Making Peru’s Sendero Luminoso: The Geography & Ecology of Civil War

By Javier Puente

On a previous post, I discussed the arrival of the 1982-1983 Mega Niño in the midst of the early years of sociopolitical conflict in the Peruvian Andes. In the focal region of conflict, El Niño triggered a major drought that severely undermined campesino livelihoods in unprecedented ways. This post discusses how the intersection of drought and increasingly militarized sociopolitical conflict created the geographical and civil warfare characteristics of the Internal Armed Conflict in Peru.

On April 3, 1983, senderistas conducted one of the most infamous killings in the entire history of the Internal Armed Conflict. Senderistas massacred 69 campesinos of the Lucanamarca community, in the province of Víctor Fajardo, Ayacucho. Weeks before the massacre, another group of campesinos, serving as militias in defense of the community, had arrested Olegario Curitumay, an alleged senderista commander and member of the community. After being publicly tried, Curitumay was stoned, stabbed, burned alive, and ultimately shot. Senderistas retaliated. Lucanamarca events evidenced how Sendero Luminoso nurtured and was nurtured by preexistent conflict, especially tensions within communities and among campesinos. While such tensions are absolutely intrinsic to communal life, negotiation, redistribution, relocation, and cohesion had historically prevailed. After the summer of 1983, tensions and conflict no longer found means for appeasement and soothing. Threats against campesino subsistence were triggered through environmental and ecological disruption. Such subsistence threats fueled the Internal Armed Conflict and brought political violence to a civil warfare scale.

The following map illustrates a core aspect of the argument of forthcoming research findings. Areas in purple show the epicenter of regional droughts triggered by the 1982-1983 Mega Niño. Juxtaposed with the area documented by the CVR as the other epicenter of the militarization of the conflict, colored in red, the overlapping is striking. The map also includes specific locations of some of the best-documented assassinations and massacres of campesinos conducted by Sendero Luminoso. This geographic correlation demands incorporating environmental and ecological factors into future analysis of the political, economic, social, and geographic understandings of the Internal Armed Conflict.

Map of Peru highlighting climate and agrarian conflict between 1982 and 1984.
Climate and Agrarian Conflict in Peru, 1982-1984, by Jonathan Graham and Javier Puente.

The Ecology of Civil Warfare

Ecological processes deeply nurtured the causes, developments, and consequences of warfare. Powerful social conflict narratives tend to overemphasize human agency and downplay the environmental contexts in which conflict unfolds. Environmental dislocations alone are susceptible to being measured in ecological, economic, and institutional terms. Societies undergoing processes of politically framed social upheaval, facing institutional challenges and statehood instability, experience greater vulnerabilities as ecological disruptions threaten the material foundations of livelihood. In the case of revolutions, drastic and abrupt environmental change acts as a tipping point that favors turning low-intensity conflagrations into widespread, radicalized civil warfare.

El Niño 1982-1983 set global records. Droughts impacted vast rural regions of the Soviet Union, including the cereal-producing heartland, which experienced major contractions in the production of grains. Spain suffered of a three-year drought that affected millions and left towns and villages with little or no water. Northern Pacific islands, such as Hawaii, endured a combination of droughts and hurricane-level storms.[1] The South Pacific basin, where the major oceanic oscillation occurs, experienced some of the worst effects.[2] Normal weather patterns were reversed, and the arid coastal deserts received in one day of precipitation the entire rainfall of a regular year. Across the Andes, drought conditions were reported as early as 1981 – producing agrarian shortages, harvest failures, and massive livestock mortality through the southern-central Andes that deepened in the summer of 1982-1983. When El Niño finally subsided, Peru had experienced a major agricultural loss from which it would not recover for four years.[3]

Global devastation is the inherent footprint of El Niño. When it meets other environmental disturbances – hydrological droughts, the monsoon system – ecological disruption maximizes. However, environment alone, as destructive as it may seem, does not pose a threat to mankind at a societal scale. El Niño, as Brian Fagan has correctly pointed out, “adds stress upon stress, sometimes to a breaking point.”[4] Where El Niño results in rains and floods, a lack of institutional preparation and adequate responses turn dislocations into disasters. As the case of the Peruvian northern coast illustrates, inadequate responsiveness from state institutions to the abnormal precipitation triggered major issues of public health. Where El Niño creates droughts, as was the case in the southern-central Peruvian Andes, livelihoods were undermined as hunger and famine deepened. In times of political convulsion, leadership and the pillars of societal organization face major challenges when scarcity spreads. Such was the case of the convergence of El Niño’s effects in the Peruvian Andes and the Internal Armed Conflict.

“Poor” campesinos were the primary victims of civil warfare during the Internal Armed Conflict. In later appraisals of the conflict, poverty was naturalized as a precondition of campesino status – inasmuch as famines are a “natural” occurrence in the Andes. Poverty, however, is far from immutable. The aforementioned conscription of the Andes and other “lands of famine” into the world market, along with the abdication of hydraulic control by states that hold these lands, have turned campesinos into the foremost victims of “natural disasters.” Domestic production, campesino livelihood, food security, subsistence – in other words, campesino ecology – came under attack as commodified agrarian production was progressively controlled from overseas, deteriorating geopolitical terms of trade at every level. The ecology of warfare also required an ecological poverty, the full depletion of entitlement to the natural resource base of traditional agriculture, which “constituted a cause triangle with increasing household poverty and state de-capacitation in explaining both the emergence of a “third world” and its vulnerability to extreme climate events.”[5]

While traditional scholarship on the Internal Armed Conflict once centered its debates on the “millenarian” nature of the war, and some have cast Abimael Guzmán as a messianic leader, there is little evidence to suggest Sendero Luminoso had a “utopian” project. Nevertheless, the chronological correlate between El Niño 1982-1983 and the militarization of the Internal Armed Conflict does pose a millenarian aspect in the rise of a civil war insofar as conflict dynamics responded to ideological and political motivations.[6] Symbolically, Sendero Luminoso and Guzmán declared the beginning of the armed struggle (ILA) as democratic elections and transfer of power coincided with the mountain harvest season. In turn, environmental and ecological disruptions resulting from the impact of the 1982-1983 Mega Niño largely facilitated harvests characterized by violence and death. Conflict and environment nourished each other in a catastrophic symbiosis, maximizing their consequences and worsening their enduring aftermaths.

Javier Puente serves as Assistant Professor in the Instituto de Historia at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is currently completing a book manuscript titled The Nature of Conflict: Rural Struggles of Campesinos and Comunidades in Peru, 1900-1990. You can follow him on Twitter @puentevaldivia.

Suggested Readings

Scholars interested in the Peruvian Internal Armed Conflict will deal with a vast array of multidisciplinary literature and other sources. Carlos Iván Degregori’s seminal works, including El Surgimiento de Sendero Luminoso (1990) and a number of essays recently compiled in his collected works are mandatory departure points. Steve J. Stern compiled a number of early contributions on the origins and developments of the conflict, condensing nearly every debate and argument of Sendero in Shining and Other Paths (1999). The Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR) established in 2001, after a decade of bureaucratic authoritarianism under Alberto Fujimori’s regime, released an Informe Final (2003) that constitutes a major source of information and still needs to become a focal point of debate in the making of new epistemologies of political violence. Some post-CVR scholarship has advanced in critical conversation with the Informe Final, including Jaymie Patricia Heilman’s Before the Shining Path and Miguel La Serna’s The Corner of the Living. Finally, testimonial biographies as a means for accounting on the human experience of sociopolitical violence have consolidated as a powerful genre, including the publication of Lurgio Gavilán’s Memorias de un soldado desconocido, José Carlos Agüero’s Los rendidos, and Manuel Llamojha and Jaymie Heilman’s Now Peru is Mine.


[1] For a thorough revision of the global impact of El Niño 1982-1983, see Brian Fagan. Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations. FAO informed that by the end of 1983, 35 countries throughout the global south were experiencing famine conditions and widespread scarcity of food. The annual report of agriculture and food estimated that El Niño-triggered agricultural losses were the worst since the depression of 1972, another El Niño year. See FAO, El Estado Mundial de la Agricultura y la Alimentación, 1983. Based on similar estimates, Brian Fagan considers the 1982-1983 El Niño as the second worst Mega Niño in the last two hundred years, after the 1878-1879 El Niño, another date that presents a striking chronological coincidence with narratives of international warfare.

[2] Brian Fagan, Ibid, p. xiv.

[3] César Caviedes. “Emergency and Institutional Crisis in Peru during El Niño 1982-1983”, in: Disasters, 9:1, 1985, p. 72.

[4]Brian Fagan, Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 310.

[6] As Miguel La Serna emphasized, “Quechua-speaking peasants’ local experiences and collective understanding regarding culture, power, and justice were just as critical to their initial support of Shining Path as political ideology or fear.” See, Miguel La Serna, Ibid, p. 137. I would add that local experiences were rooted on environmental constrained material conditions, with culture, power and justice having strong ecological components.

4 thoughts on “Making Peru’s Sendero Luminoso: The Geography & Ecology of Civil War

  1. Thanks for a fascinating read, I certainly agree that the geographical dimensions of the conflict have been understudied, although I am also wary that some work (McClintock’s especially) appears environmentally deterministic, to me anyway.

    I suppose my questions are all quite speculative, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts as to why there wasn’t similar violence after the 1972-3 Niño?

    Also, I understand you are focusing on the early conflict, but of course there was also violence in Junín, Pasco, San Martín which is also important to consider with regards to environmental factors.


    1. Dear Daniel,
      Many thanks for the kind words and questions.
      I have been very conscious about the “determinism” question in coming up with this research project. I hope I did not convey the idea that Sendero emerged because there was a Mega Niño. I think climate magnifies and aggravates pre-existent conflicts, just as it is happening these days with global warming. Of course someone can always ask counterfactual questions related to an Internal Armed Conflict without El Niño, but I am not trained for counterfactual history.
      As for the 1972-1973 Niño, that’s another important one — partly due to its intensity (strong El Niño, no quite a Mega one) and partly because it was the first one to be “scientifically observed” in full detail. While there was no political violence in terms of an armed conflict, there is something to be said about the campesino mobilizations against agrarian reform and state cooperativization during those years. I have come up with a timeline that juxtaposes El Niño events of the twentieth century and major processes of mobilization, upheaval, revolt, and conflict — again, not thinking deterministically but with a “correlate” sort of logic.
      Finally, Junín, Pasco, and San Martín – critical regions for my previous project, which I recently completed as a book manuscript currently in review – did not experience drought conditions. El Niño in the central sierra typically means increases in seasonal rains and floods, which affects Lima severely but does not carry the same level of household pauperization observed in the southern sierra and the altiplano.
      Again, thank you for your questions. I’ll upload the whole document as a “session” on Academia so that I can receive more feedback, questions, and criticisms — everything helps at this early stage.




      1. Dear Javier,

        Thank you for your responses, your point that these conditions exacerbated pre existing conflicts sounds convincing.

        On another note, I am currently working on looking at the conflict from a geographical and spatial perspective, although the forms of geography I have looked at are the socially-produced kind rather than “natural”.

        I will make sure to keep an eye out for your book and any posts on Academia.



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