Over the weekend, the Peruvian Government’s Vice-Minister for Interculturality, Iván Lanegra confirmed that he would resign after he appeared to lose an argument over who is considered “indigenous” and thus protected by a new law in Peru implementing the right to prior consultation.

The dispute emerged over the creation and dissemination of a database (base de datos) which will list all the indigenous communities in Peru covered by the consultation law. The Vice-Minister for Interculturality is the government official responsible for the elaboration of this document.

The Vice-Minister and the entire executive branch have already faced criticism for delays in the publication of the database, for the lack of participation of indigenous communities in the preparation of the document, and for imposing overly-restrictive criteria for what constitutes being “indigenous.”

In retrospect, however, such criticism represents mere brush stroke errors compared to the bucket of paint that the President of the Republic and the Minister for Energy and Mines have just dumped onto the canvas.

According to a recent Reuters article, President Ollanta Humala has adopted the position put forward by Jorge Merino, leader of the Ministry for Energy and Mines, that the only indigenous communities covered by the consultation law should be Amazonian ones, excluding entirely the campesino communities of the Andes. This decision is a thinly veiled effort to facilitate the implementation of resource extraction projects throughout the Andean region, home to vast mineral deposits, without having to go through the inconvenience of consulting the communities whose lives will undoubtedly be hugely affected in the process. Indeed, the Ministry of Energy and Mines has already indicated that 14 projects will be moving forward without prior consultation.

In an attempt to justify this remarkable position, Merino has argued that the Quechua-speaking Andean campesinos should not be considered indigenous because they intermixed with Spanish colonizers centuries ago, and are more integrated into domestic politics. President Humala seemed to endorse this position on TV, arguing that indigenous communities are mostly in the jungle and that in the Andes there are only “agrarian communities.” The right to prior consultation, according to the President, is only to benefit those that lack a voice, and are unconnected to national political structures.

The position of these leaders demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what it means to be “indigenous” and was already rejected by the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and an international commission of experts. ILO Convention No. 169 is the international covenant which provides the best source of guidance for determinations of who should be considered indigenous and thus entitled to the right to prior consultation. The Convention specifically refrains from providing a one-size-fits-all definition, and identifies key factors that are often held by the people the convention intends to protect, such as self-identification, traditional lifestyles, discrete cultures, languages and social organizations, and living in historical continuity in a particular area.

Nowhere does “purity of bloodlines” factor into the Convention’s criteria. And nowhere does the Convention suggest that the willingness to accept some degree of assimilation into national political structures necessarily disqualifies a group from the protections of the Convention. Indeed, such an approach would distract from perhaps some of the most relevant reasons why these groups receive protection: the cultural and social relationship that these peoples have with their environment, and the recognition that they were present as a people before any state apparatus was overlain. It is precisely that relationship and history, and the respect for cultural diversity, that requires that particular care be given to respect the autonomy of indigenous peoples and the control they exercise over their environment. That is why consultation is so important, and is why it should apply to campesinos in the Andes as strongly as it does to indigenous communities in the jungle.

But what is perhaps even more insidious is the fact that, in addition to contravening international law, the justification provided by President Humala and Minister Merino operates to create a double discrimination.

The Andean communities at issue have been so marginalized and discriminated against for years that auto-identification as “indigenous” has been met with prejudice and subjugation. Indeed, to the extent that the Andean communities have made efforts to greater participate in national political structures and cultural practices, such efforts have in part been a response to years of injustice. Depriving these communities now of the right to be consulted merely for having taken such steps to avoid oppressive treatment as “Indians,” would be to perpetuate a double injustice.

In the words of one Quechua woman speaking with the organization Chirapaq, “All my life they called me corn-eater, Indian, hill-dweller. Now that I am defending my rights, they tell me that I am none of the things that they said I was.”

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