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Free trade: Perspective from Peru’s Altiplano
September-October 2009

On January 16, 2009 President George W. Bush signed the U.S.’s free trade agreement with Peru, which went into effect on February 1. As in other Latin American free trade agreements, the U.S.’s declared intentions for this agreement with Peru were to strengthen legal industries as alternatives to drug production and trafficking, and to improve the quality of people’s lives. This article addresses this second point, providing an insight from a remote part of Peru.

Maryknoll Sister Aurelia Atencio has worked in the Altiplano of Peru among the indigenous Aymara people for the past 30 years. Her observations and reflections on the impact on rural communities of trade agreements between Peru and the United States are particularly valuable because she is an agriculturist with a broad understanding of the earth’s natural cycles and patterns of development.

With a compassionate view of the reality of the Aymara people, Sr. Aurelia notes that, contrary to the perception of sophisticated societies, the Aymara have a highly developed society, with a complex language and culture and adaptive governance structures. They interact regularly with groups outside of the local community, including engaging in trade agreements, and move continuously back and forth from their communities, which connects them with a larger experience, expanding their own world. They have made many changes in customs over the past 30 years, reflecting realistic adjustments to modern life. Most especially, over the years they have preserved and developed seeds.

The traditional diet of the Aymaras is healthy. Over time they have produced potatoes, quinoa, canihua and various other grains and root crops. They have fish from the lakes and rivers and milk and cheese from the livestock as well as dried meat and eggs. As a result of Sister Aurelia’s work, a variety of organically grown vegetables for local consumption are produced using greenhouses.

However, Sr. Aurelia’s fundamental observation is that the Aymaras’ quality of life has been in steady decline. The present free trade agreement emphasizes production for export and food product purchases imported through transnational for-profit corporations. The market is flooded with non-traditional items like rice and noodles. Additionally, seeds are affected under these arrangements.

The global trend toward indigenous people’s being unable to save seed from year to year is a major concern. After centuries of developing seeds as a community heritage, indigenous people would have to buy “certified seed,” genetically modified and privately patented. This is particularly worrisome in view of the fact that the Aymaras have successfully produced food for hundreds of years in challenging conditions. The new genetically modified seeds are not proven; they are costly and their cultivation usually requires large amounts of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They produce imbalances and unknown consequences.

Sister Aurelia’s way of living among the Aymaras may offer the best model for improving life in a mutually enhancing way. First, she undertook the process of adapting to the culture; then, from an organic perspective, she taught the skills of improved potato cultivation, better animal production, greenhouse management, nutrition, food security and sovereignty, protection of intellectual rights, environmental alignment, biofuels, transgenetics and health care. She created a potato seed bank as a resource in times of drought. When she returns to the U.S., she brings wisdom gained over many years of how to live well within a bioregion, and reflection on genuine progress, rooted in respect for the immense biodiversity and cultural diversity in the Earth’s inherent code of development.

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