In June 2009, residents of Lima realized just how far removed their urban media were from the reality of daily life in the north of Peru.

Peruvian protesters in June 2009 at Devil’s Curve. Photograph by Enrique Castro-Mendivil.

The Protest

Earlier in the year, Peru signed a free trade agreement with the United States that opened up water management, timber, oil, and mining to privatization and foreign investment. In terms of economic growth the free trade agreement has been a smashing success and Peru’s growth rate – nearly 10 percent – has been a major player in the global economic recovery, according to the International Monetary Fund. As is common with economic development derived from natural resources, the flow of foreign investment into Peru has undoubtedly benefited some segments of the country more than others. (A year earlier, audio files anonymously uploaded to Wikileaks caused the “2008 Peru oil scandal” in which Peruvian politicians were accused of accepting bribes to secure contracts for foreign firms.)

The first week of June 2009, a group of mostly Awajún Peruvians created a roadblock along a stretch of highway known as “Devil’s Curve” about 870 miles north of Lima in the Amazonian province of Bagua. They created the roadblock, which prevented supplies from reaching Bagua City, to protest how wealth was distributed from natural resource extraction on land where they have lived for centuries. On June 5th, police were sent to remove the roadblock. Violent clashes between the police and protesters left at least 22 people dead, including 12 police officers. President Alan Garcia compared the indigenous protesters to the brutal Shining Path guerilla insurgency of the 80’s and 90’s, and sent federal troops into the region. Police and soldiers fired shots into crowds of protesters from helicopters. By the end of the week 12 police officers and 22 indigenous Peruvians were killed.

The Media

In a forthcoming paper that will be presented at next week’s Latin American Studies Association annual conference, Jacqueline Fowks describes how Lima’s mainstream media coverage of the Bagua protests resorted to stereotypes of “warrior indians” with spears drawn while calling out “battle cries.” The leader of AIDESEP, a coalition of local, indigenous rights groups, was filmed with shaky cameras that constantly zoomed in and out to portray a sense of anxiety, while government politicians were filmed using steady tripods, relaying a sense of calm and order. The nightly newscasts played story after story about the violence, but there was hardly any analysis about the free trade agreement, mining contracts, and legislation that caused the protests in the first place.

News anchors mispronounced the names of indigenous leaders. Mainstream media adopted the same vocabulary as the government to describe the events. Police officers were “assassinated” while indigenous protesters were “deceased” (“fallecidos“). When indigenous leaders were interviewed by reporters, such as Rosa María Palacios, they were ridiculed for not speaking Spanish fluently even though none of the reporters were able to speak to the protesters in their native Awajún.

Despite this general panorama of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Bagua protests, Fowks does point out that there were some exceptions to the rule. A few journalists did try to also show the conflict from the point of view of the Awajún, but language remained a crucial divide.

On June 8 Frecuencia Latina aired a segment titled “The Vision of the Overcome” (“La Visión de los Vencidos“), which showed Awajún reactions to the deaths of their fellow residents. During this highly emotional time the Awajún interviewees did their best to respond in halting Spanish, fully aware that Peruvian journalists do not speak their language. However, the most powerful moment of the segment comes at the 21 second mark and lasts until 1:26. It shows a sobbing Awajún woman screaming angrily in her native language after her husband had just been buried. Frecuencia Latina aired a full minute of her highly emotional testimony on primetime broadcast television, but they did not include any subtitles or description of what she said. Here is the full video of the original segment:

One of Peru’s largest broadcast media companies was not able (or willing) to find a single Awajún speaker to provide a translation of the woman’s testimony. The segment exemplifies the treatment of indigenous Peruvians in Lima’s media: seen but not heard; portrayed, but not listened to.

When Jacqueline Fowks watched the segment, she immediately decided to find an Awajún speaker to translate the woman’s words. The next day she wrote to Fermín Tiwi, an Awajún lawyer from Bagua who was temporarily living in Lima. The following day she received the translation, which she posted on her blog. That post was widely linked to by influential bloggers such as Marco Sifuentes and was read 12,000 times; more than any other post on Fowks’ blog. What the Awajún woman said was this:

Please listen to us Mr. Alan Garcia:
You are guilty because you exterminated us.
You are killing us.
You are selling us.
You are the terrorist.
We are defending our territory without the use of guns, our only weapons are spears and small sticks that aren’t meant to kill like you have done to us.
You exterminated us using guns, bullets, helicopters, and you killed our brothers, sisters, students, teachers, children.
Alan, we ask you to come here to our territory and pay us the debt that you owe us.
Alan, you sold the country, you sold the indigenous, you sold our natural resources: gold, petroleum, water, and air. You contaminate our natural environment and you leave us poorer. Now you see how we live and how you’ve left us.
We, the Awajún-Wampis have not asked you to exterminate us, but rather that you help us. That you help educate our children that you have now killed.
We are not taking away your private property. We have not killed your children, your family. Why are you know finishing us off?
You have exterminated us! We are left with nothing!!

The Technology

When I read the transcription of the sobbing woman’s words on Fowks’ blog, the Bagua protest/massacre ceased to be just another indigenous protest; one of thousands that take place in Latin America every year. (Beatriz Merino has noted that there were 260 social conflicts in Peru in April 2009 alone.) Those words brought a swollen lump to my throat. As an American consumer of cheap timber, oil, and minerals, I know that I am also implicated in her rage..

After receiving the translation from Tiwi, Fowks forwarded it on to Frecuencia Latina and asked them to re-air the segment with subtitles. The following day they did, as you can see in this shaky video uploaded by YouTube user “tvbruto01”:

That is the closest we have to a subtitled video of this nameless woman’s testimony. Until today, her words were never made available in English. Her testimony is an important historical document, not just as it relates to the Bagua protest/massacre but also the Awajún community, the relationship between the Peruvian government in Lima and rural residents, and the social and environmental impacts of free trade agreements with the United States.

Frecuencia Latina should be commended for its role in airing one of the few broadcast segments to show the impact of the Bagua protests from the perspective of the Awajún-Wampi community. However, there is no excuse to air the important and compelling testimony of a woman without including subtitled translation.

The internet gives us new opportunities and challenges to make video content accessible in all languages, and for the hearing impaired. In the next post, I’ll review the current state of technology related to subtitling online video, and review some of the obstacles and opportunities to make more content accessible to more people.

But first I wanted to take the time to show the importance of subtitling. Peru’s economy continues to grow spectacularly despite the global economic downturn. A new generation of Peruvian elites enjoy gourmet, expensive Peruvian cuisine in the capital while indigenous communities continue to organize, especially in the natural resource-rich north of the country. The Bagua protests led to several important consequences. The two decrees that caused the protests in the first place were overturned and Prime Minister Yehude Simon resigned. Congress passed a new law that gives indigenous people the right to be consulted ahead of any projects on their land, but many doubt that the National Institute for the Development of Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (Indepa) has sufficient resources or powers to enforce the law and broker the conversations. Whether the federal government in Lima and Peru’s 7,000 indigenous communities (making up one third of the population) will speak the same language depends both on their commitment to listen to each other, and to embrace the importance of translation.