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Progress Will Be Different This Time

Progress Will Be Different This Time

On the side of the market building in Ayacucho the words are emblazoned in large, blue letters, over and over again:

“Yes to construction. No to regression.”

I ask a man sitting on the side of the road to explain them to me, but I already know what they mean. It is a debate played out over and over again in the Andean communities of Peru; the same graffiti, although most likely in reverse, is plastered across houses, markets, public buildings, farm walls, all across the region.

“No to exploitation.” “Down with the rector,” or mayor, or president, “he sold out to the capitalists.”

I always thought I knew which side of that fight I was on.

*

There was an article recently in the national broadsheet El Commercio, about the difficulties of investment in the region of Cusco. Investors, foreign or hailing from Lima, were almost unanimous in bewailing the suspicion with which they were treated, the constant strikes, the lack of appreciation for progress.

I read it in my favorite bar, well-booted feet propped on a coffee table alongside Mac notebook, coffee at my side, paper held between manicured fingers. I found myself tsking along in sympathy. Cusco is a city that thrives on tourism, I thought. Yet, in attempting to invest in the tourist industry here, attempting to renovate and open Yamanyá Backpackers, we’d run into nothing but roadblocks and pit-traps. We worried about strikes closing the train-lines, and petty thefts creating a reputation for disorder and danger. We worried about our investment, our money.

Why did the locals have to be their own worst enemy?

And then I took a look at myself, student of human rights, long time fan of Aung San Suu Kyi, sitting there comfortable in my complacency, wondering why the locals of this region wouldn’t just roll over and support a progress that they clearly didn’t agree with.

*

It was September, and the railway line to Machu Picchu was closed again, for two days this time, because of water protests. The 1,500 tourists the train usually carries daily were left hanging, and out of pocket, and I remember sighing and thinking that this, plus the disastrous rainy season of early this year, was all adding up to a fairly poor year for Cusco’s international reputation as a so-called “tourist hotspot”.

And I remember immediately wondering how this would affect my business.

In the last ten years, as Cusco has increasingly grown as a tourist destination, a tug-of-war has developed between those who are benefiting from the influx of outsiders, and those who are not. While the tour guides and restaurant workers may live better, other residents who do not enjoy an economic relationship with the tourists have not seen any measurable increase in health care or education.

A rash of violent protests in 2008 saw the airport closed and the only rail line to Machu Picchu blocked; it was estimated the industry stood to lose about US$6.8 million a day.

*

I’m in a grungy, local bar in Ayacucho, toasting the sunny morning with a uniformed policeman. He’s dismissive of the graffiti outside, the agricultural strike which had brought him there, 9 months ago, the continual demonstrations and marches. “It’s the culture of the people here. Complain, complain, complain.”

And he grinds his cigarette into the concrete floor with a booted foot.

A favorite metaphor of President Alan García is that of el perro del hortelano – the gardener’s dog, who guards the market garden and neither eats the vegetables nor allows other animals to do so. To García, the predominately poor, indigenous population of the Andean sierra and the Amazon rainforest suffer from this syndrome. They fail to adequately exploit the rich resources around them, and try to prevent anybody else from doing so as well.

When a string of roadblocks and protests against the exploitation of rainforest reserves by Hunt Oil got out of hand, García stated publicly that the protesting indigenous were not “citizens of the first class”, that they had no right – this minority, tucked away in the folds of their jungle – to tell the majority of Peruvians to stay out of the reserves.

Who, I wonder, are the first class citizens? The wealthy city dwellers, economic liberals and neo-liberals, riding an exhilarating wave of economic growth and stability after the nightmarish hyperinflation of the late 1980s.

The second class citizens are told to sit down and shut up, to wait for the trickle-down benefits which will, eventually – or so we are told – arrive.

In the Cusco region, the majority of the population lives off of agriculture. Tourism investment does not have an immediate measurable effect on their lives. The influx of tourists is instead resented, as prices are driven up and farmland developed.

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The government promises new jobs, and economic progress – indeed, Peru is one of the most-stable, rapidly growing economies in Latin America. But the economic benefits have not been doled out equally, and in many of the highland tourist destinations, like Cusco, poverty continues to affect nearly half the population.

And here we are again, claiming that this time it will be different. And as far as I’m concerned, it will be. We’re already making links with a local charity, providing jobs, making plans to give as much back as we can. I see this backpackers’ hostel as a valuable opportunity to gain some business experience, perfect my Spanish, provide a home and (hopefully) income while I finish my degree, gain residency in a South American country. And then my ten-year plan culminates in an NGO of my very own.

But does this make me one of the good guys – a giver, not a taker? Am I not, in a slightly more self-satisfied and less blatantly exploitative manner, still here, a foreigner in Cusco, getting what I need, wanting everything to fit my life plan?

*

It was March, and we were bouncing along potholed roads on our way to a community badly damaged by the floods and landslides of the previous month. We passed the river, its swollen waters receding at last, tree trunks and garbage left bereft on the muddy upper banks; the detritus of villages that had been washed away.

We passed collapsed houses, families digging with tools or their bare hands through the adobe bricks that, soaked through by incessant rainfall, had softened until they could hold the roof no longer. By one house, a child’s bicycle was propped up against a tree, its wheel slightly bent, the seat caked in mud.

I spent the day carrying tiles from a collapsed house and stacking them neatly along a nearby embankment. The mother of the family scrabbled among the wreckage for useable salvage, her baby swaddled across her back in colorful Andean fabric, her tired face quick to break into a resolute smile whenever I caught her eye. Her ten year old son sagely instructed me on how best to use a shovel to loosen the river mud that caked the roof of the house, trapping tiles, and the neighbors’ daughter took me by the hand and showed me crayon drawings.

“Where will you go?” I asked the mother.

She shrugged. “The government has land for us, but it’s a long way away and the school for the children is here. And there’s no water, no electricity.”

The news headlines had revolved around the tourists trapped in Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu; the government had evacuated them in helicopters, focused all energies on getting the train line up and running again.

The communities affected by the floods are still, almost a year later, struggling to rebuild their lives.

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