The peoples and society of Perú

The peoples and society of Perú

This section will give you a feel for the shape of Peruvian society. Political and economic issues are treated elsewhere, as is the history of the country. First, however, some dry facts. About 27 million people live in Perú, a third of them under 14 years of age. The average person lives to be about 70 years old.

Despite the enormous size of the country, most of the population lives crammed into towns spotted along the coastal desert. Three quarters of the population lives in cities. Those people who do live in the country are not only much poorer than their urban equivalent, but also suffer disadvantages. These range from high child mortality to poor access to communications. A quarter of women living in the country have no access to education (versus around 5% in the cities), and less than a fifth of rural households have access to electricity, versus virtually universal - if at times literally hair raising - connection in the towns.

There is, in addition, widespread poverty in the countryside and, rather more visibly, in the towns. Malnutrition is still a leading cause of death. Around a quarter of urban dwellings lack adequate drainage or access to safe water.

Perú is, however, a country in the early stages of industrialisation. Such countries all experience poverty, but less of it for the degree to which they are economically developed. Rural poverty looks more acceptable than urban shanty towns and slums, but it is a grinding form of want which is without relief unless one moves away from it. Millions have done so, migrating to the towns and cities of the coast. The section that describes the economy puts the which exists in Perú into the context of countries which it most resembles. It is neither worse nor better than its peers. However, visitors can be misled into thinking that rural quaintness translates into contentment for the inhabitants, whilst urban squalor equates with distress. The reality is the exact opposite.

The key divisions within Peruvian society are those of class and ethnicity. Religion is not a source of division in Perú. Catholicism dominates formal religion - although around 5% of the population were Protestant in some denomination or other. The religious practices of the mountain-dwellers and forest peoples are often confounded in Catholicism and always bound up in their ethnicity.


Perú has a relatively homogeneous society. The majority lie on a continuum which runs from the pure-bred native American population and people whose ancestry derives entirely from the Spanish colonial population. Something under half the population remain as pure native Americans, about a third are mestizo (of mixed ancestry) and a sixth of direct European extraction. There is a small but influential Asian population, responsible for much of the market gardening around Lima and for the unique Peruvian Chinese cuisine, called chifa.

Native Americans fall into three closely-related populations. Those who live in the highlands speak Quechua or Aymara, with the latter focused in the south of the country and making up around a fifth of the total. The third group - more a geographical classification than an ethnically homogeneous set - inhabit the jungle to the East of the Andes. Some of these speak Aymara and some do not. A geologist who was working deep in the jungle in 1981 needed two translators to get to Aymara. On leaving the village, he was presented with a parrot. He asked what it was called, and heard "Lady Diana". Isolation does not always imply insularity.

The mountain peoples may well live and work at over 4000m. Peruvian populations have been following their tough lives at high altitude for at least 10,000 years. The physical adaptation which resulted from this makes them closely resemble some of the people found in Tibet and the Himalayas. Stature tends to the stocky, and the rib cage expands to increase lung capacity. It is also typical that the relative size of the heart is also increased. The circulatory system tends to be at least a quarter more capacious than it is for similar sized people born at sea level, and the blood in it is richer in red cells. In addition, however, these people use the leaf of the coca plant to further stimulate their physiology. Unhappily, the active principle, cocaine, has cast a blight across the country.

The use of coca plays an important part in Andean communities as a medicine, as a ritual substance and as a part in economic and social life. Research has shown that coca use helps the body to digest the high carbohydrate, high fibre foods which characterise the Andean diet. When chewed, the cocaine in the leaf is extremely dilute and anyway attacked by the enzymes in the saliva. Narcotic effects are less important than the cocktail of compounds which assist in digestion.

The word indio was originally applied by the indigenous people to describe themselves. After the Spanish conquest, it acquired a sharply negative meaning. The government has worked hard to popularise the term campesino in its place. This has a less specifically-ethnic meaning, being applicable to anyone living in the country who has limited means and education. A visitor can speak about los campesinos in general, but it is unwise to refer to anyone directly as un campesino. Amigo/a is much happier: literally, it means friend, but it has a friendly, knock-about, regular guy feel to it. Chino is also used - it means 'pebble'. However, tu - or usted to anyone in authority - is much safer if your Spanish is not that wonderful. Groups of people are usually referred to as pueblos - literally, villages - as with el pueblo de los campesinos, for example.

It is important to note that mestizos who are also campesinos see themselves in a quite different light to the ethnic native Americans. These are usually viewed as being separate and lesser, somewhat frightening and frequently irrational, dirty and not to be trusted - in fact, much as any low status ethnic group is seen when view by another. The people of the hills see the coastal poor as boorish, individualistic and untrustworthy. The two groups see themselves as very separate and mark this in dress, language and social networks. There remains widespread if informal enforcement of this separation by the mestizo, who have most of the economic and political power in all formal settlements. Outside of their domain, at least, the ethnic native people have been expected to defer to the mestizo, to take the lesser seats in public transport and in general to display humility. This is, of course, changing with broader horizons. We will discuss the mestizos in a moment.

The highlanders

The Quechua-speaking groups call themselves the runakuna and the mestizos the mistikuna. This is not a polite term. These tensions were at least a major contributor to the Sendero Luminoso uprising in the 1980s, something which we discuss in the history section.

Start Please use the controls to hear a small fragment of a Quechua conversation.

The condition and self-regard of the highland peoples are inextricably linked to the history which they experienced. A series of Andean cultures about which we know very little lasted for, in some cases, millennia, and left fortresses that speak of repression and a privileged elite. The Inca regime was tranquil, provided that one did not assert oneself. In common with previous regimes, it seems that an aristocracy ruled the peasantry with an iron fist. Exact rules of conduct and dress were spelled out, marriage and family relations were dictated and dissent was crushed. [More in the the history section.]

Hard though this life may have been, it had the dignity of solidarity. The Spanish conquest replaced this with exploitation by the alien. Religious belief was scattered, traditional relationships broken and all certainties removed.

The conquistadores of Perú were inclined to see the local people as being exploitable in much the same way as was mineral wealth or land. The church and the crown installed regulation to manage this exploitation, but this was neither enforced nor respected. One has to remember that respect - power and status - was as important to Spanish culture of the time as was wealth, and the subjugated native Indian population presented an opportunity to acquire both. Functionaries of the colonial regime paid for their positions and expected to recoup their investment in both money and dominance. Encomenderos, corregidores held absolute dominion over 'their' segment of the native population.

The independence of Perú from the Spanish grown removed all limitations on this. Reserved areas and legally-protected traditional communities were swept aside in the growth of latifundismo - the development of vast land holdings. People were swept into "debt peonage", a state of total dependency on an absentee landowner. Such people were required to wear a home made clothes to a style defined by the estate. They owed the estate three days work a week, in return for which they received a small plot and grazing rights. They were paid a few cents a day and given a dole of alcohol and coca. Peones could be required to do all and any labour at the estate manager's whim, and could be leased to other estate owners as labourers.

The estate manager had absolute powers over the peones, and could beat, imprison or execute them without constraint. They were not allowed to leave the district, or to organise any but the most innocuous group activities. The hacienda always had a chapel or church, in which al of the key ceremonies that define life stages were undertaken. Consequently, the Church managed those aspects of peon life that violence and threat did not. The system endured until it was abolished by the land reform of 1969.

The system as described was at its most blatant in the highlands. Coastal farms were more commercial and needed people with higher skills and greater awareness. Housing was better, mobility greater and schooling provided. Economic mobility led to many peones escaping into the mestizo class.

Those working in an estate appear to have felt that life outside it was worse. They even showed loyalty to the owner and some pride in solidarity. This said, the native Americans schooled themselves to keep a low profile, to be obedient, servile and traditional. They avoided - and still tend to avoid - novelty and strangers. The inner life of the runakuna can, however, be guessed at by their legends. Vampire-like figures who rape, kill or eat native Americans are whites or powerful mestizos, known as as pishtakos. This is a reserved culture, which expresses its feelings only to its peers. It is also unpredictable and occasionally violent to those who unexpectedly violate such private moments. It clings to its cultural certainties of dress and conduct, mysticism and relationship became these were (and largely, still are) the sole inalienable features that it can find in a hostile world.

The past generation has seen three major changes sweep through Perú. The first was the land reform of 1969, in which a government installed by the army transferred the haciendas to their workers. The second has been migration of the young and the capable to the cities. The third was the ravages of the terrorist group the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso.

Many revolutionary movements justify their actions as being on behalf of the poor, and it is certainly the case that the highland native Americans had much about which to be unhappy. However, as with many such movements, the real dynamic came from lower middle-class intellectuals, urban migrants and other would-be opinion formers. Many highland peasants sympathised with the movement, but more did not, and the group as a whole were crushed between the actions of the Sendero and the counter-violence of the armed forces. The Sendero itself is reviewed elsewhere.

Other forces of change threaten community institutions. Village life is heavily influenced by festival-related group labour and exchange-labour systems (the minka and the ayni). The minka creates mutual obligations which tie the village together. These are discharged by a family working with others to the benefit of a host family. The beneficiaries provide entertainment, such as music, and with large amounts of traditional foods. The ayni system allows families to claim the labour of others at peak periods, in return for which they have to work on other occasions. Neither system works as well as money - people get hopelessly drunk during the minka, for example - and so modern times are tending to wipe out these customs. Alcohol is, it seems, a generic problem for native Americans and the pervasive and extremely negative influence of it upon highland life is obvious.

Highland villages are largely self-governing and self-policing, always under the regional and national aegis of the Peruvian government. The village leaders are elected by acclaim, following complicated systems in which reputation, probity, honour and prestige are accumulated over a life time. The key tasks of the office entail dispute arbitration, the oversight of events such as marriages and the planning of festivals. This last is particularly burdensome, not least as the delivery of a fine event is often achieved at considerable personal cost. However, the office is an opportunity for the varayoq to translate wealth into social standing. The officials are often elaborated clothed and may have staffs made of tropical wood and emblazoned with silver ornaments. The role of the Church is closely entwined with that of the varayoq, a major part of whose role it to generate and enforce moral uniformity. This is an abiding thread in the Incan heritage, in which villages were wiped out if their inhabitants showed a rebellious streak, where adulterers were hung up by their hair and stoned to death and where even modest deviations from the approved norm were subject to disproportionate pressure.

Andean people tend to take the law into their own hands when they are outraged. The Callejon de Huaylas region began work on a hydroelectricity plant, for example, claiming the right to drain mountain lagoons during the dry season. Local people protested that they needed this water for irrigation, but were over-ruled by Presidential decree. Work went ahead, but on its completion, stolen dynamite was used to blow up every last facility in a single night. Mines, too, have learned that pollution, resource depletion, unfair labour practices and the like will result in mass invasions, the destruction of bridges and the like. The sierra comprises a host of communities that are within Perú, but not always of it.

When land reform began, 75% of the highland farm land was owned by 1.3 of the land owners. The smaller landowners, making up 96% of those with title, held only around 8% of what remained. Today, around 30% of the highland population live in co-operatives, and these control two thirds of the land. This is not always the best land, however, and co-operatives are focused in the Southern puna, where the soil is as thin as the air. Recent political changes, offering tenure and proprietary rights, have further changed the system. Co-operatives can vote themselves out of existence and land is then held by individual owners. the outcome, where it has worked, has been a sharp increase in investment.

There are other forms of authority in the highlands. The land reform created a series of entities which have semi-independent powers, and which travellers will encounter at least as road signs. The SAIS (Sociedad Agrícola de Interés Social) and the EPS (Empresas de Propiedad Social) are both co-operative enterprises, acting on behalf of communities. Their rule, under a President, administrative and vigilance committees, occasionally clashes directly with political boundaries and the official police. The issue has not yet been resolved. In the event of difficulties, make sure with whom you are dealing. In addition, there are militias called the rondas campesinas, or peasant patrols. These acted to control agricultural theft, where in the early days of co-operative farming it was found easier to steal a neighbour's crops than to grow your own. Such patrols took 30-50% of the entire workforce of many co-operatives, notably on the coast where cotton-stealing became epidemic. The rise of the Sendero Luminoso transformed these into self-defence forces, rather giving lie to the claim of the Sendero to be "at the heart of the people". ('Like a coronary thrombosis', said one acquaintance.) The rondas campesinos enforce moral law as well as self-defence, and aspire to the role of the varayoq. This said, some are also involved in drug trafficking and others in labour scams. Near the Bolivian border, they are extensively involved in smuggling and counterfeiting, particularly of high value branded goods.

Highland life operates at three levels of remoteness. Hardy families live in isolation in the Puna, sending their children to school when they can. It is typical for children to be given sheep to raise so that they can both learn and eventually fund their education. Livestock rustling is a fact of life. Children as young as eight years may begin to learn bull fighting techniques, and most are expert riders by the time that they are four of five. Their idea of a treat is a piece of fruit brought back from a local market. Most have to leave home at nine or ten if they are to attend secondary education.

More settled families live in remote villages, many of which are now being connected to the outside world by road, television and telephone. Policing and medical attention are arriving, together with more formal systems of democracy. Most will have good schooling to the secondary level. Typically, families will come down to the village from their land holdings in the evening to sit in the Plaza de Armas, dressed to the hilt. Festivals draw huge crowds.

Villages in turn deal with the major towns, such as the district capital. Regular excursions are made, often under the alibi of a Saint's day (Patronal), more frequently to attend regular markets. These are specialised, with particular products assigned to set days of the week: fruit on Monday, livestock on Tuesday and so forth. Huge lorries come up from the coast to buy at these events, which are both picturesque and intensely commercial. One can see oceans of baby chicks, seas of guinea pigs (cuy) and whole forests of herbs.

The Aymara ancestors of the Incas developed the idea of the ayllu, a form that is still very strong today. This is a group of 50-100 people who are both close blood relatives and neighbours. This super-family is the primary unit of loyalty and identity, well beyond the immediate family or the nation. A town would consist of several ayllus, each with their own administrative structure, welfare system and system of shared labour. It is the ayllu, and not some abstract "community" or a person's immediate relatives, which attracted - and still, to a great degree attracts - loyalty.

The model of land tenure formalised by the Inca, but owing much to previous practice, was that all of it was held in common, and that the community parceled this land out - or held it in common - in accordance both with some fixed rules and also considerable discretion, based on the individual's worth to the community. At least some of this survives in the more remote areas, and when the occupier of communal lands dies, the lands which he or she had held in trust are returned to the community. Some remote communities still practice the Inca tradition, such that when a child is born, it is assigned a particular holding of land. When a couple marry, a further parcel is added, both then and at the birth of each child. I mention this obscure practice because it was once universal, and illustrates well how communities police themselves. Such a practice affords the community huge power, as the quality of this land is far from uniform. Rogue elements tend to be penalised and those who act in the interest of the community are rewarded.

This system of interaction keeps village life separate from the outside world. The highland people are intensely oriented around the community, where a village may contain several ayllu communities which sum to something greater. There is also an intense sense of regional identity, in the sense that what harms on community becomes the business of its neighbours. Elsewhere, we have reviewed the implications of this for visitors. These can be negative, but can also be intensely positive is relations are well-managed. Generally, the communities of the North are the most approachable whilst those of the South are the least tractable.

There is great store placed on balance, and most of all on balance between the genders. Men handle the production side of life, women the trading and purchasing. Identity within the community counts for more that family connections, and the men and women of a household are heavily beholden to their gender-group. This judges proper conduct, and acts to correct what is seen as wrong behaviour. Men must do men's work, for example. There is, therefore, a strong normative sense as to how things should be done and what constitutes proper conduct. Sanctions include community work - mending roads - or restitution to injured parties. Communal punishments also include beatings and worse. Marriages are still often arranged (by the father's of the two children so affected) and a immediately pending marriage can come as a complete surprise to, in particular, the bride-to-be. (It has to be said that this is fading in all but the most rustic of areas, and extinct in major centres.)

Here is a typical Quechua fable, to illustrate the tendency to squash self-promotion:

There were once two fat hens and two thin hens. The fat ones laughed at the thin ones - look at their scrawny little legs! But then the family of the land owner came to visit and so he said, "We must have chicken soup!" So naturally, he killed the fat hens. How the thin hens laughed!

Religious belief is capped by Catholicism, but is far from fully contained by it. Andean Catholicism is intensely syncretic, bringing in native beliefs and imagery under Catholic guise. An example is la Virgen de las Puertas, which recalls a spirit (apu) which existed on thresholds, but which is now an aspect of the Virgin Mary. Many local practices are continued, particularly in regard of fertility, rains and the curing of illness. None of this is obvious to the uninformed tourist. [See here for more on religion.]

As already discussed, the fertile land of the sierra consists of co-operative land, owner-occupied small holdings and some residual common grazing land at high altitude. A typical small holding, of perhaps 5 hectares of rocky soil, will provide subsistence. Most or all members of the family will have to earn additional money through other work. Small holdings are seldom consolidated and patches of land may be widely dispersed. Each parcel of land is known as a chacra. Like other mountainous regions, the microclimate in the Andes varies sharply from point to point, making one chacra suitable for potatoes, another for maize. This spreads harvest times and disperses risk: not all crops are likely to fail in the same year. However, this advantage comes at some cost, as farmers have to trudge back and forth. Heavy crops such as potatoes are particularly burdensome to manage at harvest, and there are ground beetles (el gorgojo de Los Andes) which makes short work of them if they are left in the ground. There are, therefore, a bewildering range of potatoes grown, the harvest time of which varies enormously.

People have learned to cope with a difficult environment, and with each other. In general, grazing is reserved for the highest lands. This is succeeded at lower altitudes by potatoes and quinoa, a broad leafed seed plant that matures to interesting shades of red and orange as it ripens. Lower, cereals are grown and legumes such as lentils and peas appear. The most sheltered areas are used for vegetables. The Andes are the place of origin for groups of plants such as the peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and related crops. This fact, and the variability of the microclimate, means that an extraordinary variety of these are grown. One can have sweet chilies with little potatoes that taste of cheese, or tiny hot sticks of dynamite with fluffy pillows of starch. The range is seemingly endless, and regionally variable.

Not all land holding is dispersed by choice, however, and families trade access to land in order to acquire the crop "portfolio" which they want. As what they do to the land has consequences for subsequent years, there is a strong element of trust in this. People who have established a track record of probity in the community therefore do better than those who do not. It is probable that such arrangements and constraints such as these played a strong role in helping humans first organise themselves into the social units.

Visitors will see the cattle, sheep and horses, as well as donkeys and mules grazing around the villages. The characteristic llamas and alpacas tend to be concentrated in the Southern highlands. They are used for wool, meat and to a minor extent for transport, although their capacity to carry a load cannot match the donkey. Bulls are used to plough by those who own them or can afford to hire them. As a typical slice of highland life, the owner of a field may exchange grazing rights on the weeds and post-harvest debris for ploughing. For those with less to offer, tillage is done by hand.

Wool is very important to the Highlands. The root of the English word "jumper" is chompa, and knitting is a Peruvian invention allegedly carried to Europe by Drake's ships. Virtually all warm garments are home-made from wool which the wearer may well have collected, dyed and spun into yarn. Women are almost perpetually busy knitting or spinning when their hands are free, even when walking. It is up to them to supply the household with blankets, clothes and items such as saddle bags and ponchos and also, of course, to provide goods to sell.

The jungle regions.

The forested region, la selva, covers more than half of Perú. Its biology, geology, anthropology and history is little known. Carbon from fires on the river banks has coloured the red soil black to a depth of metres, giving some indication of the intensity and length of habitation in some areas. Others are green deserts, characterised by micronutrient deficiencies, specialised flora and a sparse human population. Broadly, there is high jungle (alta selva) which has a distinctive populations, mestizo settlement and some agriculture. The lower jungle (baja selva) is what it sounds like: flat, prone to seasonal flooding and populated by dispersed groups.

History has touched the jungle in differing ways. The Andes barrier has protected it against excesses of logging. However, the rubber boom of the sixty years after 1850 made a major impact on the extreme East, around the town of Iquitos. Significant migration and population mixing occurred then and since. The Amazon-Marañon complex of rivers provide transport. The belief in alluvial gold (and its actual discovery) affected the Southern region, subsequently further impacted by oil prospecting. Perú's major oil fields are, however, to the North, and the region on the Ecuador border has been affected by this and by the influx of migrant workers. Tribal society, insofar as it survives, does so in reserves in this area.

The alta selva closely resembles any mixed settlement anywhere in the humid tropics. Populations are mixed, and a vibrant agriculture revolving around coffee, fruit and less legal commodities creates a mobile, cash-aware economy. Traditional dress is the T shirt, and the traditional musical instrument the portable CD. The baja selva is completely different from this, insofar as external impacts have been light, disease is still a major barrier to the entry of people without immunity to it and the motive to enter is anyway limited.

As an example of the entry barrier, one oil company brought about a thousand Aymara-speaking people from near Cusco to the jungle of Madre de Dios, a hundred miles away. Here, seemingly identical people spoke roughly the same language. The aim was to undertake seismic investigations, and the local people were neither numerous enough to do this nor easy to train. The upshot was that a significant proportion of those hired in Cusco became infected with Leichmaniasis, and the governor of Cusco province was subsequently besieged in his residence by a mob, not unreasonably demanding compensation. The local population were unaffected, perhaps through immunity, perhaps through having adaptive sleeping habits. Malaria, dengue, frightening creatures in the water and domestic invaders with hairy legs and scaly backs therefore tend to deter would-be settlers.

The alta selva and the ceja de selva (the charming-named 'eyebrow of the jungle', the rather more precipitate areas where the mountains plunge into the lowlands) are famous for their coffee, for the religious communities established by their nineteenth century German immigrants and for the production of the coca leaf. The coffee and fruit pour across the sierra in a series of lorries emblazoned with christmas tree lights. A paltero is, for example, a specialist in carrying avocados, or paltas. As some of the mountain roads are barely wider than the truck, and as the fruit spoils in the heat, these can present a challenge to traveler as they tear through choking dust between a cliff face and a 300 metre straight fall to a river in the canyon beneath. The German immigrants live in their inwardly-directed communities, where modernity in the shape of such monstrosities as buttons and pockets is rejected.

The coca production is an altogether more serious matter. Perú has been the world's chief producer of the leaf from which cocaine is derived. As explained above, the leaf has an important role to play in the lives of the highlanders, and a legal acreage is maintained for this purpose. The remainder has been halved in the years since the mid-nineties, chiefly as a result of US pressure. The crude extract was exported to Colombia for processing and transshipment to Western markets. Increasingly, however, the simple technology by which to do this has been moved to Perú, and as a consequence the bulk involved in export has fallen. Bolivia has picked up the mantle which Perú has partially dropped. In addition, opiates are also being produced from poppy crops, also grown in Perú and Bolivia. Both crops are subject to satellite surveillance and air raids, in which herbicide is used to destroy the plants. Narcotics generate corruption and violence wherever they become prevalent, and many of Perú's current ills can be laid squarely at the door of the customers for cocaine. The exact adjective that is appropriate therefore fails the writer, but it is interesting to learn that advances in biotechnology may well replace natural sources of these drugs, with the plants cells being grown in tissue culture in cellars in the destination countries.

If you travel in these regions, do not photograph strangers, do not accept veiled or actual invitations to carry drugs and do not trust friendly people who offer you drugs. Informers earn a living from providing tips that produce an arrest. In addition, be extremely careful of anything that you buy from unconventional sources, as it may have an unwelcome addition aimed at the same end. Do not engage in loud conversations about drugs, or speculate aloud who in the restaurant might be a narcotraficante. The author made many trips to Pucallpa, passing through Tingo María. This was once the centre of coca paste export. A heritage of this are concrete slabs half-blocking the road, intended to stop aircraft landing at night.

The Incas invaded the alta selva, in its Southern (antisuyu) area. There they halted. They, and the Spanish after them, called the inhabitants of the baja selva 'chunchos', or animal-like savages. As with European gypsies and other outsider groups, the majority ascribed powers of divination and healing to them. This reputation continues to draw people in search of transcendence, and there are tour companies offering "Shamanism experiences" to any with a credit card. (We discuss shamanism and the use of the hallucinogenic vine ayahuasca in the section on religion.)

Romance and reality do, however, tend to collide unhappily. Factually, these people are not the guardians of medical mysteries, and they suffer relatively high levels of illness. They receive little or no state care or health education. They are also amongst the strongest converts to Christianity, due to the efforts of Protestant and Mormon missionaries. Indeed, the influence of the missions has shaped large areas of society in the selva. Missions are seen as an outrage by some foreign groups, but is is undoubtedly the case that missions have helped to give these native peoples a footing in the modern world, through education, medical training and - above all - by helping them in their legal battle to secure their land rights, granted under the land reform act.

Life in the baja selva is lived in clusters of houses built, for the most part, from wood and straw. Only the larger towns have facilities that are aimed at outsiders. There are gardens, but the chief source of food is fishing and hunting.

Soil in the humid tropics has had many of the minerals with which it started washed out by rain. The great speed with which decay occurs in these regions means that once the forest's input of organic matter ceases, the organic matter that ordinarily holds nutrients is quickly minimised. Farmers therefore exploit a plot for three-to-five-year period and then abandoned it, allowing the soil to recuperate over the one or more decades. In addition, visitors may note specialised practices. For example, up to a dozen separate crops are grown together, so that the soil is evenly exploited and the rain of organic wastes is maintained. Insect repelling plants are interspersed amongst the food crops. Silt from the annual floods is used as a new growth medium. However, as a region and its soil becomes exhausted, so the human predators move on to a new area.

Extrapolating from the Brazilian experience, a given community need an "orbit" with a radius of at least 25 km (15 miles) if it is to live in a sustainable manner. That means that a community of 30-50 needs 2000 square kilometres within which to to roam. That is, each person needs an area six kilometres (4 miles) along its side. Isolation is assured by such needs, as is vulnerability to invasion.

Nobody knows how many people live in the baja selva. There are probably around 50 tribes, together accounting for quarter of a million people, or less than 1% of Perú's population. These live in scattered and often shifting communities in the departments of Loreto, Amazonas, Ucayali, Huánuco, and Madre de Dios. Official figures, by contrast, speak of much lower numbers. Official Perú tends to see the Amazon basin as a green vacuum.

The people of the coast.

Most of the people who live on the coast do so in cities or towns. The desert is innately unattractive for settlement, and the areas which can be irrigated are, at least until recently, much to valuable to waste on suburbia. Travel down the coast consists of long stretches of abandoned desert, broken by fertile valleys as a river discharges from the Andes into the sea. Towns tend to have grown up close to the coast and near to the river.

These areas were the centre of the system of latifundia, whereby very large holdings were aggregated by a few families. Historically, irrigation systems first installed by the Inca, coupled to the use of guano fertiliser, of which Perú once had a huge supply, led to world-beating productivity. People who farmed intensively - 'wide and deep', or latifundo - did extremely well. They were were able to buy out the less capital intensive producers, and so went 'wider', and wider yet. Ultimately , less than 2% of the landowners possessed virtually all of the good coastal land and 80% of all of the land. The smaller farms produced cash crops and vegetables, much as they still do today.

Latifundia was ended with the agrarian reform, a very necessary step taken without necessary institutional and financial support mechanisms. Today, the former large holdings are for the most part co-operatives. These engage in plantation agriculture, growing cotton, sugar and the like. They have suffered decades of under-investment and the people who live and work in them can seem depressed and faintly tatty. Few of them are anything but mestizo.

Life in the coast towns is changing rapidly. However, some still display the evening tradition of the paseo, in which the better off of the townspeople walk slowly around, greeting each other and allowing their children discretely to flirt. However, this is a dying activity and the children are more likely to gather around clusters of motor bicycles and to flirt rather less discretely than their parents. Unless married, however, men tend to stick with men and women with women for public social events, although a mingling of the sexes is passing and out from Lima and down the social hierarchy.

Pure-bred native Americans who live on the coast tend to cluster around Lima, where some of the shanty town districts are populated almost exclusively by groups who have migrated from specific regions. This fact has strong connections with the development of the informal economy, discussed elsewhere. There are also groups who live in nightmarishly-awful looking communities perched in the desert miles from anywhere. There were either displaced by the Sendero or moved by the government for their security. Most seem disinclined to move, as their access to the cash economy promises them advancement. Most studies show that people on the coast do not remain in poverty, but fall into the condition and then exit quite rapidly from it. The ugly settlements endure - usually upgrading themselves as property rights become established, but the people move on.

The elite groups

The upper class are predominantly of pure bred Spanish origins, although there are a few mestizo families and a large number if immigrants who also qualify. The Agrarian reform reduced but did not eliminate their interest in land, but as the relative importance of land declines, so capital moves on to better things. The key business interest of of the upper classes is, essentially, government; as well as the top tiers of the service sector, such as banking, law and other levers of power. About half of the shares in the principle banking, insurance and related enterprises are held by under a hundred families, all of them from traditional latifundista roots.

The elite use elaborate names. Middle classes names are formed from three roots: their Christian or familiar name, the patronymic (apellido) and then their mother's name. The upper classes will add to this the names of grandparents and other notables. To quote a survey of Perú published by the US government: "... magazine society pages report names like José Carlos Prado Fernandini Beltrán de Espantoso y Ugarteche." Scattering foreign names into this mix is also a mark of status, so MacDonald and du Pont have also found their way into these sonorous bids for status. The same survey notes that there was only one name with a Quechua root in it from a list of two hundred Society families. Chinese-Peruvians are increasingly entering the world of third generation wealth, and are becoming drawn into the orbit. People of high status from the provincial towns do not really figure in the scheme of things in Lima's high society, and they know it.

Visitors from the US and Europe, and particularly those who have had little exposure to Latin America, will be taken aback by the way in which the elite discuss their own population. There is no attempt made to conceal the distaste which the the gentlefolk - gente decente - feel for other groups. There is an expectation that people from a certain background will be treated differently by life, and that they are entitled to a smooth passage.

This group is characterised by a sense of their being the standard bearers of civilisation in the face of wildness and disorder. The rougher parts of the country are not, therefore, attractive to them. This is, of course, as full of exceptions as any generalization about people. Nevertheless, this guide is unlikely to sell strongly to a group who have spent more time abroad than in the attractions of their own country. Life is lived in country clubs and in large houses, typically in the Miraflores and San Isidro districts of Lima or, for newer money, in the new suburbs to the South-East. The professional and rentier classes seldom venture beyond Lima and, when they do so, they tend to travel along the coast to resort towns. Many own rural retreats on the coast, particularly those with equestrian interests. However, the wealthiest groups tend to seek holiday abroad. Spain is a favoured destination, as is Florida in the US. Miami is widely acknowledged to be the capital of Latin America.

The military

Los militares are the countervailing power block in Peruvian patterns of power. Their officer classes are still heavily weighted to the upper classes, but a profound sense of identity and duty has created a separate sense of identity and allegiance. This near-think tank has connections with intellectuals and foreign best practice, and serves as a formidable critic and check. The military have intervened directly in what they saw as the national interest, and were responsible for some of the main progressive changes in Peruvian society, such as land reform. This attempt to grasp the moral high ground has much of the Inca tradition of the varayoq to it, in which the leader creates not only order but moral order through force.

The consequence of this influence is that the military spending peaked at a fifth of all government expenditure, 3-4 times higher than most other Latin nations. These figures have been brought down very considerably since the war with the Sendero Luminoso was resolved, to around 2% of GNP. This has put the military under intense pressure. It is nonetheless probable that the military effectively employs around a million people. It has been accountable only to itself for its performance and efficiency, and it relies on a fierce esprit de corps to keep internal order.

Such arrangements can, of course, lead to a gradual slide into bad practice. It is unquestionable that the top levels of the military and civil security had become involved in increasing levels of corruption during the Fujimori period. Private soldiers speak of commandants selling half of the fuel and food intended for their consumption. Greater peculation existed in everything from weapons purchase to drug trafficking. Recent attempts to clarify the Fujimori period suggest that naval vessels and the Presidential jet were used extensively to transport drugs, for example. The civil population are well aware of this murky past, and they tend to view the military as self-satisfied bullies, enriching themselves at public expense. "Fat scorpions, talking black bitter poison under a rock and waiting to grab whatever they can", said one orator. At the same time, most of the mestizo feel a strong if abstract pride in their military which has not at all been dented by individual events. Few plazas de armas lack a military statue.