Sunday, April 30, 2006

Villa Ecologica

Driving up through the suburb of Alto Selva Alegre towards the flanks of El Misti, the basic but tidy houses of brick and concrete peter out, and the sealed road comes to an end. You're now entering the zone of the "pueblos jovenes" ("young towns"). These are the Peruvian equivalent of the Colombian comunas or the Brazilian favelas - new, informal settlements populated by the poor and marginalized who have often migrated from rural areas in search of a better life.

On Monday morning we headed up in Hugo's 4-wheel drive to visit one of the newest and poorest pueblitos, called Villa Ecologica. It's common for these shantytowns to bear unrealistically optimistic names, such as the "City of God" depicted in the Brazilian film of the same name. "Villa Ecologica", however, does bear some relation to reality, the name coming from the one-time designation of the terrain in and beyond the settlement as a provinical park.

My introduction to the case of Villa Ecologica was thanks to Ilona, a Polish postgraduate sociology student who came to Arequipa through an AISEC (international student organisation) exchange programme, hoping to work in social projects. Hugo is registered with AISEC to provide work experience to students, and Ilona was put in contaact with him.

As can be Hugo's way, he hadn't been entirely straight with Ilona about what she would be doing, and she ended up involved in boring tasks in the agency office for most of her first couple of months. But Hugo did manage to introduce her to contacts in Villa Ecologica, where he had delivered some of his own well-meaning though sporadic projects, such as organizing a Christmas party and presents for the children of the settlement.

Ilona explained the results of her investigations so far. The one thing which came absolutely on top of the list of areas where Villa Ecologica needed help was, unsurprisingly, water. In a city which scrapes a bare 100mm annual rainfall, water supply is always going to become a problem. The greenness of the valley which so attracted the Incas and the Spanish is largely a result of irrigation from the river Chili, which wends its way down from the sierra.

But as Arequipa has sprawled out the north, uphill towards the slopes of El Misti, the new areas are cut off from the river, and have no easy access to water. Misti, the city's icon, itself supplies no water. At present, the inhabitants of Villa Ecologica make do with communal tanks which are filled once a week by water which is trucked in and costs 48 soles (about $15 USD) for a tankload. They then have to fill up buckets and carry them several blocks to their own dwellings to supply their needs.

Ilona told me that she had gone to talk to an engineer at the Municipality of Selva Alegre about the possibility of connecting the town water supply to Villa Ecologica. She said she was told that this would be a very costly project to supply just Villa Ecologica; the pueblito holds around 3,500 families, of whom less than 2,000 are resident now. The municipality would prefer to undertake a project that could benefit a greater number of people.

There was another possibility. Villa Ecologica backs into a steep hillside. On the other side of the hill, at the bottom of a steep quebrada, is the river Chili. If this water could be pumped the short distance uphill and held in a medium-sized reservoir, it could then be distributed downhill to Villa Ecologica at a moderate cost. Hugo said that while bringing the water from the main Arequipa supply would run into the millions, pumping it over the hill could be done for an estimated $200,000 USD.

Essential to any progress with such a project were proper topographical plans of the area. Hugo said they had already commissioned studies of the hillside from the river to the top of the hill. Two masters students in civil engineering from La Catolica University were also interested in doing a project on the area. In addition, it was thought that a detailed mapping of the township had been commissioned, if not already completed.

Such plans would be vital to any proposal for a project to supply water. Hugo and Ilona understood that money had been collected from the community residents for the studies. But when they had asked Vladimiro, the president of the community association, about the existence of the plans, he had been vague and evasive.

For Villa Ecologica, water was the priority on which everyone could agree. But Ilona had also talked to people such as the señora Beti, teacher at Villa Ecologica's kindergarten, who had different perspectives on the problems of the pueblito. Many of the residents are single mothers who face enormous difficulties bringing up their young children amidst grinding poverty. Ilona was also looking into the possibility of getting La Catolica to run a health campaign in the settlement.

I wanted to see all this for myself, so we decided to head up to the settlement. As we turned off the sealed road to bump our way into Villa Ecologica, we passed one-room houses made of large blocks of stone crudely plastered together and looking just high enough for a short person to stand up. In between were heaps of rubbly rock which may or may not have served as fences, or perhaps were intended for further construction. It wasn't hard to believe Hugo's comment that "this is probably the poorest part of Arequipa".

Most available wall-like structures carried some kind of political propaganda. Although I was assured that the majority of residents were supporters of Ollanta Humala, the dominant piece of graffiti was "Ollanta Asesino" scrawled on several walls, with a variation of "Ollanta Asesino de Policias". The latter seemed to refer to the actions of Antauro, Ollanta's brother, whose "rebellion" in Andahuaylas in New Year 2005, had led to the death of four policemen.

We were initially looking for Vladimiro, to ask him again about the plans of the settlement. But he wasn't at home, nor in the comedor where he is apparently often to be found.

We carried on out of the settlement and up the hill. On a bend of the increasingly rough track, about fifteen people were working in a little infierno of heat and dust, heaping together piles of shattered rock. Hugo said that they were collecting material which would be trucked downhill and used in various construction projects. Despite the conditions, the workers looked in good spirits, and several smiled and waved at us as we drove past.

At the top of the hill we found a spectacular view down to the river and green terraces on the opposite bank, and a small concrete reservoir. Hugo said the reservoir had been put there when the ecological park had been planned for the area beyond the current settlement; water was to have been pumped over the hill for irrigation. The plans were canned when the local government changed.

"But you see - it's obviously a logistical possibility", he said. Initial enquries had been made about whether the reservoir could be used to supply Villa Ecologica if the rest of the infrastructure were in place. Ilona said the council had said no; it was too close to some power lines, which ran just overhead. "Which begs the question why they put it there in the first place - or why they put the power lines there later", she said.

As we came back down the hill, the people working on the hillside waved at us again. One of the men made a drinking motion with his hands. "Did we bring any water?", I asked Hugo. He shook his head. We drove on, embarrassed that we hadn't even been able to offer some simple assistance.

Back in the settlement, we decided to look for the señora Beti. Not everybody in the township was ilooking so positive. A young woman lingering on a corner barely raised her head when we asked for directions. With something between a grunt and whimper, she gestured uphill.

We drove up the hill towards a new-looking building of brightly-painted concrete, which doubles as a chapel and kindergarten. It even had a slightly pitched roof - a definite indulgence in Arequipa.

Kindergarten was just getting out as we arrived. Young women smiled and greeted us, and there were kids laughing and playing with dogs in the dirt. We waited for the señora Beti, who was a tiny woman with a friendly but serious expression.

I said I was interested in writing something about community development in pueblos jovenes like Villa Ecologica, and the obstacles they face. She nodded, nd began to briefly enumerate the social problems of the community. "Domestic violence; solo mothers with no support; children shut in the house all day while their mothers go off to try and make money; alcoholism; children growing up without fathers; juvenile delinquency; lots of health problems", she listed.

Beti didn't have much time at that moment, but she said she would be happy to talk in more detail about life in the community and its problematic issues when she had the opportunity. We offered to collect her and bring her down to Hugo's place when she had more time.

We also agreed to keep chasing after the president, to try and discover the truth about the topographical plans of the township.

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