Road blockade and violent protests in Sicuani, 75 injured after protesters charge police

Though a truce had been agreed on the weekend, protests and road blockades continued for the seventh consecutive day on Monday over the construction of a hydroelectric plant near Sicuani, the capital of Canchis, a province located in the southern highland department of Cuzco.

On Saturday, after five days of protests and a particularly violent confrontation with police that left 75 people injured, a truce was agreed to by local leaders, including a wide range of campesino organizations, and government representatives. Delegates and mayors from Combapata, Tinta, Checacupe and San Pedro  are to travel to Lima Wednesday for negotiations with premier Yehude Simon.

But the people in Sicuani want to continue the strike. Residents continued their road blockades on two bridges and various stretches of the highway Monday, leaving cars and buses stranded.

“There are more than (300) stranded vehicles,” said Silvio Campana, a spokesperson for Peru’s Ombudsman Office. “This is a shame because there are children, high schools students on graduation trips, and tourists who have no money left to buy food. For humanitarian reasons, they have to let them pass through.”

“We have asked them to let the women and children travel, give them access to the roads, but they won’t listen,” added Campana.

Sicuani residents are indeed turning a deaf ear.  “The agreement has nothing to do with Sicuani,” said Vicente Nina, president of the Combapata Defense Front. “The road blockades aren’t coming down until Simon comes to Sicuani, ” he added.

But, according to Juan Manuel Figueroa, a spokesperson for the Presidency of the Cabinet, the agreement does include Sicuani, given that is was signed by the district’s deputy mayor.

“All of the province’s claims were met by the agreement,” said Figueroa, “which was also signed by Sicuani’s deputy mayor, Rosa Aguilar. We don’t think there are any other claims to be discussed and there is no longer any reason to continue the strike.”

Unrest has been building up since at least early September and Sicuani has been the hub of violent protests and road blockades since October 20, when residents organized by campesino organizations began to protest the construction of the 200 megawatt Sallca-Pucará hydroelectric plant, claiming that it would cut off their water supply and thus reduce crop yields. Protesters have also demanded that mining concessions not be granted in the region, that local mayor Mario Velásquez be ousted and that a loan awarded by a Japanese bank to allegedly privatize the water distribution system be cancelled.

On Friday afternoon, 40 policemen and 35 Sicuani residents were injured after a violent confrontation broke out between 2,500 protesters and 150 police, said Peru National Police Chief Remigio Hernani.

Molotov cocktails, stones and broken glass bottles were hurled by protesters at police, who tried to control the mob with tear gas and by firing shots into the air.

“Our intention is not to repress the population. We will guarantee the respect for human rights,” said Hernani. “But we have to respond to these attacks against public and private property.”

Protesters forced their way into Sicuani’s local radio station, destroying office supplies and equipment, sacked the offices of Peru Rail and Banco de la Nacion, and tried to overrun the municipal building where Aguilar and others had taken refuge.

An angry mob also smashed windows in the local hospital’s pediatric and neonatology wing, and broke into Velásquez’s home, stealing televisions and damaging windows and doors.

“We don’t want any violence, we are defending our agriculture and our livestock, and a hydroeletric plant is going to destroy this,” said Mario Tapia, president of the Sicuani Defense Front. “Things have got out of hand.”

A large part of the problem is due to Peru’s centralized administrative structure, and the government’s tendency to provide little information and to ignore problems or not seek solutions in the regions until unrest reaches boiling point.

Poverty in Peru is deepest in remote rural areas – especially in the southern highlands – where approximately 73 percent of indigenous Quechua and Aymara communities live below the poverty line.

According to Rural Poverty Portal, “people born in Lima can expect to live almost 20 years longer than people born in the southern highlands,” where poverty is a structural problem and where food insecurity is often chronic.

Endemic poverty in the south, added to strong regional discontent and widespread misinformation, paves the way for a politically-motivated minority – eager to get the local people involved in radical protests – to push ahead with their anti-foreign capital or anti-mining agendas.

“A large amount of misinformation is being used politically by people who want (locals) to believe that the hydroelectric plant will affect their crops,” said Figueroa.

But the international consortium, comprised of Spanish ENGEL-AXIL, which is to invest $180 million for the construction, has promised to pay for damages, if any, Figueroa said.

Also, people have known about the project for years, according to regional president Hugo Gonzales Sayán.

“The hydroelectric concession was granted in 1999 by (President Alberto) Fujimori and an extension was granted in 2004, by (President Alejandro) Toledo,” he said.

“(The strike) is being manipulated,” said premier Yehude Simon in comments to daily La República. “The regional government and the mayor have enemies and it is those enemies who are encouraging the protests.”

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