The coastal desert of western South America stretches from border of Peru and Ecuador south some 3,000 kilometres well down into Chile.
The garúa, a mist from the ocean, provides just enough moisture for a few very hardy plants to survive.
The bleached countryside breaks dramatically when the long, coast-hugging Pan-American Highway dips into green well-watered valleys fed by rivers flowing out of the Andes.
Early peoples learned to stretch out of their settlements from these hydro-centric havens out onto the desert.
Near the southern Peruvian town of Ica you could still walk on the old pre-Incan channels that spread the water far beyond the natural course of the river.
Somehow, using only very basic tools and incredible ingenuity, earlier inhabitants managed to create slopes of just centimetres over kilometres to keep the water feeding their fields of quinoa and other indigenous crops.
Twenty some years ago, I visited a rural water distribution co-operative just outside Ica.
It was funded by Development and Peace working through a small, local indigenous non-governmental organization.
Small producers relied on this resource, their community efforts and a little help from outside to win their orchards and vineyards from the desert. Two millennia after their ancestors greened this arid land, it bloomed again.
Ica was hit hard by a magnitude 8 earthquake last week. Today, like their ancestors, many built their homes with cheap, locally made adobe bricks. The collapse of these heavy earthen walls killed and injured many. The poor, as usual, bore the brunt of the suffering.
Natural disasters have always afflicted this region. As the Nazca plate crashes into the South American plate the Andes are still being pushed up.
The violence loosed by these tectonic forces rocked the land long before descendants of wanderers from Beringia first came south along South America’s coast 200 centuries ago.
The Peruvian people will recover from this most recent natural calamity. Homes, irrigation canals and other infrastructure will be rebuilt.
Ongoing man-made disasters, though, present a real threat to the long-term health and security of Peruvians.
Since Francisco Pizarro and his band of 168 conquistadors captured Atahualpa, the Inca, in 1532, Peru’s economy has been geared to serve the demands of foreign rulers not the needs of its own population.
A free trade agreement between the USA and Peru currently being ratified just furthers this trend.
A July 31st posting on AlertNet (www.alternet.org) reported that “for 25 years, Peru’s governments have faithfully implemented neoliberal policies supported by Washington,” according to the president of the Unitary Confederation of Peruvian Workers, Julio Cesar Bazán, “(while) income per person in Peru has scarcely grown in a generation.
“The Peru-US FTA not only does not get us out of this socioeconomic hole,” he continued. “It gives corporations like Citibank the tools to make sure we’re forced to stay there.”
Bazán recently led a two-day general strike against the FTA in Peru.
We have a role to play in responding to last week’s disaster in Peru. We also have a role to play in creating a new international system that puts people and their needs first, not corporate agendas.
Development and Peace has been asked by its partner Caritas Peru, which is in the forefront of a response to the earthquake disaster, to help fund its work in the affected area with thousands of families.
If you would like to assist call toll free 1-888-664-3387 or go online to www.sos.devp.org.