An introduction to Peru's history and culture

 

Ancient Peru was the cradle of the Incan empire, which flourished between 1400 and 1533 CE. The empire’s religious and administrative centre, Cuzco, is known today for being home to the world-renowned Machu Picchu. One of the new seven wonders of the world, the site attracts thousands of visitors each year. The arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1532 marked the end of the ancient empire and the beginning of nearly three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, which ended with Peru’s proclamation of independence on July 28, 1821.

A period of political and economic instability followed, with power shifting tenuously between democratically elected governments – dominated by military juntas and oligarchies – and occasional military coups, until a constitutional assembly was formed in 1979. Although the 1980s were marked by economic hardship and the rise of guerrilla warfare and armed violence, the mid-1990s brought economic growth and greater political stability, which has continued to this day.

Political System

Peru is a democratic constitutional republic, with a presidential system and a well established multi-party system. The executive branch is led by the president, who serves as head of government and head of state. The president is elected by the majority of the popular vote for a five-year term, and although running for re-election is allowed, presidents cannot serve consecutive terms. Peru’s current president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, took office on July 28, 2016 after winning the narrowest majority in the country’s recent political history, with 50.1% of the popular vote. President Kuczynski will remain in office until 2021.

The legislative branch is composed of a unicameral Congress, made up of 130 members. Congress members are directly elected in multi-seat constituencies by closed party list proportional representation to serve five-year terms that coincide with the president’s term. At present, the Popular Force (Fuerza Popular) opposition party rules Congress with 56.2% control; the Broad Front (Frente Amplio) holds 15.4%; Kuczynski’s party Peruvians for Change (Peruanos por el Kambio) have 13.8%; and the Alliance for Progress (Alianza para el Progreso) holds 6.9%. Remaining seats are distributed between the Peruvian Aprista party (Partido Aprista Peruano) and the Popular Action party (Acción Popular).

At the top of the judicial branch is the Supreme Court of Justice, which comprises nine courts and 16 judges divided into civil, criminal and constitutional-social sectors. Judges are appointed by the National Council of Magistrates, an independent body.

Regional Government

Since 2002 Peru has undergone an extensive process of decentralisation, aimed at transferring authority and resources to the regions for more efficient governance over local matters. In this context, the national territory is divided into 25 administrative regions, commonly known as departments (departamentos). Regional governments have political, economic and administrative autonomy over local matters. Governors are elected for four-year terms and running for re-election is allowed, but they cannot serve consecutive terms. Regional elections were last held in October 2014 and the next set of elections is scheduled for October 2018.

Population

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática, INEI), Peru’s population is estimated to have reached nearly 31.5m in 2016, making it the fourth most populous country in South America behind Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. With population growth at an estimated 0.96% in 2016, Peru’s authorities expect the population to reach 32.8m by 2020.

Approximately 77% of the population live in urban areas, primarily along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. According to local market research agency Ipsos Perú, the capital, Lima, accounts for nearly one-third of the country’s entire population, with just over 10m inhabitants in 2016. Hosting over 800,000 residents each, Arequipa and Trujillo are two other heavily populated urban centres along the west coast of the country.

Geography

Located on the western coast of South America, Peru is the third largest country on the continent by surface, spanning nearly 1.29m sq km and 3080 km of Pacific Ocean coastline as its western border. Peru shares land borders with Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. The latter also shares control of Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest commercially navigable lake, with Peru. The country is commonly divided into three distinctive geographic areas: the west’s narrow coastal strip of arid plains and deserts, which includes Lima; the central Andes Mountains and their outskirts; and the tropical rainforest to the east, which makes up part of the Amazon.

Climate

The country’s dramatically diverse landscape accounts for its varied and mixed climate, which features 82 out of the 111 climates in the world. The eastern lowlands, covered for the most part in dense rainforest, presents an Equatorial climate characterised by hot and humid weather, accompanied by heavy rainfall throughout the year. By contrast, the mountainous highlands are known for their cool-to-cold climate, with rainy summers and dry winters. Meanwhile, the coastal plains and deserts are warm and arid, with a subtropical climate and very little rainfall.

Lima boasts a pleasantly mild climate with two distinct seasons: winter lasts from June to October, while summer extends from December to April, with May and November typically the transition months. Temperatures range between a low of 12°C and a high of 29°C throughout the year, though relative humidity is high, owing to the capital’s coastal location. Rainfall in Lima is highest during the winter months of July to September, with an average of 8 mm per day, while precipitation levels drop close to zero between December and April. Between April and November, the city is often enveloped by mists coming from the sea.

Language

Spoken by 84% of the population, Spanish is Peru’s official language and the predominant language used in government, media and education. The country’s constitution recognises other native tongues, including Quechua and Aymara, as co-official languages in areas where they predominate. Although some 300 languages are thought to have been spoken throughout the county’s past, the number of indigenous dialects has since dwindled to an estimated 47. Among these, Quechua and Aymara are the most predominant, being spoken by 13% and 1.7% of the population, respectively. Native languages are spoken mostly in the country’s Andean and jungle provinces. English is widely used within the business community.

Religion

While the government does not endorse an official religion, Peru’s constitution recognises the Catholic Church as an important element of the historical, cultural and moral development of the nation, and guarantees freedom of religious opinion and practice. According to the most recent census, the vast majority of Peruvians are Catholic (around 81%), followed by Evangelical Protestants (12.5%) and other faiths (3.3%), while roughly 2.9% of the population does not identify with any religion. The country is home to small communities belonging to other faiths, including other Protestant denominations, Judaism, Islam and syncretic and Amerindian religions, among others.

A number of celebrations figure prominently on the country’s religious calendar, including semana santa (holy week), celebrated the week before Easter, and the Lord of the Miracles month in October.

Culture & Heritage

Peruvian culture is mainly rooted in Native American – specifically, Incan – and Spanish culture, although African, Asian and other European cultures have left their mark as well. According to a 2014 survey by the INEI, 52.4% of Peruvians self-identified as mestizos (mixed Amerindian and Spanish ancestry), with smaller percentages identifying as Quechua (28.3%), Aymara (1%), Amazonian (0.7%), black or of African descent (2.8%) and white (6.1%). The country boasts a rich cultural and archaeological heritage that is still being studied and discovered today, with a thriving handicraft and textile export industry, offering a wide range of arts and crafts.

Natural Resources

Peru’s economy is a reflection of its varied topography, with its three main geographical regions supporting a mix of economic activities. Large mineral deposits can be found in the Peruvian Andes. According to the Ministry of Energy and Mines (Ministerio de Energía y Minas, MINEM), Peru has the largest reserves of silver in the world, which accounted for 24.5% of global reserves in 2015, as well as the largest reserves of gold, lead and zinc in Latin America. It is no surprise then that Peru remains a major global minerals and metals producer, second only to Chile in the production of copper, which accounts for 42% of the country’s total mineral value. According to MINEM, in 2016 the country reached new historic peaks in the production of copper (2.35m tonnes) and silver (4374 tonnes), while gold production reached 153 tonnes.

The tropical Amazon region, for its part, contains a wealth of oil and gas deposits, as well as forestry resources, while the coast is best known for its rich maritime resources and export-focused agro-industry.

 

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Cover of The Report: Peru 2017

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Peru 2017. Explore other chapters from this report.