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PERU: New Census to Make Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Count

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Oct 8 2007 (IPS) - The Peruvian state will repay a longstanding debt to indigenous people in the country’s Amazon region by including them in a national census in a way that pays attention to their particular social, economic and cultural characteristics. But experts say this is only a first step.

On Oct. 21, interviewers from the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI) will arrive in 2,200 indigenous communities in the Amazon region, armed with census forms bearing 37 questions that will put these people back on the country’s data map.

This detailed survey will be carried out in 11 of the 25 administrative regions into which the country is divided: Amazonas, Cusco, Junín, Madre de Dios, Ucayali, Pasco, Huanuco, Loreto, San Martín, Cajamarca and Ayacucho.

Since Peru’s independence in 1821, 10 national censuses have been carried out, but only once, in 1993, was specific information gathered about ethnic and multicultural aspects of the population, even though international guidelines require it.

“These people’s unique features were left out of the census. There are several indigenous communities that have not been officially recognised, and it’s time to update the figures and find out how many there really are and how they live,” Pablo Inga Medina, the coordinator of the INEI census of indigenous communities, told IPS.

The 1993 census identified 1,450 indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, belonging to 65 different ethnic groups, with a total of 299,218 people.

However, the non-governmental Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP) says that according to its research, there are today at least 2,120 communities.

The head of INEI, Renán Quispe, told IPS that indigenous people were counted in previous censuses without taking into account their specific ethnic, cultural, social and economic characteristics, which would have allowed the authorities to know more about their needs and the conditions in which they live.

Furthermore, a number of remote communities have never even been visited because of their inaccessibility.

This time, the compilation of information for the 2007 national census will take place over 15 days, because of the remoteness of some of the communities.

Wilfredo Ardito, head of the working group on indigenous peoples of the National Coordinating Committee for Human Rights, warned that the absence of indigenous people from official statistics so far has meant that “the right of native peoples to bilingual and intercultural education, to a territory and to their culture, is not part of state policy.”

According to the non-governmental Peace and Hope Association, underestimating the true number of indigenous people has led to “inappropriate distribution of the state budget, because the national and regional governments plan their social programmes for native people based on out-of-date figures.”

Quispe admitted that “the 2005 census was incomplete,” and said that “now we want a precise idea of the situation of this sector of the population, so that the state can respond to its demands.”

This time, he said, the census questionnaire has been designed to provide information about the communities’ forms of organisation and their health services, education and economic activity, among other aspects.

Vice-president of AIDESEP, Robert Guimaraes, told IPS that not only the needs of indigenous organisations, “but also their strengths,” should be emphasised.

“We want to become visible so that we can achieve sustainable development in our own way,” he said.

Guimaraes, a Shipibo native of the Flor de Ucayali community, pointed out that there are 14 uncontacted indigenous peoples, like the Mashco Piro in a part of Ucayali bordering Brazil, who will not be visited by the census takers.

The AIDESEP representative also questioned why the census questionnaire does not ask indigenous peoples whether foreign oil companies are operating in their territories, in order to gauge the harm to which these communities are exposed.

“Oil prospecting and extraction is going on in more than 80 percent of indigenous territories, putting the people’s health at risk,” Guimaraes said.

The Achuar native people, who live on the Corrientes river in the rainforest to the north of the country, in the region of Loreto, are an illustration of these health risks.

According to a Health Ministry report published in May 2006, over 50 percent of the 8,000 native people living in this area have cadmium and lead in their blood above permitted levels, from pollution caused by oil companies.

“Peru must take stock of this situation with precise information, and shoulder its unavoidable responsibility,” said anthropologist Jorge Arboccó, of the Peace and Hope Association in the San Martín region.

The census forms will be distributed to the heads of each indigenous community, because INEI authorities consider that they “have the global view of the community that is required to collect local information.”

The census will have the support of indigenous people affiliated with AIDESEP and the Confederation of Amazonian Nations of Peru (CONAP), who have been trained by INEI to participate in the survey because of their knowledge of indigenous languages and their membership in the different communities.

About 6,500 census takers and heads of rural sections will be participating.

But Arboccó told IPS that, in spite of INEI’s efforts, taking a detailed census in only 11 regions of the country will not provide a realistic picture.

“Indigenous people, like most other people in our country, migrate constantly from one place to another. The state must improve its population indicators and remember that indigenous peoples are not confined to 11 regions,” he said.

In Arboccó’s view, there should be a debate in this country on what is understood by the term “indigenous”, as other terms such as “native” or “campesino” (small farmer) confuse the statistics and hamper proposals for state policies for indigenous Peruvians.

In the 1993 census the total count was 8,793,295 indigenous people, 97.8 percent of whom lived in the Andes mountains (90.9 percent Quechua and 6.9 percent Aymara), and 2.1 percent of whom were living in the Amazon region, who are now to be interviewed in depth. According to these 1993 figures, indigenous people made up one-third of the Peruvian population.

But more recent estimates put the proportion at 45 percent, with most of the rest of the population of 28 million being of mixed-race (mestizo) heritage, and around 15 percent of European descent.

INEI’s Quispe said that the census will not carry out a detailed census among the indigenous peoples of the Andes, as it is preparing to do in the Amazon jungle region, because most of the native people in the highlands identify themselves generically as campesinos rather than as indigenous people.

There has also been criticism of the coming census. Experts point out that it has hardly been publicised in the different indigenous languages, and that in spite of the support of non-governmental organisations, there are too few technical personnel trained in intercultural skills for the census.

Guimaraes said that the census results should be a policy instrument for President Alan García to use to fulfil his promise, made three months ago, to respond to the needs of indigenous people, most of whom live in poverty.

“A country with a policy of inclusiveness must develop dialogue on the basis of equality, and must welcome differences and make the most of them for truly sustainable development,” Arboccó said.

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