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Art as a Form of Protest – Peru

As all neighboring countries of Peru are stuck or have been stuck in violent protests recently, Peru seems calm. Cajamarca, known for its huge protests to stop the mining project of Conga, seems calm.

Those protests happened only about 7 years ago, in 2011 and 2012, and still have a special taste in everyone’s mouth. Everyone in Cajamarca today has lived them profoundly. Everyone has somehow been part of the cruel protests. But looking at Cajamarca now, it seems like the idea of protesting has died. It seems like people have quietly accepted legal and illegal mining activity in the region. For example, there seems to be no reaction to the new mining project Michiquillay of the company Southern Copper, which they hope to start using in 2022. And there is very little reaction to the contamination of the Valle de Condebamba, where vegetables most Cajamarquinos eat get produced and are severely contaminated with toxic metals.

Why is that? Why do people stay calm? Is it because there are too many protests in Peru? Because they got tired? Because of the number of social conflicts that never get resolved? Because of the 279 people that died defending human rights until 2018 in Peru? Because of the horrible criminalization of protests in Peru in all its forms – both direct attacks as methods like states of emergency? Because of the memory of the horrible protests in 2012?

All very good reasons to not take to the streets anymore. But the truth is – the protests have never really stopped. They have just taken different forms.


Silent protests

Calm, silent protests are happening everywhere. Protesting doesn’t mean aggression. Protesting means showing how things can be different, making people think, for example through art, photo exhibitions, music, whatever you feel like. Protesting can be as silent or as violent as you want it to be. It’s your fight.

So yes, people in Cajamarca – or in Peru – might be tired of protest marches. It’s easy to see that the protest marches for women rights are smaller every year. The three climate change actions we’ve organized this year shrunk every time, and in June, when bull fights came back to Cajamarca after years, we were just a small group screaming outside of the arena holding up cardboards and getting laughed at.

But almost no one came to see the bull fights. The stadium was empty, which made the government cancel the second day of fights. And isn’t that a sign that Cajamarca doesn’t want bull fights anymore? Isn’t just not showing up a form of protest too? Isn’t silent protest, protest too?


Cross boundaries

Protest is what you want it to be. And using art as a form of protest isn’t something new. In fact, it represents the way of protesting in Peru. In the world. And all through history.

It’s said that art as a form of protest or activism was first seen with Dada, an anti-war movement which openly outed critiques to the First World War. Picasso protested with paintings based on for example the Spanish Civil War. The Vietnam War formed a base for many works of art in the sixties, and also gender issues, feminism, immigrant problems, and so on, got addressed through art. And then we haven’t even mentioned Banksy yet with all his work on all kinds of global issues, or the Russian feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot that dealt with themes as feminism, freedom of speech, LGBT+ rights, etcetera, through their music.

Art is political, and art can be a powerful weapon. Art can make you think about things you hadn’t thought about before. Art can make a political statement, can be some sort of critique on a political or social situation. Art often looks up boundaries, or crosses them.


Art and activism

Also during the awful protests against mining project Conga in 2011 and 2012, art was used. The Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca changed into an art gallery, there were concerts, people were singing and dancing on the street. The Marcha del Agua towards Lima was beautiful with everyone singing together. And that has never stopped. That’s still part of Peru’s – or Cajamarca’s – culture. Art is protest.

As Carlos, founder of an environmental organization in Cajamarca says: “Art has a great impact on people. People get conscious about the environment, and on top of that about the beauty of the art and the people.” Art has an incredibly creative power to move people emotionally, while activism sets a goal, shows us the social or political change we need to see in the world. Art moves a feeling, while activism creates an effect. And in order to make that change, in order to get that effect, we need some sort of stimulation. We need to be moved. Emotionally. Art and activism combined, can lead to many, many things.

On top of that, art used as a form of protest, outside of actual protest marches or political spaces, gets you a surprise effect. It makes people think about serious, maybe political, issues, without them maybe realizing it. It gets in your mind, and slowly, gets you to that effect activism wants to reach.


Changing minds

Murals for example, big paintings on walls, are widely used as a form of protest or activism in Cajamarca and in Peru. In the province of Celendín the streets are full of colourful walls. And also in Cajamarca the city is covered in painted walls, leaving powerful messages. Something we could already see in the beginning of the 20th century in Mexico.

And I have to admit, while painting one of those murals, thinking about the load of work waiting for me on my desk, I did think to myself that I could use my time better. That I could actually do something useful to help the environment, instead of just paint. That I shouldn’t waste my time painting a wall with a message probably no one would read. But was I wrong. All the people passing by that day stopped to check out our message. To see what it was about. And still very often, as I walk passed that wall, I see people talking about the painting. Maybe the mural didn’t gain the change immediately. But it is changing people’s minds, slowly, daily, firmly.

The same happened when we used a beautiful Cajamarcan tradition as a form of activism. On Corpus Christi, the whole Plaza de Armas gets covered in alfombras, or flower carpets. We focused on animal rights and protested against the bull fights with our carpet, whereas some others used it to address gender inequality, for example. And in between the beautiful art works, those pieces of art showing some sort of social or political issue, were the alfombras where most people stood around, discussing what they saw. Not what was actually there, but what they saw, what it meant to them, what they understood the message was. It made people rethink their own actions.


Happiness in protest

And that’s not all. Ecological fairs keep popping out of the ground like mushrooms, focusing on economic alternatives to mining and environmental issues, and that way making passengers-by think about the impact of mining activity without them realizing that’s what it’s about. Wakes are organized to mourn the death of our environment, combined with a beautiful piano concert, to focus on environmental issues in a different way. Theatres are held all through town showing the effects of gender inequality or climate change. Movie nights focusing on social themes are a big thing.

The lyrics to the typical cheerful carnival music of Cajamarca get changed to songs defending human rights and are being sung whenever the opportunity shows.

A few weeks ago a protest action was held at Cerro Quilish. Only about 30 people showed up, hiking to the top of the mountain from where you could look out over Yanacocha. But those 30 people brought up their giant speaker, singing and dancing their way up. And after the talk on top of the mountain, the volume of that same speaker was turned up a bit more.

People opened their bags, uncovering bowls of food, giving everyone a spoonful of whatever they had brought. Sharing. Dancing. Singing. Turning a protest into a beautiful moment together, showing their strength, their traditions, their bond. Showing they are one. Unstoppable. Finding happiness in protest.


Beautiful protests

There’s loads of centers that open their doors for all kind of social movement or activity, for free, supporting artists. There’s a cultural magazine made entirely by volunteers that also hold events every few weeks addressing for example topics as cultural identity, traditions, history. There’s movies or poetry in Quechua to make people rethink their roots and history. There’s dozens of bands in Cajamarca singing about animal rights or human rights or violence against women or any topic you can think of.

Lots of youth organizations take charge and organize fun activities for all ages such as actions on recycling with quiz questions and prices to win. Photo exhibitions focus on what nature should look like and shows the work of different human and environmental right defenders.

Of course, protesting is hard in Peru. And it’s sad that there’s still so much to protest about. But at least we know it will always be here, in its own way. And protesting can be so, so beautiful.

There’s resistance. There’s hope. In all its forms. Don’t underestimate the power of art. And don’t underestimate Cajamarca.


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