Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Children, Homeless Suffer as Wave of Cold Hits South Peru

If you take mainstream media coverage at face value, you could be forgiven for thinking that large scale poverty in the developing world is restricted to Africa. Almost all the recent discussion of debt relief, aid and "making poverty history" has talked only about Africa, and one article even erroneously stated that the debt relief agreed by the G7 was for "eighteen African countries" (in fact, four of the eighteen were from Latin America--Bolivia, Haiti, Nicaragua and Guyana).

It's worth remembering that serious poverty is not restricted to Africa, is not just about debt, and won't be made history by a couple of rock concerts.

The below info was sent to me by Hugo in Arequipa, who wanted it translated for the South America Tour website. The first paragraph I believe is from a newspaper; it's a straight translation. The other two were in Hugo-ese, requiring a bit of rewriting--but the facts are straightforward:

"Peru is not immune from the inclemencies of nature. Dozens of children younger than five years old have died in recent weeks because of the wave of extreme cold affecting the south of the country. According to Ministry of Health statistics, since the beginning of the freeze in the high Andean areas, MINSA has treated 1,400,000 cases of acute respiratory infections (ARIs), as well as 400,000 cases of pneumonia. More than 21,800 children less than one year old, from38 high Andean communities, are most at risk from the big chill gripping our compatriots in the south.

"In the early morning of the 15th of June, South America Tour personnel went into the streets of Arequipa to hand out blankets to beggars, street children, collectors of recyclable trash and people who have nowhere to sleep. Many have come from the sierra looking for a better life, but employment opportunities are few. To survive, they collect bottles during the night around markets and from rubbish bins to sell to recyclers, who pay 50 centimos per kilo (about 16c US). This is hardly enough to live on; some nights they don’t find enough bottles to sell and therefore don’t have enough money to feed themselves the next day.

"This little project was organized to provide help to about 50 people. It was greatly welcomed; the gratitude and appreciation for the assistance that was offered could be seen in the happy looks on people’s faces, especially the children. Due to the low temperatures experienced in Arequipa, the majority of them were suffering from colds and the flu.

"These works of social assistance that the travel agency carries out are thanks to the foreign tourists who use our services."

Further information I've picked up off Peruvian news sites suggests that about 80,000 herd animals have died in the highlands so far during the cold snap. This causes major hardship, as the alpacas and llamas are the main source of cash income for people in the highlands, as well as being important to their subsistence.

Conditions were similar when I was in Peru last year; if anything, the "wave of cold" was more severe, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency by the government. Thousands of animals died, rural communities faced major difficulties, and emergency relief had to be brought in. Cuzco received a dusting of snow for the first time in about 30 years.

In Arequipa, at 2300 metres above sea level, temperatures don't drop quite as low as in the highlands. But risk of respiratory illness is heightened by the dry desert air and the significant pollution (surrounded by mountains, Arequipa suffers from trapped polluted air in a similar way to Los Angeles, Santiago and Christchurch). As Hugo points out, it's also where people who've moved from the highlands end up, and without much shelter, night time temperatures of 4 or 5 degrees are quite cold enough.

Extreme cold in southern Peru tends to be associated with El NiƱo conditions, which seem to be becoming more frequent in recent times. This may or may not have something to do with global warming. Some might conclude that this underlines the need to control greenhouse emissions and stop global warming.

Probably true, but more pressing is the need for development, jobs and money, so people can move beyond a near-subsistence existence and not be faced with catastrophe each time there's climatic instability--which can happen, global warming or no global warming. The people living on the streets in Arequipa moved there exactly because it seemed preferable to clinging on to a tenuous existence in the countryside. Addressing poverty requires more than giving people an extra goat and a hand-operated water pump for their village.

Some may see an element of self-promotion in Hugo's account of how he's bringing solace to the poor. It's true that he wants to promote his South America Tour business as a social- or eco-tourism operation, having become aware that there's a growing market for this approach. But all power to him. Like many middle-class Peruvian people, he sincerely does want to help those less fortunate. Byhanding out soup and blankets to just 50 people, he and Lizbeth are getting more help directly to people who need it, than large chunks of aid money administered by unwieldy western NGOs.

And if he can "sell" the socially responsible side of his business and get more clients, all the better. Hugo does need some persuading that paying a fair wage to his employees is as, if not more worthy than giving soup and blankets to steet people, but I'm sure will get there in the end, especially if his own revenue becomes more secure.

Peru needs many things, but No 1 at the top of the list is viable businesses which make money, employ people, and increase the available wealth. Tourism is renewable, resource-light and, in cases where it's operated by a local business, involves direct transfer of wealth to ordinary people in a developing country. Which is something that no rock concert will achieve.

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1 comment:

Vince said...

You have highlighted another spectrum of energy wealth, apart from transport fuels. Your previous blog about students in freezing Christchurch flats is a point on this spectrum that is above South Peru (and North India) but way below USA and Europe. Heating energy is expensive in real terms, and the rich countries can afford to consume most of it.