My family visited the Peruvian Andes this past summer. We loved trekking and birding in the most biodiverse country on the planet, but more than that, we loved the people of Peru. In the Andes, the majority of people we met were indigenous Quechuas. Their first language is Quechua; the women still wear distinctive traditional clothing, including the well-known fedora hats and colorful handmade garments. Some of the Quechua people we met were employed outside of their communities - as taxi drivers, or cooks at tourist lodges. But most still live the farming life; they are, in Spanish, "campesinos" or "country dwellers."
While we were in the Cordillera Blanca near the trekking mecca of Huaraz, Peru, we stayed at Llanganuco Lodge. We got to know the lodge owner Charlie Good, a transplanted British economist. He is the only Westerner in his community - his neighbors are all Quechua families who live and farm their ancestral lands. As an environmentalist and a socially-attuned resident of his community, Charlie is concerned about his neighbors' future. Apparently, the Peruvian government wants to privatize the water supply and charge Quechua farming communities in the Andes for using water from the irrigation canals that their own ancestors dug hundreds of years ago. That's a serious problem for families living on the edge of subsistence. Another accelerating problem is the influence of TV and modern technology in rural communities. With new Western aspirations, Quechua teenagers are moving to nearby towns. Their departure leads to "under-usage" of the land. Under Peruvian law, underused farm land can be reposessed by the government. So Quechua families are in danger of losing the farms that have been held by their families for a very long time.
Charlie Good, owner of Llanganuco Lodge, wrote the following piece for a publication in the nearby town of Huaraz. He gave me permission to reprint it here:
For visitors to Huaraz, the life of the Quechua Campesino may seem an idyllic one, and sure their balanced and sustainable life is enviable. Especially as they have their own plots of land, live with their families, are surrounded by their friends, and can produce all that they need.
Indeed we could do with taking a leaf out of their book in modern “society”. However the poor Andean communities of
Privatisation is a good idea I hear you say, well maybe… considering the problems this country faces with hastily retreating glaciers, but to use bureaucrats to charge the campesinos for the water they use for irrigation from the very irrigation ditches they themselves constructed….to me is highly questionable – firstly cost vs benefit issues are obvious and secondly does “Ancestral rights” not ring any alarm bells? Ancestral rights – being the very reason for the land reform act in 1968 that handed back ownership to the people of this land, which brings us to another cute one, the government legalising the sale of community land, perhaps a rumour, but a dangerous one if true. These factors and more amount to huge pressures to leave the communities. So with dwindling populations and under-usage of the communities’ lands, what happens? The government instigates old laws to seize these lands, due to under-usage, which they will now be able to sell. This all sounds like scaremongering? I just hope you are right because maintaining the knowledge of self-sustainable societies may well be essential for our survival.
In the meantime I'll be living in one of these communities promoting sustainable development and tourism, and trying to give these youngsters a reason to stay - that's my main challenge. You want to help? Great!