DRCNet Interview: Nancy Obregon, Sub-Secretary General of the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers 6/20/03

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Nancy Obregón, an indigenous peasant woman from Tocache province in Peru, has emerged as a leading voice among Peruvian coca growers. Elected to the second highest office in the national confederation, Obregón stepped forward with the arrest of confederation leader Nelson Palomino in February. She helped lead the cocaleros' (coca growers) "March of Sacrifice" to Lima last month and participated in negotiations over coca with the government of President Alejandro Toledo. Obregón also attended the "Out from the Shadows" hemispheric anti-prohibition conference in Mérida, Mexico, in February. DRCNet spoke with Obregón at the Global Social Thematic Forum in Cartagena, Colombia, Wednesday evening.

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?

Nancy Obregón: 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.

Nancy Obregón in Mérida
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.

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?

Obregón: We 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 open?

Obregón: We 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?

Obregón: We 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?

Obregón: Those 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.

Obregón: It 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?

Obregón: 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?

Hugo Cabieses, Nancy Obregón, and US drug reformer Eric Sterling in Mérida

Hugo Cabieses, Nancy
Obregón, and US drug
reformer Eric Sterling in

Obregón: From 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.

WOL: Did the Mérida conference have other impacts on you?

Obregón: Oh, 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.

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Issue #292, 6/20/03 DRCNet Needs Your Help | Editorial: No Drug War Exception to Good and Evil | The Gathering in Cartagena: The Global Social Forum Thematic Meeting on Democracy, Human Rights, War, and the Drug Trade | DRCNet Interview: Nancy Obregón, Sub-Secretary General of the Confederation of Peruvian Coca Growers | DRCNet Interview: Anthropologist Anthony Henman | Dozens of Students to Embark This Weekend on 50-Mile "Skate for Justice" | Newsbrief: 12 Tulia Victims Walk Out of Jail | No Rockefeller Reform This Session | Candidate Dean Bending on Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: RAVE Act Reverberations | Newsbrief: Teachers Against Prohibition Reborn as Educators for Sensible Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Kentucky Supreme Court Tightens Law on Methamphetamine Prosecutions | Newsbrief: Thais Get Drug War Help from US | Newsbrief: US-Peru Anti-Drug Flights Set to Resume | Newsbrief: Israeli Company Receives Notice of Allowance from US Patent Office for Synthetic Marijuana Pharmaceuticals | Teen Facing 26 Years for First-Time Marijuana Offense Sentenced to Two | Marc Mauer Testimony on Comparative International Rates of Incarceration | The Reformer's Calendar

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