The injustice of racism

By Chris Hufstader
Wilfredo Ardito (left) is an attorney who has been working for APRODEH for five years, and is leading the organization’s efforts to help local governments institute laws to stop racism and discrimination. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

Share this story:

Last in a series of four

To Wilfredo Ardito, the links between poverty and racism in Peru are obvious.

“The differences between life in the highlands, and in the jungles, and life in Lima are extreme,” he says in APRODEH’s office in Ayacucho. “Life expectancy in Lima is 80, and in the highlands it is 50. The campesinos [rural people] are poor, illiterate, malnourished, and people think this can’t change. So when budgets are approved, there is money for a [football] stadium in Lima instead of for reducing maternal mortality in the mountains…there is an attitude that campesinos can suffer, they can exist in this state of poverty, it is all right.”

After 10 years of economic growth in Peru, Ardito says wealth is concentrated in very few hands in the country, and the situation of the poorest people has not changed much.

APRODEH’s strategy is to encourage local leaders to promulgate local ordinances to address problems of racism and discrimination, and then train local municipal staff and officials to implement and enforce the new laws. The training sessions, Ardito says, are particularly effective. “People are skeptical at first, or they think we are going to talk about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement...then they realize it is about their experience, and that they share with others experiences of racism.” This goes for indigenous people, as well as for mestizo (mixed race) and white people who may have been brought up to behave in certain ways towards others who are different. The realization of this can be profound, and life changing.

Respect for basic rights

Oxfam America supports efforts to reduce racism and discrimination against indigenous people and women in Peru because these are the most impoverished people in the country. Helping indigenous people gain more respect for their basic rights will help them gain their fair share of quality education and health care. Eliminating discrimination will also help women gain access to better jobs and other services, and generally improve the situation for the country’s poorest people.

Building respect for indigenous people will also help communities value their own indigenous culture. This is essential because many indigenous groups have developed efficient, sustainable ways of living and working the land in some environmentally sensitive areas. The indigenous ways of using natural resources are being forgotten as people feel they must reject their indigenous identity in order to take advantage of all that modernity and western culture can offer. This is part of the reason why APRODEH and others are encouraging indigenous youth to speak their native languages and be proud of who they are—so they can live a decent life, take advantage of all that their government and society can offer them, without forcing them to assimilate into western culture and forget their past.

These municipal ordinances are helping Peru pull these problems out of the shadows,” Says Santiago Alfaro, Oxfam America’s program officer for indigenous rights in Peru. “Government employees can now see the negative effects of racism and discrimination on the quality of life in the country. APRODEH’s work in Ayacucho is echoing across the country, and there are now more and better legal tools available to help indigenous people remove barriers to public services.”