By Porfirio Barrenechea Cardenas, lawyer specialized in social conflict and 2011 Americas Project Fellow
In Peru, instances of social conflict are a fact of life. The Peruvian ombudsman agency defines social conflict as “a complex process in which civil society, the state and the private sector perceive that their objectives, interests, values and beliefs are incompatible or contradictory; and this contradiction can lead to violence.” It is imperative, therefore, for the country to find ways to resolve these disagreements quickly in order to avoid violence.
Economic growth in recent years has not translated to improvements in the quality of life for most Peruvians. On the contrary, it has shed light on the inaccessibility of basic needs such as education, health care, employment, better remuneration, and implementation of projects that generate resources or jobs, as well as environmental concerns related to the extractive activities in the nation. In addition to these concerns, the high rate of corruption and urban insecurity generates a perception of uncertainty that if not properly addressed could exacerbate crisis situations in different regions of the country.
In this framework, institutional democracy — the organization of government throughout national, regional and local levels — must be proactive in addressing citizens’ concerns. However, there is widespread mistrust of government institutions within the population that the state must overcome. The state is perceived to be nonexistent, extremely weak, slow and, in some cases, partial to some actors over others. Because of this perception, the approval rating of state institutions is very low. For example, the executive branch has an approval rating of 26 percent; the legislative branch, 14 percent; and the judicial branch, 16 percent.
One way to temporarily emerge from this apparent cycle of unmet demands, inattention and mistrust while still retaining the framework of the rule of law can be found in the “mesas de diálogo” (discussion groups or round tables), a space where those involved in a specific problem can come together to find a solution. Mesas de diálogo are set up when existing institutions cannot fix the problem, when different actors are responsible for offering solutions, or when lack of action from the state leads to social conflict.
The ombudsman’s office has become one of the most sought-after institutions for organizing these spaces for dialogue. With a 41 percent approval rating, it is one of the most credible institutions in the nation. The office ensures proper attention is given to social needs, including situations that might put human rights in jeopardy.
In its most recent report on social conflict, published in May 2014, the ombudsman’s office points out that in Peru there have been 212 social conflicts this year, 135 (63.7 percent) of which happened within extractive activities. Of these, 100 were reported in mining activities. Unfortunately, between 2006 and May of 2014, 325 deaths and 3,444 injuries were reported as a result of violence connected to social conflicts.
It is not only necessary but also crucial to strengthen the state. This should not generate more bureaucracy or politicize the country according to the party in power, but rather improve its internal structure, allocating resources for it to function efficiently and to promptly deal with the demands of the most vulnerable population. Strengthening institutional democracy through these measures might help prevent further violent responses to crisis situations spurred by social conflict.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.