Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In Peru: the plight of the indigenous Quechua

A Quechua farmhouse within view of Llanganuco Lodge, on the slopes of Mount Huascaran

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.

Quechua farmers at market in Yungay, Peru (photo by Sally Kneidel)

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:

The Community Challenge- Yurak Veshi by Charlie Good

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
Peru are facing a crux move. Challenges are mounting from many angles. The seemingly benign and beneficial arrival of electricity, bringing TV and all its woes, the free trade agreement with the USA, rising seed and fertilizer costs, and the government’s water privatisation plans will end their way of life.

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!

Charlie Good is an economist from Bristol Uni, UK. He is a full-time Peruvian resident and owner of Llanganuco Lodge.

Llanganuco Lodge: an ecolodge on the flanks of the world's tallest tropical peak, Mount Huascaran (photo by Sally Kneidel)

Keywords:: Llanganuco Lodge Peru Quechua ecolodge Cordillera Blanca water rights privatization

1 comment:

Indigenous Peoples Activist said...

I can't believe this, "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." Sounds like Peru is trying to join the other major capitalist countries and make money off all of its resources. I hope more tourists become aware of the Quechua's disenfranchisement.