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Culture and Education

Peru's Unfortunate Encounter with "Civilization" - What Gold Has Wrought -

Fumiaki Miyashita
Professor, Waseda University, Faculty of Commerce (Economic Geography)

About 10 years ago, a literary work called "Clash of Civilizations" by Samuel P. Huntington became a hot topic. It was an audacious attempt to shed light on post-Gulf War global dynamics from the perspective of the world's major religions and civilizations, namely Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, etc.

This past spring, I had the chance to visit Peru in South America to see Machu Picchu, the most popular World Heritage site in the world, and the drawings at Nazca. Although these were marvelous places that went beyond my expectations, as an economic geographer, what struck me the most was the beautiful natural beauty of the country, the wide gap between rich and poor and the rustic, impoverished lifestyle of the Incan people.

This country, blessed with natural resources, still ranks gold as its No. 1 export. Known for its gold from time immemorial, the country was subjugated, as everyone knows, by gold-hungry Spain in the early 16th Century. The Spaniards brought with them infectious diseases which had the disastrous effect of greatly reducing the native population, laying to waste the Inca Empire and annihilating its indigenous civilization. That was some 500 years ago. Subsequently, Spain turned this region into a colony and brought multitudes of black slaves from Africa to work on plantations and in the Potosi silver mines in Bolivia. Feuds erupted that, years after independence, reverberate to this day.

What has Peru become? Going through rural areas by overnight bus, there isn't even one lamppost to light the pitch dark path and the social infrastructure there, namely roads, bridges, schools, etc., has just recently been erected. Contrastingly, in the capital of Lima, the division between poor and affluent districts is glaring, most of the surfers riding the waves off its sandy beaches are white and there are splendid hotels and restaurants that cater to foreign tourists. In these places, not a single non-white indigenous person can be seen.

A look at Peru's history, one cannot peer very deep as there was no writing system in ancient times. However, reading the works and letters left behind by Las Casas, the 16th Century Spanish educator, or Cieza de Leon, the conquistador, one discovers proof of an oral tradition passed down over some 10 generations of Incan royalty. This royalty was toppled by the Spaniards, who took over as the new ruling class. Today, five centuries later, Peru's ruling class is not composed of newly transplanted people from Spain, but rather the "criollos", or descendants of Spaniards who intermarried only amongst their own kind since colonization. It is not the majority "indigenas" or mixed blood "mestizos". The present-day Inca civilization is nothing more than stone ruins. This is where lies Peru's problem. In order for the Incans to succeed in Peru, they must not only learn their own indigenous languages, Quechua and Aymara, but also the Spanish language and culture. Just by selling souvenirs in traditional garb and farming is not enough to make ends meet. The unfortunate encounter of "civilization"500 years ago is still strongly felt today.

Although Peru has arid regions, the snow and rain that falls in the Andes has been used effectively since Incan times. Because the country is in a tropical zone, many areas are fit for cultivation even at high altitudes. Peru has 3.4 times the land area of Japan but only about 22% of its population and many of its regions have yet to be developed for agriculture. Industrially, although investment from foreign companies is slight at the moment, stabilizing its political, economic and social systems would most likely result in enormous growth.

There are those who say that if Peru hadn't been an abundant gold and silver producing region, this unfortunate encounter of "civilizations" would have probably never happened. In the words of "Susana", the renown, black, Peruvian singer: "All we have left is poverty". Even today, in many variegated regions of the world, there still continues to be quarrelling amongst peoples due to differences in race, religions or political systems. Would a peaceful encounter (face to face) of "civilizations" ever be possible?

Fumiaki Miyashita,
Professor of Economic Geography Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

Academic background:

- Undergraduate degree at Keio University's Faculty of Commerce
- Doctoral program at Waseda University's Graduate School of Commerce
- Served as researcher and lecturer at the Australian National University, the University of London and other foreign institutions

Main literary works:

"Lecture and Dialogue with President Clinton" (translation; Waseda University, 1993)
"The Steel Industry"published in 'New Japanese Industry' (joint authorship; Nikkei Shimbun, 1997)
"Production Structure of Modern Foundry" published in 'History of Foundry Technologies' (joint authorship; Japan Foundry Engineering Society, 1997)