|The Week Online: When
DRCNet last reported on the struggles of the cocaleros in Peru, you had
just marched into Lima and met with the government, and it appeared that
you had won important concessions. But within days, contrary reports
appeared. What happened? Was your "March of Sacrifice," as
you called it, a success, did you win the concessions you wanted?
We made many sacrifices for the March of Sacrifice, and although there
were problems, I consider it a success, because we gained things we had
never gained before. We always wanted to go the capital to talk to
the youth, the educators, the people of Lima. We had never been able
to do that, but thanks to the march we were able to. And not only
in Lima. Whatever provinces we marched through, we gained the respect
and support of the people. And we gained the respect of President
Alejandro Toledo. When he came out and spoke to us, he said that
the coca grower is not a drug trafficker.
We presented a program with
our demands. We wanted the value of the coca leaf to Peru to be recognized
once again. We wanted freedom for Nelson Palomino. We wanted
a halt to the eradication of coca. We asked for the promulgation
of a new coca law. Since 1978, the Peruvian Coca Enterprise (ENACO,
the state coca monopoly) has controlled the lands where state-sanctioned
coca is grown. Likewise, we wanted a study of the production of coca
leaf for traditional use -- we are limited to 12,000 hectares, but that
figure was set in the 1960s and is now obsolete. Because of population
growth and new coca products, that figure should be two or three times
higher. We asked for a commission to be formed to see where all the
alternative development money went, because it sure didn't come to us.
We wanted an end to new logging concessions in the forest. These
foreign entrepreneurs come in and want concessions on coca land, then they
cut down all the trees and don't replant and blame it on the coca growers.
They're taking our land and our trees away from us, taking peoples' titles
and paying 40 cents a hectare -- that's practically nothing. We also
asked that the government address the problem of the Free Trade Agreement
of the Americas and the importation of products from outside, especially
agricultural ones, because this would harm our farmers and they have no
way of competing. If we cocaleros as agricultural producers could
send our products to other countries, it might be different, but we don't
see any benefit in the FTAA. Also, we wanted a government commission
to study the effects of fumigation and the impact of fusarium.
|Nancy Obregón in Mérida
Those are things we proposed
to the government, and the president's council of ministers agreed to put
this in a supreme decree from the presidency. But [prime minister]
Solari wrote the decree, and used lawyerly tricks in doing so. He
used all sorts of subtle and ambiguous words to muddy what they had agreed
to. And that same day, as we were about to enter the ministry to
see the agreement, reporters told us the US ambassador had gone in.
Then we went in and had to wait and wait.
Finally, Solari came out
and told us our advisor, Baldomero Cáceres, had to leave because
President Toledo wanted to speak with us, but Toledo never came out.
Instead, Solari, DEVIDES [Peruvian anti-drug agency] head Nils Ericsson,
drug advisor Armendina Veramendi and agricultural ministry advisors came
out. They had the decree all written when they came out and it was
supposed to be in agreement with our points, but we said we had to analyze
this and when we went through it point by point, they were full of double
meanings, and they said they couldn't release Palomino because they couldn't
interfere with the judiciary.
They thought we were useful
idiots because we are peasants. And when we argued in a private meeting
with them, they said we had to agree. That's not what President Toledo
said. He said if we were not in agreement, the door would be open.
But that's not what Solari and Ericsson said. They said if you mess
with us again, you're fucked. That's the kind of language they used.
But Toledo said he wasn't in agreement with the decree as written.
I asked him if he would give his word, and he said had given his word.
And that's where we are.
WOL: In the wake of
violent strikes and protests by teachers and the unemployed in Lima last
month, President Toledo put the country under a state of emergency.
What impact has that had on your movement?
knew that when the teachers went on strike we could have done a lot, but
if we had acted we could have created a catastrophic situation like Argentina
in the 1970s. We abstain from acts of violence or protest as long
as the door is open for dialogue with the government. And the state
of emergency hasn't really had many repercussions in the countryside; the
protests of the teachers and the unemployed that led to the state of emergency
were in the city, as are most of the repercussions. I think the people
being harmed were not the government, but the common people. I think
the state of emergency will end soon.
WOL: Is the door still
continue to believe so. The state of emergency is sad but necessary
because of the acts of violence against public and private property.
It is good to protest, but not to damage property. We are against
war, we don't believe in violence to express our demands. That is
not the way to make demands on the government.
WOL: Your movement
and its leadership have been described in various accounts as being with
the Shining Path or terrorists or narco-traffickers. How do you respond?
have always said that to defend the rights of the peasants is not terrorism.
And to cultivate the coca is not the same as participating in the drug
trade. Now the government is trying to pull a trick like in Colombia,
they are trying to tie us to the Shining Path or the narcos, but those
are lies, and they come from the US State Department and the US Embassy.
They fear the specter of Evo Morales. But the problem is, if they
continue with their eradication and their counterinsurgency approach, they
will guarantee that the Shining Path revives. It is the negative
impact of eradication and repression that makes people rise up, not us.
And peasants in Peru are not thinking like peasants anymore, but like politicians.
What happened in Bolivia could also happen in Peru and Colombia if there
is not change.
They are afraid because on
September 11, 2002, a year to the day after the twin towers fell, our confederation
came into being. It was the result of our continuing frustration
with the government and with DEVIDES. We have complained about repression
against us and corruption in the alternative development programs for years,
but nothing ever happened, nothing but promises that they never accomplished.
We had 35 delegates sitting in the DEVIDES offices waiting to talk to them.
We sat there for five hours and we realized these people were not defending
us in the face of eradication, and we decided to form a transition committee
for a national confederation.
Four months later, on January
20 of this year, we held our first national congress. Thus CONCPACCP
(Confederacion Nacional de Productores Agropecuarios de las Cuencas Cocaleras
del Perú, the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers) was born.
Nelson Palomino from the Rio Apurimac valley was elected secretary general,
and I was elected sub-secretary. I am from the department of San
Martin in Tocache. We also elected as leaders Flavio Sanchez Moreno
from Aguatiya, Elsa Monpartida Jara from Tingo Maria in the Upper Huallaga
valley, Deodora Espinoza Barra from Aucayacu, Guillermo Mendoza from Tingo
Maria and Juan Rios from Uchiza. We are peasants who grow coca, we
are not terrorists or drug traffickers.
WOL: Nelson Palomino
was arrested in February on charges of terrorism. What is going to
happen with him?
charges are false and malicious, but Nelson remains in prison in Ayacucho.
We see him as being in jail with the coca leaf. He is growing politically
in there, he is preparing himself in there, he is studying. I know
the judicial process must take place, but we are confident he will be freed.
Once he is free again, things will begin to change for us because now we
are not thinking as humble peasants but as politicians. Instead of
hurting Nelson and our movement, the government has done us a great big
favor. The same way the Bolivian government does when it throws mud
at Evo Morales. They are making Nelson more powerful. Bolivia
has its Evo, Peru has its Nelson.
WOL: Repression within
the legal system is not the only form repression takes, is it? I
understand there have been attempts on your life.
is true, at least two times. Last year, when they were dramatically
eradicating the coca in my country, I went to Lima to protest and I took
with me videos of the actual fumigation operation -- it was from helicopters,
with soldiers manually throwing the pesticide out the door -- and the agricultural
products damaged by fumigation. The government said we were lying,
but we said look, we have it on this video. This got somebody's attention,
because in November, on a day I was supposed to be in Venezuela for a meeting,
they burned my house down. I wasn't in Venezuela, I was at home because
I got a funny feeling. I told my husband I didn't want to go.
Luckily, none of us was injured, but I regard this as an attempt on me
and my children. When we tried to put out the fire, suddenly the
water pipes went dry. What a coincidence, huh? We later found
out the pipes had been cut. I think it was the intelligence service
that did it. That demoralized me and for two months I didn't do anything
with the movement, but I came back. I told one of the government
bureaucrats, "You tried to kill me, you burned down my house, but I'm not
dead, I'm still fighting, and if you don't kill me, I'll live long enough
to see all of you dead."
On one other occasion during
the eradication, the army saved me. There were men following me,
and I went to the army base and told the commander, "If I am found dead
tomorrow, please take my family away from here and watch out for my children."
The commander asked, "Why do you say this?" I said, "Listen, there
are two assholes following me." The commander said, "How do you know?"
And I said, "Listen, I know a rat when I see one." He said, "Well
then, Nancy, why don't you sleep here?" And I said, "No, I will sleep
in my own house, thank you."
That night, at 2:20am, there
was a loud knock on the door and we heard voices yelling, "Everyone out!
The guerrillas are coming!" When we didn't come out, they started
yelling at us with vulgar words -- "We've come to kill you, you miserable
whore" -- and we knew it wasn't the guerrillas because they don't use such
language. Then there were shots, and my husband said he would go
out. I told the kids to hide in a hole in back of the house where
it is very dark. I usually wear a dress, of course, but I put on
my pants and boots, my war uniform, and grabbed a machete. In my
heart I was enraged, but my brain was calculating how long it would take
for the kids to escape while I confronted the killers. I was ready to chop
off the head of whoever attacked me.
My husband told them they
should take him instead of me, and they made him kneel on his knees.
They were threatening me, yelling stuff like, "You already fucked us up,
you whore, now you'll pay." I was ready with the machete, but then
six flashlights appeared in the woods and voices yelled, "Up with your
hands!" The guys came out of the woods carrying big rifles, and I
thought, "Shit, it's the guerrillas." But it was the army!
Then the commander of the army patrol made our attackers show their identification,
and one of them was a police major. He told the soldiers there were
terrorists at our house. The army guys told them, "We have orders
to protect Nancy, and if you kill her, we will kill you right on this spot."
I told those guys that if anything happens to me or my kids or my cousins,
their families will pay unto the fourth generation.
What happened to me is not
unusual. Many people have disappeared. There are some things
that have happened that I don't even want to think about. It hurts
my soul. But the threats and the intimidation and the violence don't
stop us. In fact, we have learned to think and act like the government.
When they send their intelligence officers after our leaders, we have our
own people to find out what they are up to. Also, these attempts
show how organized crime can be part of the government. Like Vladimiro
Montesinos with [disgraced former president] Fujimori, he worked with the
CIA and the paramilitary groups that have attacked us and killed people.
The government is unintentionally training us to defend ourselves.
WOL: Why are you willing
to risk everything for the right to grow coca?
is important to Peru's indigenous people, and those in Bolivia and Ecuador
and Colombia, because it is a central part of our life, our traditions,
our existence, and it is part of nature in which we live. It is very
deep and strong in our culture. Without coca there would have been
no Macchu Picchu, there would have been no Nazca. It impregnates
our hearts and runs in our blood. One man I know can put coca leaves
in his hand and read the future, he can tell people, "Don't travel on this
day, there will be a crash." Many neoliberal economists and anthropologists
have come and tried to separate us from the leaf, but they will fail.
The coca leaf is our sacred plant.
WOL: What sort of international
solidarity have you encountered?
governments of the world, absolutely none. There is USAID, of course,
and other money for alternative development, but while that money comes
to Peru, it never makes it to the peasants. This has been going on
for 20 years. But on the level of people, there is much solidarity.
When I went to Mexico in February for the Out from the Shadows conference,
it was very good. I showed the people what was happening and they
were very impressed, and eventually my Mérida trip led to two North
Americans coming to the community to see how we live, and a European and
a Chilean have come, too. That is something that brings us great
joy, because it shows we are starting to have a much greater amount of
international solidarity. No one ever came to see us in our villages
before. Now we have friends overseas, friends in other countries.
I have to be sure to tell people that this is not about Nancy; I am only
part of an organization. In Bolivia, they have their Evo, but here
we have Nelson and Nancy and Juan and Elsa and Flavio and many others.
Hugo Cabieses, Nancy
Obregón, and US drug
reformer Eric Sterling in
WOL: Did the Mérida
conference have other impacts on you?
very much! When I arrived I was blind to the reality in front of
my eyes. It was the first time I heard talk of prohibition and legalization
and decriminalization, and these were strange concepts for me. But
I took these ideas back to Peru, and we discussed them among ourselves
and we analyzed them and we had lots of meetings about this. I got
to the point where I believe that legalization is the answer, because prohibition
only brings more misery and more hunger. Prohibition is the war on
drugs as we know it, and I now feel that we should legalize the drugs and
trust each person to be responsible in using something for pleasure.
That is my perspective now.
WOL: What would you
tell the people of the United States if you could talk to them?
Obregón: I would
tell them they are completely mistaken if they think we cocaleros are their
enemies, they are mistaken. We are not the enemy, we are the last
wheel on the car of the drug trade. We want to let the American people
know we are not the enemy, but it is the governments that want to dominate
us that are the enemy. Coca should not be prohibited, I would tell
them, it should come to the table with other foods. I'd like to see
those gringo chefs make a coca cake and have those gringo scientists investigate
to compare the coca cake to the natural cake and see which one is better.