In Peru, a Lack of Debate Obscures Referendum Issues

JUAN REATEGUI knows that when most Peruvians go to the polls on Oct. 31 to approve or reject the Fujimori government's proposed constitution, they will not be thinking about those he represents as political director of AIDESEP, a confederation of 36 Amazon Indian organizations.

The constitution, which is expected to pass, has garnered attention within political circles in Lima and Washington for provisions permitting President Alberto Fujimori to run for reelection in 1995 and for reinstating the death penalty in Peru. Critics dislike the document's authoritarian, centralizing tendencies. But few have considered the impact the constitution would have on the estimated 45 percent of Peru's population who are ethnically indigenous. Indigenous leaders fear the constitution will roll back indigenous rights and opportunities, particularly with respect to political participation and land tenure.

Due to the lack of public debate on articles that may affect Indians, many indigenous people are unaware that their rights may be at risk. They will not be fully informed when they vote in the national referendum. No indigenous leaders serve in the Constituent Assembly, which wrote the document.

Peru's Indians are among the most marginalized in the hemisphere, suffering the region's highest levels of violence, poverty, and social ostracism. Consisting of 65 distinct ethnic groups, the majority live in remote peaks and valleys of the Andes, though in the past decade more than 600,000 have fled the poverty of the mountains for cities like Lima. Another million live in the Amazon jungle.

The centralizing tendencies of the draft constitution are part of a perennial Peruvian debate between powerful regional interests and the coastal politicians who have dominated the country since the Viceroyalty of Peru subjugated the Inca capital at Cuzco. Lingering colonial structures make Peru among the most centralized countries in Latin America, a condition the proposed constitution would exacerbate. Mr. Fujimori and his supporters maintain that centralization cuts waste and improves government efficiency, clearing the way for neo-liberal economic reforms.

Regional presidents and assemblies created during the Garcia administration would be eliminated under the new constitution. Many believe the regional governments failed due to the Garcia government's misguided policies, corruption, and the lack of resources and powers accorded them. But strengthening regional government is seen by analysts of the Indian situation in Peru as the best way to increase political participation of indigenous peoples. Since most live far from the capital and only comprise a majority at the regional level, decentralizing power and resources to the regions would allow them to compete on a more equal footing for political office in an arena where they could exercise more influence on regional development policy.

Though the brief experiment in regional governance failed, that doesn't mean regionalization couldn't work in Peru. Before Fujimori suspended the Regional Assemblies last year, several indigenous mayors had moved from municipal posts to seats in the Regional Assemblies. Since 1980, Amazon Indians have elected local and provincial mayors in the 78 Amazon districts where they constitute a majority. AIDESEP holds 14 seats.

Dr. Juan Ossio, an anthropologist at Catholic University, says, ``The most important thing Peru must do is to decentralize, beginning with the economic system so that regions have their own funds and resources to manage. Then political decentralization must commence, with an applied effort to involve the regional indigenous organizations.''

What most worried AIDESEP and allies like the Andean Commission of Jurists is the constitution's reversal on native land tenure, which runs against the current of expanding indigenous land security in Latin America. For Indians, land is not merely real estate. An AIDESEP manifesto states, ``No community and no generation of Indians has the right to dispose of the integrity of a territory that belongs to its ancestors and to future generations.''

Since the 1933 constitution, indigenous communities have enjoyed a protected status and their lands could not be sold, mortgaged, or seized. The proposed constitution relaxes these stipulations. More alarming to Indian rights advocates is a constitutional provision allowing lands that are not used for several years to be declared ``abandoned,'' seized by the state, and resold. Indian lands in delicate Amazon and mountain environments are commonly left fallow after several years of cultivation in order that the fragile soils may regenerate. The new constitutional provision would allow these ``resting'' lands to be seized. Or, the fear of losing ``abandoned'' lands may drive indigenous farmers to overwork fragile soils. This policy may not only lead to the displacement of thousands of Indians, but to the degradation of the Amazon environment.

Reategui also worries that Amazon Indians will be seduced by a new government program providing loans against mortgaged land that he believes the Indians won't possibly be able to pay off, which will lead to massive forfeitures. Supporters of the new program say that allowing native land to be mortgaged is the only way to spur economic development in the Amazon and lift its inhabitants out of poverty.

Fujimori did not create the ethnic inequalities that permeate Peru. But his constitution will not heal them. And the absence of debate on the status of indigenous communities in modern Peru only perpetuates their marginality and postpones ethnic reconciliation. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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