationally empowered, the ronderos have the right to detain people for questioning regarding crimes committed on their lands. This includes employees of Odebrecht, the Brazilian company that is building Cajamarca’s new hydroelectric dams, roads, transmission lines and other hydropower infrastructure.
Persecution and “Criminalization”
In 2012, the Peruvian government was presented with a list of 46 people recommended for protection from persecution by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS). Eduar Rodas Rodas is the second name on that list.
In this, and several other documents, presented over the last four years, IACHR has emphatically reminded Peruvian officials that the “rondas” of Cajamarca, Celendín and Hualgayoc-Bambamarca are protected by international laws governing indigenous peoples.
Peru has largely chosen to disregard these sanctions. Rodas has been arrested several times, and has 100 complaints and 12 lawsuits against him. “These people started harassing us,” he said, referring to the dam construction and mining firms. Peruvian President Ollanta Humala promised during his last election campaign that he would protect water resources, notes Rodas, but the administration has not paid any attention to the IACHR recommendations nor done anything to curb the progress of dam construction.
“They [police] killed four comrades and nobody investigated or issued a sentence. But we’re defending water and our land, and we’re sentenced for any old reason. It is persecution because it takes money, and we don’t have any to defend ourselves,” Rodas complained. In 2012, four farmers and a child died in a major protest against the Conga mine. The deaths occurred during clashes with police, but were not investigated, nor have the killers been brought to justice.
Rodas accuses the Interior Ministry of planting spies in his organization, and of approving pro-mining rondas, without having the jurisdiction to make those appointments.
Most of the accusations against Rodas and other “ronderos” are for robbery and kidnapping, for confiscating the “gifts” – some call them bribes – that Odebrecht tries to deliver to local community members, and for detaining dam construction and mining company employees for questioning.
In December 2014, in the district of Miguel Iglesias, Rodas and his group detained Odebrecht employees who had taken Christmas gifts to local residents. Some local people say that the corporate gifts are being offered to buy support for the controversial dam and mining projects, and to turn people against the rondas.
“Using gifts like rice, ovens, tiles, toys and Christmas pantones, they [Odebrecht] have infiltrated the ‘rondas.’ They even offer salaries and insurance,” Rodas said. “Odebrecht is doing the same thing that Yanacocha [the mining company] did in the past. They are organizing parallel ‘rondas’ with the police. They are slandering and trying to put down the ‘rondas.’ However, the law helps us. We are the authorities in our territory,” he said.
As Rodas tells it, the Ronderos questioned the corporate representatives, confiscated the gifts, and made the outsiders sign documents saying that they would never return to the region. Requests for interviews with Odebrecht officials in Cajamarca, Lima and São Paulo to discuss these incidents and company actions met with no response.
Santos Saavedra, president of the Rondas de Cajamarca, accuses Odebrecht of harassing farmers. He worries that this harassment is intensifying the social, environmental and cultural conflicts that already surround mining projects. “We have leaders who are being pressured and persecuted. The [government] is criminalizing the protests,” Saavedra said in an interview at the “ronderos” headquarters in the town of Chota, 112 kilometers (69 miles) north of Celendín.
“We have many ‘ronderos’ who were murdered by mining hit men. We have leaders who are in prison,” said Saavedra, adding that the government is also to blame for the criminalization of the demonstrators’ protests against mines in Cajamarca, especially in Conga, which left 11 dead and 282 wounded from 2004 to 2013. According to the Defensoria del Pueblo, there is a high rate of criminalization of protests in the region, and some 303 environmental leaders have been tried.
“They are afraid because they know that we are going to organize. They want to take away our authority with the armed forces, with the prosecutor’s office, and with the national legal system. We will not surrender. They come and poison the water, to take away our future,” said Saulo Marín Vásquez, age 25, the youngest “rondero” in the group led by Rodas.
Cajamarca: One land, two cultures, two legal systems
The existence and legitimacy of the Rondas has created complications for the Peruvian judicial system and the companies that have tried to get a major foothold in Cajamarca.
Government and corporations are forced to live under two conflicting legal systems: one based on Roman Law and modern jurisprudence, the other based on Incan Law, with its three fundamental concepts: Ama Sua, Ama Llulla and Ama Quella – which translates from Quechua as “Do Not Steal, Do Not Lie, and Do Not Be Lazy.”
Legal protections provided by the Peruvian constitution and legislation has not kept the “ronderos” from being persecuted and criminalized. Zulma Villa, a lawyer with the International Institute for Law and Society (IIDS), and a legal advisor for the Rondas, and a representative of indigenous organizations before the IACHR, said that every rondero leader in Cajamarca has 20 to 50 criminal charges against him, mostly related to the patrol work that they do in their communities.
As Villa sees it, Peru has made important progress by recognizing and setting standards for legal pluralism, but lags behind in putting those multi-cultural standards firmly into practice with officials, including police, judges, prosecutors and lawyers.
The American sociologist John Gitlitz, an expert in intercultural law and author of the 2013 book Administrando justicia al margen del Estado. Las rondas campesinas de Cajamarca, says that campesino justice in Cajamarca collides with the Peruvian government on three levels: It conflicts philosophically as indigenous people struggle for human rights; politically as a traditionally downtrodden group tries to attain respect and political power; and legally as two very different legal systems collide and try to accommodate their differences.
“Unfortunately the problem of mining has become so politicized that for a long time nobody has spoken honestly and there is no dialogue,” said Gitlitz, who hopes the smoldering conflict will not end in extreme violence, as with the U.S. genocide against native Americans in the 19th century.
Jorge Armando Guevara Gil, an anthropologist and law professor at the Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), believes that the “ronderos” are being prosecuted for exercising their rights to exert jurisdictional authority. In his view, which identifies the campesinos as agents of local development, the conflicts emerge because the Peruvian state is trying to impose a development model that does not have the support of local communities. “It remains to be seen if the model proposed by the government is truly inclusive and democratic,” he said.
Zulma Villa asserts that the dam and mining projects on indigenous land fail to respect the legal concepts of authorization and self-determination on the part of the campesinos, and she accuses the government and the corporations of using the legal system to persecute the ronderos. According to the lawyer, Peru’s new legal code protects the rondas when it recommends cultural dialogue and coordination between the two existing judicial systems.
According to this principle, she explains, if a “rondero” detains an engineer who is committing a crime in his jurisdiction, the ronderos are responsible for the investigation. Likewise, if a crime is committed elsewhere, prosecution falls solely under Peruvian judicial power. But where there is a zone of coexistence of both the judicial and campesino systems, the law recommends coordination between both groups of enforcers, rather than subordination of one group over another.
Both Peruvian and international law support the rondas as long as they respect basic human rights, however there have been judicial uncertainties resulting from intercultural conflicts. “Normal justice has to be understood as including fundamental rights from an intercultural perspective,” Villa said. “As we see it, there can be clashes [between the Peruvian government and Andes culture] in terms of understanding certain practices. Therefore it is important to have anthropological legal expertise.”
According to her, the campesinos are especially disappointed with the national judicial system, which failed to consult them when it pushed forward large-scale hydroelectric and mining projects and then persecuted and prosecuted them for demanding a voice, and for offering resistance to the projects. Peru’s Interior Ministry failed to respond to interview requests regarding these issues.
Professor Guevara Gil remains confident that, even though the conflicts between the rondas and government have at times reached a fever pitch, there is no reason to instigate further violence, or a civil war.
Villa is more pessimistic and recalls that Peru lives with the legacy of the 69,000 victims who died in the armed conflict with the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, the Maoist guerrilla insurgency of the 1980s and 90s that continued into the new century. “The state is coming at us, pitting Peruvian against Peruvian, confronting campesinos, police officers and young people,” the lawyer said. “And we know what that means in terms of cost of life.”
Meanwhile, the rondas stand guard. The patrolmen make their long treks across the mountains and along Andean rivers, chewing coca leaves to give them strength, on the way to heated debates in distant farming communities where the future of Cajamarca stands in the balance.