Friday, May 05, 2006

The Mayor and the Engineer

On the ground floor of the municipality there were a confusing series of offices and counters and a lot of people waiting. We had been advised that we had to talk to the mayor in order to get any action. I was fully expecting us to have to take a ticket to wait our turn to talk to a clerk to make a preliminary appointment with the mayor for some days hence.

I was just looking around to figure out in which section we would have to do that, when Ilona simply bowled up to one of the security guards and said that we wanted to talk to the mayor. "OK, just head up the stairs" said the guard. It turned out that the mayor and the chief engineer hold court on Monday and Tuesday mornings, receiving complaints and petitions from their offices on the second floor.

After being directed to take seats by a smiling woman in the public relations department, we didn't have to wait long before we were ushered into the office of the mayor. On hearing that we there to enquire about Villa Ecologica, the secretary sent us in at the same time as a young woman who turned out to herself be from Villa Ecologica.

The woman was called Julita, and she recognised us. "Hey, weren't you guys in the community yesterday?", she asked, smiling. "In a maroon jeep?". She had been one of the people working collecting scraps of rock in the dust beside the track uphill where we had passed in the 4WD.

The mayor and the chief engineer were both robust, jovial men in their forties. Ilona and I were keen to get straight to the question of the health campaign, but the mayor was already in full flow. "You've come about Villa Ecologica, no?", he said. "You're interested in the water situation, then".

We decided to go with the water, given that the chief engineer Salinas, whom Ilona had spoken with previously, was present. "The problem about supplying water just to Villa Ecologica", said the mayor, "is that it would be a major investment for relatively few people. "Any solution needs to be part of an integrated project that can benefit a greater number of people".

But couldn't it be done relatively cheaply, I asked, and explained the proposal of pumping the water over the hill from the river. "Aha, nice idea", replied the mayor. "But it won't work. The problem is that the river at that point is contaminated. There would need to be a treatment plant installed, which as I'm sure know, costs a lot of money".

I said we had been told that there were no farms or anything further upstream. He said that in fact there were several settlements a way further upstream, including a police camp, whose drains were discharged into the river.
"Anyway", continued the mayor, "we have a better plan, which will bring water to a greater number of people. Wait, let's bring in the whiteboard".

During the lengthy wait while the mayor and chief engineer Salinas hunted down a whiteboard and were accosted by various other petitioners, we chatted to Julita. In contrast to the common image of poor, struggling people from marginal zones, she was bright, positive, articulate and well-informed.

She said she was from the northern jungle, beyond Iquitos, and had left home at age 12, arriving in Arequipa through "a long story of adventure". She said the main issue for Villa Ecologica, apart from water, was that the community was dominated by solo mothers and "abandoned women".

"And I admit - I'm one of those solo mothers", she grinned. "But I only have one child. And I don't see why being a solo mother should make me helpless. There's always something to do, some way to advance. If there's no work, you can always find something to sell. But fortunately, right now the council is supporting our work that you saw us doing".

I said that the work looked pretty back-breaking. "Yes, it's hard work, but at least it's regular", said Julita.

She said that one of the main problems in the community was the sheer number of kids, caused by complete lack of family planning. Women didn't " take care of themselves" (cuidarse is the euphemistic verb employed here to refer to using contraception), firstly, because of a lack of information, and secondly, because their husbands blankly refused. "They think that if their wives want to use contraception it's so they can cheat on them", said Julita. "Right, so then they end up with five, six, seven kids. And then, the husband decides to run off, leaving the woman with all the kids".

Julita said some of programmes supported by NGOs "didn't help", by creating perverse incentives. "You have three kids, you're eligible for getting a latrine built", she said. "Four, and they might help you with a new kitchen. Five, and they might provide you with a house. In other words, there's an incentive to be helpless and dependent. If you stick to one kid, work hard, and try to get ahead, you don't get any help".

By then the mayor and the engineer returned with the whiteboard, and the engineer proceeded to provide a layman's account of the project that they proposed. It involved running a new pipeline from one of the main Arequipa pipelines, uphill to a central high point at 2,700 metres. This would involve the installation of two additional pump houses and the construction of a reservoir on top of the mirador.

From there, water would flow downhill to the five or so pueblos jovenes in Selva Alegre. The engineer Salinas drew a detailed side bar of how things would work in Villa Ecologica. To supply water to Villa Ecologica would require a small "regulatory" reservoir uphill from the township, connecting pipelines, and a reticulated network to supply each house.

The whole project was estimated to cost around $2.5 million USD, while the Villa Ecologica section would cost about $600,000.

This all looked great on the whiteboard, we said, but when was it likely to occur? In fact, said the mayor, the first stage - the pipeline uphill from the main Arequipa supply was already fully planned, and the Arequipan provinical government had agreed to finance it. Construction was slated to start within a month. Municipal elections were scheduled for November, and, said the mayor, "people need to see that we've made a start".

However, for the supply to reach the pueblos jovenes, they also needed to do their bit. "You should never", said the mayor wagging his finger, "give people something for nothing. It leads to unrealistic expectations". As a contribution to the planning for the initial stage, each resident of the Selva Alegre pueblos jovenes had been asked to give 3 soles (about 90c US). So far, the only township not to pay in full was Villa Ecologica, which had collected less than half their designated amount.

Julita shook her head. "It's just that the president doesn't mention this in our weekly meetings", she said. "He talks about other things, but misses this stuff out".

In any case, said the mayor, any progress in Villa Ecologica would require an "expediente técnico" or detailed study of the terrain. The estimated cost would be about $12,000 USD. However, this could be reduced if the municipality could get hold of the mysterious plans of the Villa Ecologica residential area, which were thought to be in the hands of Vladirimo, el presidente.

We agreed to renew efforts to get hold of Vladimiro and ask him about the plans. We also agreed that Ilona would go with the engineer Salinas to the civil engineering department at la Catolica to look for students to help with the studies.

After the elaborate explanations of the water situation, we managed to move on to the question of the health campaign. I explained what we had been told at the university, and pointedly mentioned that the municipality of Socabaya has already arranged their health campaign.

"Right, no problem", said the mayor. "We'll write the letter now" - and he went next door to find his secretary. She wasn't there, but to make sure it would definitely happen, we said that Ilona would come back next morning at 9 am, collect the letter, and deliver it by hand to the university.

Our meeting wasn't yet over, as the mayor and the engineer felt like some more conversation. We talked about politics (the mayor was an Aprista; "if Alan is elected this will all happen quicker", he said). We were given an in-depth explanation of a cheap, environmentally friendly drainage system developed in Brazil and Bolivia and being piloted by the municipality in a nearby villge called Javier Herault.

We then moved on to the etymology of the town's unusual, French-sounding name. The mayor explained that it was named after a 1960s, Che Guevara-type rebel, who had also been a poet. "The town is named in his honour for his poetry, not for being a communist", he laughed. Apparently, young Javier had not been much of a fighter. "He used his rifle like a guitar", explained the mayor. "He lasted about five minutes as a guerrilla".

After more conversation, pleasantries, and exchange of contact details, we eventually staggered out into the sunlight, desperate for something to eat. We had been in the council offices over two and a half hours. One thing you can guarantee about Peru - people love to talk.

In New Zealand, I reckon, the whole meeting would have taken about ten minutes.

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