“Hugo Blanco is the head of one of the guerrilla movements in Peru. He struggled stubbornly but the repression was strong. I don’t know what his tactics of struggle were, but his fall does not signify the end of the movement. It is only a man that has fallen, but the movement continues. One time, when we were preparing to make our landing from the Granma, and when there was great risk that all of us would be killed, Fidel said: ‘What is more important than us is the example we set.’ It’s the same thing. Hugo Blanco has set an example.”Che Guevara
Hugo Blanco, who died in June, was a pioneering ecosocialist and revolutionary indigenous leader from Peru. In the 1960s he led an uprising of oppressed peasants to gain land rights: the uprising was successful but as a result he spent most of the decade in prison.
During his long life he became increasingly active campaigning on climate change and other ecological issues. He was a champion of what is often called ‘the environmentalism of the poor’.
He noted: “There are in Peru a very large number of people who are environmentalists. Of course, if I tell such people, you are ecologists, they might reply, ‘ecologist your mother’ or words to that effect. Let us see, however.
“Isn’t the village of Bambamarca truly environmentalist, which has time and again fought valiantly against the pollution of its water from mining? Are not the town of Ilo and the surrounding villages which are being polluted by the Southern Peru Copper Corporation truly environmentalist? Is not the village of Tambo Grande in Piura environmentalist when it rises like a closed fist and is ready to die in order to prevent strip-mining in its valley?”
Thus ecology was a matter not of middle class concern but one of survival for peasant farmers and others at the grassroots trying to get by in difficult circumstances.
Hugo was born in 1934 in Cusco, the former capital of the Inca empire, and politicised at just 10 years old. This was because he heard of an incident where a land owner had physically branded an indigenous peasant with a hot iron.
During the dictatorship in the 1940s he was active in school strikes against a college principal imposed by Peru’s authoritarian rulers. Already fascinated by ecology, he went to Argentina to study agricultural science.
In 1954 the US government used the CIA to instigate a coup in the Central American country of Guatemala. The Guatemalan government had tried to introduce land reform, taking land that wasn’t being used from the US United Fruit company. This triggered the coup, one fought not for oil or gold this time but instead for oranges.
Angry about the coup, Hugo Blanco went on demonstrations and listened to the speakers. He was most impressed by a speaker who said the solution was to arm the peasants. The speaker was denounced by members of the crowd as a Trotskyist, so Hugo decided that he would be a Trotskyist too.
Isn’t the village of Bambamarca truly environmentalist, which has time and again fought valiantly against the pollution of its water from mining?
Trotsky, a key Marxist theorist during the Russian Revolution and then leader of the Red Army, had been exiled by Stalin from the Soviet Union. He formed the Fourth International as a global revolutionary party. ‘Trotskyists’ were thin on the ground in Latin America, although they have tend to be strongest in Argentina.
Hugo left university and threw himself into political activity, working in factories and organising workers in Argentina and later in Peru. In Peru he organised a demonstration against Richard Nixon and created trade union bodies.
One night he found himself in a police cell in Cusco. With him were three indigenous activists, who persuaded him to help them fight for land rights.
Freed from prison, he joined the indigenous peasants in a region just next to the Amazon. They occupied land but the landowners responded with violence. The indigenous community had no protection from the police, who sided with the landowners. So he helped them organise self-defence militias.
A full scale uprising took place, which changed Peruvian history, inspiring a degree of land reform in the country.
Hugo was put on trial and imprisoned. He was released in 1970. However, the new government hated his activism in supporting strikes and demonstrations, so captured him once again and put him on a plane to Mexico.
The 1970s therefore saw him in exile, including in Argentina. He narrowly escaped death during the coup against the the socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile. He was rescued by the Swedish Embassy and as a result spent many years in Sweden.
Towards the end of the decade Hugo returned to Peru, ran as a presidential candidate and eventually he became a senator. He hated electoral politics but his interest in the environment deepened when he was in office. He became a lifelong campaigner against pollution and the mining projects that devastated the environment and took land from the people.
He received death threats from the Shining Path and the internal security services in Peru, and found himself once again in excile. During the 1990s he lived in Mexico, where he was increasingly influenced by the Zapatistas. While he maintained contacted with the Trotskyist Fourth International right up until his death this year, his politics became more like the Zapatistas during this period.
Hugo was also hugely inspired by the struggle of the Kurdish people in Rojava. The Zapatistas and the Kurds with their allies in Rojava promote a feminist confederal democratic politics – with more in common with the green anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin than Trotsky.
He published Lucha Indigena, which means literally ‘Indigenous fight’. He argued that capitalism was a ‘mode of destruction’ and viewed both workers and peasants as being at the forefront of struggles to protect the Earth.
Towards the end of his life Hugo became increasingly concerned about climate change. He became a prominent advocate of an ecosocialist approach, arguing that capitalism by promoting every increasing economic growth tends to wreck the planet.
He saw how the environment was being devastated in Latin America, he also noted that to end climate change we need to stop extracting coal and oil. For him indigenous movements opposing extraction were essential to stopping rising CO2 emissions. He supported the efforts of the Peruvian Amazonian people to defend the rainforests from gas and oil exploration.
Hugo made several speaking tours in Europe, once speaking at a Green Party conference in Birmingham. He also sent his solidarity greetings when workers on the Isle of Wight occupied the Vestas wind turbine factory to stop its closure.
And of course he got to meet and give his support to Greta Thunberg in Stockholm in 2019. His last days this year were spent in Sweden with his family.
Hugo Blanco was an inspiring green revolutionary who struggled for essential change nearly every day. Almost every waking moment was an episode in ecological activist and liberation struggles. He championed a huge variety of causes.
As Che Guevara said, “Hugo Blanco has set an example”. We can learn from him.
Derek Wall is a former Green Party principal speaker and author of Hugo Blanco: A revolutionary for life, published by Merlin Press and Resistance Books in 2018. Thanks to the author and The Ecologist, this article is republished under the Creative Commons 4.0 license. Jacobin Magazine has also paid tribute to Hugo Blanco.