The New Conquistadores
I was not the first strange bearded man to step foot on Peruvian soil. Nearly 500 years ago, Francisco Pizzaro, with the blessing of the Spanish monarchy, led an expedition of 179 conquistadores to destroy Peru. In the span of a few decades, the last Inca emperor Tupac Amaru I was executed and the Inca Empire lay in ruins.
The Spanish, who were destroyers rather than conquerors, suppressed traditional practices, raped Peru of its wealth, and subjugated the remaining indigenous population to harsh treatment. Peru and its people have struggled to regain their former glory since that fateful day in Cajamarca when Pizarro captured Atahualpa.
Today, a new kind of conquistador is tramping around Peru. The arrests of the leaders of the terrorist groups Sendero Luminoso and Tupac Amaru in the 1990s signaled that Peru was once again safe for foreign tourists. Over one million tourists visited Peru in 2004. Many of these visitors come to Peru to catch a glimpse of the traditional life of the Quechuan and Aymaran peoples.
As I stepped off my tour bus in a village with the most ironic of names, Yanque, I saw several young Quechuan girls in traditional dress dancing to music blasted over loudspeaker. My guide said that they do this every morning (it was not even 7 a.m. yet) just for the tourists. Needless to say, the cold and wet conditions in the early morning were not producing many smiles on the faces of the young performers. Neither was the reluctance of several Western tourists to donate a few Peruvian nueve soles for the production.
Life for the Andes people is hard and for many they receive added income from curious tourists. This income is paltry compared to Western standards, but it helps alleviate at least some of the conditions that poverty breeds.
Whether or not you agree with the exploitation of Peru’s indigenous people by foreign tourists, tourism is one of the essential forms of economic activity in the highlands for Quechuans and Aymarans. The poorest of Peru’s regions receive almost no tourism and thus do not benefit from tourist dollars such as the Quechuans in the Sacred Valley or the Aymarans living on the islands of Lake Titicaca.
Even with increasing tourism, Peru’s indigenous population has still maintained their traditional way of life. However, the government of the country that sends the most tourists to Peru (21% of foreign visitors) is threatening one of the most traditional practices of the Quechuans and Aymarans.
The United States government, in its ill-conceived war on drugs, is supporting a policy of coca eradication. The coca leaf, grown mainly in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, is used in the chemical process to make cocaine. However, for thousands of years the coca leaf has been consumed as a stimulant and cure for altitude sickness. The leaf is either chewed or brewed as a tea and serves not only medicinal purposes but also deeply-held symbolic beliefs by the highland peoples of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina. The sale and consumption of the coca leaf, but not the unnatural chemical by-product of cocaine, is legal in these countries.
The eradication of coca not only harms the traditional practices of the Andes people, it also has negatives environmental and health consequences. Burning, cutting, or removing coca plants with chemical herbicides cause serious problems with erosion in seasonal rains. The fungus fusarium oxysporum has been used to wipe out coca plants, but this fungus can cause serious harm to humans and plant species. The coca leaf, in some instances, has developed a resistance to chemicals used to eradicate it. This leaves whole fields of crops such as bananas destroyed while the coca plants remain, devastating a farmer’s livelihood.
The goal of American-sponsored coca eradication is to combat the illicit drug trade. However, coca eradication policies only harm poor farmers and threaten traditional practices instead of combating the real problem: drug use. If there is demand for cocaine, the drug cartels will always find a way to supply the drug. Studies have shown that disrupting supply and distribution networks has no affect on the street price of cocaine in the United States. Since the start of the war on drugs, cocaine has become purer and cheaper. Studies have found that prevention and rehabilitation programs are more cost-effective than attempts to disrupt the supply network in South America. Reducing the demand by prevention and rehabilitation programs will do far more to combat the illegal drug trade and also preserve ancient traditions.
I was not the first strange bearded man to step foot on Peruvian soil. Nearly 500 years ago Francisco Pizzaro, with the blessing of the Spanish monarchy, led an expedition of 179 conquistadores to Peru. Today, a new kind of conquistador is tramping around the country.