Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Voices of the Not So Poor

It wouldn't cost that much more, in international terms, to fly from Lima to Arequipa, but for me it wouldn't be quite right. After arriving, I wanted to work my way into the country by land, as if making its acquaintance again.

On my way to the bus station in Lima, I had a more jovial and conversational taxi driver. Still preoccupied with the theme of security, I asked him which parts of Lima were more or less safe. He thought a second and said: "only really the very centre". He said that things had got no better in the last couple of years. What was worse for citizens was that the very police supposed to protect them were sometimes implicated in the crimes. He cited two cases where police were accused of robbing motorists who had stopped or been pulled over.

My driver acknowledged that some things had been improved in Lima; public works and the modernization of some parts, but that while credit had to be given to Luis Castañeda for gettig things done, "no one holds him to account".

He was particularly critical of public education and health services:

"if it's an emergency and you're dying, you'll get treatment; anything else, they send you off to wait, even though you're sick. Then you get the basic treatment, but they send you off to get a whole range of scans and tests, which of course you have to pay for. Or there's some process to get reimbursed, but you know, those processes...and then you have to pay more for brand medicines, otherwise you only get the generic ones, which aren't effective, and you have to take ten times as much".

We moved on to talking about politics, and my driver reported himself unimpressed with Alan Garcia, who this time around was only doing better because, he had more money:

"Last time things were ok from 1985 to 1987, until the money ran out. It's like, in football, if you've got some skill, you're playing with good team mates, you get on the field, you'll do ok".

Not quite following the analogy, I asked: "So, is Alan a bad player surrounded by good team mates, or a good player surrounded by bad team mates?"

"I think he's a bad player surrounded by bad team mates", said my driver.

His theory on what underlaid Peru's problems was a familar one: "insitutionalized" corruption, at every level. I asked him how he thought that could be changed, and after a moment's thought he replied: "with difficulty...with great difficulty".

At the Ormeño bus terminal on avenida Javier Prado, surgical masks were again ubiquitous. The terminal has been improved, and now has a cafe, nice seats and a TV. However, passengers were scare, and when the Arequipa bus was called only a handful of people hopped on. The announcement for the bus indicated its destinations would include Cañete, Chincha, Ica, Nazca, and Camaná, before arriving in Arequipa. This contradicted the stated "direct" service of the Royal Class buses, but given the paucity of clients, I could forgive them.

On board, I struck up a conversation with practically my only fellow passengers in the front of the bus. Carlos and Claudio were from Ayapata, which they explained to me is reached from Juliaca, first heading southeast to the frigid Andean town of Macusani and later dropping down to around 3,000 metres on the way towards the jungle of Puno.

They explained that the main industry there is gold mining. With the current high prices of gold, it has become worthwhile to work over the tailings of old mines, and business is good. Carlos is a middle man, buying the gold off the prospectors, while Claudio is himself a prospector. He said that on average he could get 2 grams per day, worth around $250 USD, but some days there could be 10 or even 20 grams.

Carlos told me that in their territory, "the state is almost entirely absent", and the government does nothing for them, except for the paved highway from Macusani to Puno, "which in any cse was put in by Fujimori". He also criticised the level of bureaucracy that the central government imposes on the regions, and makes it difficult to get any projects moving. "They make an example out of the Puno regional government for only spending 1 percent of its investment budget, but it's them who made it so hard to do anything".

I asked if the state didn't even provide basic functions like police and health services.

"No, we threw the police out", said Carlos. He said that the police post used to be staffed by unwilling recruits sent from the likes of Lima and Arequipa, who didn't fit into the local culture. He claimed that they abused local women, and hassled local youths by constantly imposing fines on them. Now, security was provided by the ronda campesina, a kind of district-wide, rural neighbourhood watch. If a thief was caught in the community, "we take care of him ourselves".

In their community, Carlos and Claudio had developed a cooperative project to generate hydroelectric power, but wanted to expand it from 100 MW to 400 MW, to be able to supply the whole district with electricity. They had met with similar community groups from Junin who had received loans from NGOs to support them, and they wanted my advice on how to get something similar going. I gave them the names and addresses of some Peruvian NGOs that could possibly help.

According to Carlos, the community was welcoming the development of the Interoceanic Highway between Brazil and Peru, which, if they could get a 13km connecting road built, would greatly improve the ability to get their products to market, including subtropical fruits from the lower part of the territory.

This would be a typical story from the development literature: mariginalized rural, ethnic community, ignored or abused by the central government, working things out for themselves and becoming more empowered in the process. But reality usually has something incongruous to add to the picture.

As Carlos dropped off to sleep, Claudio, who had been pretty quiet, began to tell me about the Chinese herbal medicine for which he was a sales representative. I'll have to find the pamphlet that he gave me for the exact name and description, but it apparently involves different pastes, creams and tonics, which cure a range of ills, and are sent prefabricated from China according to a secret recipe. According to Claudio, this medicine was originally introduced to Peru after some soldiers with lingering ailments from the Peru-Ecuador jungle frontier war found that it was the only thing that worked for them. It was now so popular that a company representative had been received in the government palace by Alejandro Toledo.

Disturbed that Claudio was turning quacky on me, I said ¨what about the gold mining?". "Oh, I do both", he said. He explained that the medicine was sold through a system of "affiliation", and offered to get me the affilitation papers out of his suitcase. I politely declined, and adjusted my conceptual settings to recognize the possibility of a Chinese-origin Amway scheme operating out of remote Quechua communities.

The jet lag was still messing with me, and by the time we got to Ica, I was practically the only one still awake. A young guy occupied the seat behind me, and I apologised for the angle my seat was pushed back at. He introduced himself as Abraham, and said he was originally from Chumbivilca, a remote pueblito about halfway between Arequipa and Cuzco. He was an operator of heavy machinery, and had been working on construction projects in the area affected by the 2007 earthquake. He said that he earned about 1,500 soles monthly for working "at least" 10 hours a day, six days a week.

This, readers, is now up to what would count as a "decent" salary in Peru. Even as the sole income for a family of four or five, it would still leave them miles above the poverty line. But take into account the conditions and the hours of work, and you'll admit that what amounts to $125 USD per week is nothing to get excited about.

I asked Abraham how the reconstruction of the earthquake-affected zone was going and he said it was more or less on schedule. I recalled that he would mainly be working on the highways. What about the planned rebuilding of people's houses, I asked?

"Ahh, well, that's going a bit slower", he said.

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