The police shot at those livestreaming first. More than four thousand meters above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, overlooking one of the world’s largest open-pit copper mines, a group of peasants occupying disputed lands faced off with riot-gear–equipped military police. While a dozen tear gas canisters popped and whistled over their heads, one peasant-cum-journalist livestreamed his own escape on Facebook, gasping his condemnation of this particular mixture of state and private violence as tear gas spilled over the mountain’s rock face and engulfed the cellphone’s grainy image.1Noticiero Cotabambas, “La comunidad emprendió la posesión y defensa de sus territorio comunal, la misma que se encuentra a la espera de resolución,” Facebook, livestream, April 28, 2022.
Viewed fifteen thousand times, this Facebook livestream sparked a wide spectrum of opinions from viewers, whose reactions ranged from accusing the peasants of extorting the mine’s corporate owners to rallying support for the protesting community. Many comments refer to these livestreamed scenes of violence as the “reality of indigenous communities” (la realidad de las comunidades indígenas) and call other viewers to “know what [this] reality is like” (saber cual es la realidad). I argue that these livestreams, recorded by peasants and their leaders, invite audiences near and far to get to know peasant realities. Here, I explore what efforts to represent “reality” via Facebook tell us about the limits and possibilities for democratic participation under extractive regimes.2Supported by a SSRC’s Democratic Anxieties in the Americas grant, I collaborated with 12 livestreaming dirigentes across the southern Andes in Peru’s Southern Mining Corridor. The analysis in this piece draws on an interview with one of these dirigentes and some of the livestreams produced by the peasant leaders I worked with. As these mining conflicts reveal, the seeming impossibility of peacefully reaching consensus over large-scale extractive activity is connected to a deeper struggle at the heart of contemporary democratic politics the world over. Amidst extreme social, economic, and political inequality, who gets to represent reality and how do they do so?
Live from the Andes, it’s the reality of mining!“Their social media posts show everything from the militarization of rural territories to the challenges of reaching peaceful agreements over mining activity.”
Over the past decade, transnational mining corporations like MMG, Hudbay, and Glencore have led the rush to empty Peru’s southern Andes of its copper by constructing massive open-pit mines. As entire mountains are split open to form immense pits, the familiar earth-beings (cerros or apus in Quechua) that highland residents once greeted by name have vanished, alongside dwindling water sources and land for pasturing animals and potato cultivation. In response, dozens of peasant communities across the region have initiated roadblocks, marches, and strikes amidst the rapid transformation of their ancestral lands into one of the most lucrative and promising sites for large-scale, industrial mineral extraction in Latin America. Among other concerns, their protests highlight the persistent absence of economic development in the areas near the mine, unfulfilled promises to pave roads and provide jobs, and the increasing difficulty of practicing agriculture and livestock amidst the loss of fertile lands and sources of water. These mobilizations are, in turn, livestreamed and circulated online by dirigentes, peasant leaders who represent their communities in negotiations with transnational corporations and state entities and organize protests against the conditions of large-scale mining activity. Their social media posts show everything from the militarization of rural territories to the challenges of reaching peaceful agreements over mining activity. For rural dirigentes who “struggl[e] to represent themselves in…newspapers, on television and radio, and in the imagination of the larger urban population,” Facebook is “one more medium through which they can express their ambitions and articulate their identities…[and] present these to a wider, perhaps even international, audience,” as has been the case when dirigentes have been retweeted or republished in major outlets like Reuters and BBC News.3Daniel M. Goldstein, “Desconfianza and Problems of Representation in Urban Ethnography,” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2002): 487–88.
Rather than publicizing accusations of land theft or grievances about environmental contamination, the mainstream media establishment in Lima has largely overlooked dirigentes and their form of grassroots social media journalism. While dirigentes livestreamed these violent encounters with the police in late April 2022, national media outlets reported on the mine’s anticipated financial losses and the devastating effects of mining conflicts on the national economy. These media interventions implicitly attribute the responsibility for such conflicts to peasant community protests, vacillating between representing rural residents as greedy money-grubbers or stubbornly ignorant of the benefits of large-scale mining. Using Facebook, however, dirigentes create representations of their reality that directly challenge national media accounts portraying mining as progress and peasant resistance as backwardness. In one livestream, a peasant journalist narrates police efforts to evict a peasant community from land claimed by the mine, explaining:
[In] this livestream, you all will be able to know firsthand what is happening in [this] community without having to resort to the yellow press, that capital-based [Lima] press that dedicates itself to misrepresenting and spreading bad information about what is happening in this community …With this livestream [you all] will be able to follow us and know up close…what is really happening here [with this] community and its relations with the mining company.4Noticiero Cotabambas, “Recojo de impresiones después del violento desalojo de comuneros de Fuerabamba,” Facebook, livestream, April 27, 2022. My translation.
Like other postcolonial contexts in Latin America, economic power and state resources in Peru—including media influence—are heavily centralized in the national capital of Lima and distributed centrifugally toward the largely rural periphery. This divide between the capital and the provinces, in which the urban realities of Lima are glossed and generalized as representing a single national reality, gives rise to what dirigentes refer to as two realities: “ours” and “that of Lima.” As another livestreaming dirigente explained to me in an interview: “If you only read what they [publish] in [the national newspaper] El Comercio as [people] in Lima do, everyone thinks that here we are millionaires. But we live next to the mine and there are no schools, no water or sanitation…we continue to be poor.”5Interview with peasant leader, February 23, 2022. It is amidst this divide that livestreams of mining protests acquire their distinctly political quality, as they urge viewers to get to know another reality: one that cleaves closer to peasant experiences with large-scale extraction.
Reclaiming peasant reality“Through livestreams, videos, and photos, dirigentes craft and present their version of reality from the margins—that of a forgotten and abandoned pueblo (the people).”
By enabling peasants and their leaders to report their reality, Facebook makes visible the distance between national media accounts of mining activity and how dirigentes see things. The revealed chasm between these two depictions of “reality” provokes the following question: Can democratic consensus about how extraction should be carried out be reached when neither party can agree on the basic facts of that “reality”? For many dirigentes, the anxiety over this disconnect lies at the heart of democratic participation. They ask: “How can one truly dialogue with those who lie, abuse, exploit, steal from, and ridicule communities?”6Federacion Campesina de Challhuahuacho – Cotabambas, “¡La rebelión se justifica!” Facebook, December 5, 2020. My translation. On Facebook, however, “one can provide evidence of the perspective that the communities want others to know.”7Interview with peasant leader, February 17, 2022. Through livestreams, videos, and photos, dirigentes craft and present their version of reality from the margins—that of a forgotten and abandoned pueblo (the people).
This alternative way of seeing reality challenges the assumption that peasant communities’ concerns and disputes are irrelevant to the interests of a national body politic that systematically excludes them. For instance, because of the mine’s tremendous size, when communities in the region block roads used for mineral transport, they also disrupt the global flow of copper.8→“MMG Limited: Si el bloqueo continúa, Las Bambas cesará su producción el 20 de febrero,” Energiminas (blog), February 6, 2022.
→Luis Miguel Castilla et al., “Will Protests Keep Roiling Peru’s Mining Industry?” Latin American Advisor (blog), The Dialogue, January 10, 2022. Dirigentes’ Facebook coverage of these roadblocks and other protests is therefore a powerful reminder that what happens in the social, economic, and geographic margins is not peripheral to the realities of the ostensible center, but rather constitutive of them. Dirigentes’ digital representations of their reality function as direct interventions in a political system and media environment that otherwise seek to efface the effects mining has on rural life and diminish peasant communities’ centrality to the operations of extractive capitalism.
By seeking to make palpable the inequalities that characterize rural life and insisting on a radically different understanding of life and politics under extraction, the decentralized representations that dirigentes produce and circulate on social media comprise what Deborah Poole calls an “image world” of the continuing exclusions of Peru’s multicultural democracy. As Poole explains, “Seeing and representing…constitute means of intervening in the world. We do not simply ‘see’ what is there before us. Rather, the specific ways in which we see (and represent) the world determine how we act upon the world and…create what that world is.”9Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 7. Through livestreamed representations of peasant life amidst unprecedented investments in extraction, dirigentes allow viewers to see as they do. To see as a dirigente is to see (and experience at a distance) large-scale extraction as part of a fractured, disorienting, and often violent reality—a direct response to national media, corporate, and state depictions of mining activity as a steady and ceaseless engine of development and progress.“Portraying peasant communities as selfish and engaged in illegal activity tacitly justifies aggressive forms of police intervention in order to put an end to peasant protests…”
For this reason, dirigentes view the “power to represent themselves to a wider audience [as] a vital, material force in people’s lives” because different representations can have real consequences for those represented.10Goldstein, “Desconfianza,” 488. How social conflicts are portrayed by Lima’s media establishment shapes how state authorities intervene in social conflicts, the measures peasant communities undertake in response, and the agreements that are reached to put those conflicts to bed. By citing chamber of commerce statistics that emphasize the harm of restricting mining production, interviewing mining company spokespersons, and publishing industry guild press releases, these outlets depict peasant protests as, at best, a way to selfishly hold the national economy hostage and, at worst, criminal extortion. Portraying peasant communities as selfish and engaged in illegal activity tacitly justifies aggressive forms of police intervention in order to put an end to peasant protests, including the usage of states of emergency that suspend civil liberties in communities seeking to restrict mining activity.
Dirigentes “therefore regard control over images of themselves and their communit[ies] as absolutely vital to their survival.”11Goldstein, “Desconfianza,” 488. As the same dirigente explains in an interview, “someone in Lima who does not know the real situation is going to think that the communities are [practicing] extortion, [that] they want more money, [that] they are antimining, [and] anti-investment.”12Interview with peasant leader, January 27, 2022. Just as depictions portraying communities as backward and underdeveloped might spur calls for public investment and corporate charity, those that deem communities to be violent criminals engaged in the extortion of formal businesses legitimize police intervention and state repression.13“¡Estado de emergencia para minas en el sur!” El Montonero, October 19, 2021. Showing the “real” face of mining enables dirigentes to challenge what they see as pervasive misconceptions about the socioeconomic conditions that produce mining conflicts and to justify their resistance to the current terms of extractive activity on their lands.“By claiming to be the true representatives of rural reality, dirigentes ‘articulat[e]…an imagined community’ properly called el pueblo, or ‘the people’.”
Livestreams of community protests and negotiations therefore invite fellow Peruvians and state authorities to “come here [to the communities] and to see our reality, how we really live.”14Noticiero Cotabambas, “La verdadera contaminación de las Bambas en las comunidades cercanas al yacimiento minero,” Facebook, video, January 21, 2022. My translation. In so doing, dirigentes open up a “wild zone of representation…a key battlefield of contemporary political struggles [that] allow[s]…[the] previously disenfranchised to take on an important role in the production and contestation of…power.”15Kari Andén-Papadopoulos, “Citizen Camera-Witnessing: Embodied Political Dissent in the Age of ‘Mediated Mass Self-Communication’,” New Media & Society 16, no. 5 (2014): 755. Their efforts to show what life is really like under extraction—what they call “nuestra cruda realidad” or “our grim reality”—through livestreams, photo albums, and videos challenge national media portrayals of their communities as avaricious, ignorant, and violent. They constitute what I consider to be digital expressions of democracy. By claiming to be the true representatives of rural reality, dirigentes “articulat[e]…an imagined community” properly called el pueblo, or “the people.”16Robert Samet, Deadline: Populism and the Press in Venezuela (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019), 3. These popular practices of digital representation taking place on social media lay claim to a truer, harsher reality in the name of the pueblo, in which dirigentes represent reality with “a particular agenda, seeking to publicize a strategic (and selective) message…[and blurring] the line between citizen witnessing and political action.”17Andén-Papadopoulos, “Citizen Camera-Witnessing,” 763.
Whose resources? Whose realities?
Struggles over resources are therefore also struggles over “reality.” My research traces recent forays by peasant leaders into the ambivalent and expansive universe of social media to assert this right to (self)representation using Facebook. In spite of limited telecommunications infrastructure and high levels of endemic poverty, smartphone use and internet access are increasingly common in the southern Andean communities experiencing Peru’s extractive boom. By livestreaming their participation in popular mobilizations and company negotiations, digitally fluent peasant leaders are increasingly claiming control over how they are represented in narratives around extraction.18See Allissa V. Richardson, Trends in Mobile Journalism: Bearing Witness, Building Movements, and Crafting Counternarratives (Just Tech, Social Science Research Council, November 17, 2021).
Through Facebook transmissions, dirigentes teach audiences to view the world through the lenses of historical inequality, state abandonment, and the political struggles of peasants. The realities they reveal are often confusing, disjunctive, and necessarily incomplete. But they speak to a set of life experiences in which people’s desires for development and modernity are thwarted, time and again, by historic inequalities that are reinscribed through large-scale extraction.
I am grateful to all of the dirigentes who so generously shared their experiences and expertise with me. This piece benefited in particular from the knowledge and bonhomie of collaborators Claudio Portugal and Miguel Gutiérrez, who make this work a pleasure and a possibility.
→Luis Miguel Castilla et al., “Will Protests Keep Roiling Peru’s Mining Industry?” Latin American Advisor (blog), The Dialogue, January 10, 2022.