Interview with a Peru campesino rights activist: “There is a tremendous absence of government here”

By March 29, 2018


It is estimated that half of the people who live in Peru’s many rural regions are at or below the poverty line. Continous inaction and lack of planning from local governments in these areas make the work of nonprofits beyond the reach of Peru’s cities all the more important.

That’s why Delicia Coronado Rivera, director at Rural School of Education and Salud (ESCAES), and her partner Dr. María del Carmen Parrado Novoa founded the institution in 1989 to help propel development in Peru’s rural zones.

In a long interview with Peru Reports, Coronado said they work with 38 communities total in the Ayabaca province in the Piura region in Peru’s northwest, on the coast of the same region in the Sechura province, and the Cutervo province in the Cajamarca region in the central part of the country. In receiving most of their funding from the Spanish government, the nonprofit has been able to help the campesinos (the all-encompassing Spanish term for people living in rural areas) with cleaning up water sources, finding more sustainable crops to harvest, and other necessary techniques.

After a deadly El Niño season in 2017 that destroyed key points of infrastructure and countless harvests, the Peruvian government has been slow in responding with aid. Just days ago during a visit to Piura, where ESCAES is heavily involved, President Martín Vizcarra promised that quick reconstruction would be coming after a year “of doing practically nothing.”

Coronado talked to us about ways in which ESCAES has helped fill in for the void left by the government and what Peru’s rural people need most going forward.

*The following excerpt of our interview with Coronado has been edited for brevity.

Peru Reports: How and why was ESCAES funded? Was there a certain systemic problem you guys found that you needed to respond to?

Delicia Coronado Rivera: We’ve been working for 30 years starting in the Ayabaca province on the border with Ecuador. My partner (Dr. María del Carmen Parrado Novoa) is a doctor and I’m a professor. So we find people with varying problems of health and, on the other side of the coin, with deep-rooted educational problems like illiteracy. On top of that, there’s this enormous absence of the state that’s so bad that the Ayabaquinos (local people in the province) would prefer to be Ecuadorians and not Peruvians.

We work on the development of education in these populations and the promotion of good health. My partner works with checking in on patients but we don’t have, let’s say, a hospital. More than anything it’s raising the consciousness of their right to health. And with this right to health, the fundamental part is the influx of food, which is very deficient.

PR: What are some factors that contribute to little amounts of food for these people?

DCR: The deficiency of food in the countryside is because the seeds they have to work with are very weak. Also, the fields there are extremely overused.

So the people are very malnourished and their farms are in bad shape. They’re also at high risk from the weather and the varying effects of frosts, droughts, and heavy rains. All this situation makes it so that people don’t produce much and the little time span they can produce stuff in only lasts for six months exactly. So what should they do? So they plant their harvests then later go to the coast or to the jungle in order to find other work but this doesn’t really yield much money either. And the family risks abandoning their properties. So this whole situation, this absence of the state in the rural zone, where there is this tremendous lacking, is made worse.

PR: Can you tell us a little about the role of the school exactly in education?

DCR: This isn’t an institutional school, per se. We do have offices that act as information centers. But more than that, what we do is visit families and help organize them. We work with kids from the youngest age possible and evaluate them from ages zero to five and have a program for them. We work with mothers so that they learn how to take care of their kids with development and feeding techniques.

PR: So the institution is built around having face-to-face interactions?

DCR: It’s all face-to-face. And when we’re interacting with them we have a whole team, it’s not just us two alone. We have technical teams for health and education and what we do is monitor the needs and how we have to relate with the people and do it while still respecting their culture.

It’s not that I come to a place and just spill out my knowledge on them. It’s about establishing horizontal relationships with direct treatment so the people see that we’re in solidarity with them. We’re not going to the places because we’re more and they’re lesser. We need this horizontal treatment because our practices and teachings are designed around the local cultures, especially with women, most of whom never have the opportunity to go to school. So this too is changing.

PR: I’ve read about a project where you are helping to improve fishing locally and help clean up water sources. Can you explain those a bit more in detail?

DCR: We work on the coast with fishermen who don’t have anything to fish because of the local aquacultures. They didn’t know how to work so we have another technical team and we are working on installing the needed technology which cultivates scallop shellfish. We set up a laboratory to measure the quality of water and the oceanographic conditions and red tides. So all of this is available to the fishermen. Most important is producing the shellfish and in want conditions, which means taking care of the environment is fundamental. It used to be that all their trash was entering the water that they were fishing and consuming but this has changed and isn’t happening anymore.

(In these coastal areas,) we’ve also worked specifically with women on improving their overall quality of life and establishing meaningful relations regardless of gender. There’s a high rate of machismo here, like in all the world really. I always say that machismo is humankind’s original sin. It’s telling men who want to dominate women that we’re really partners going along the same path.

So everything in these regions is changing. Like a fisherman was saying to a Spanish partner of ours, ‘I’ve learned to not see things based on gender and now I help my wife with cleaning the house and taking care of the kids.’ Knowing that a man has changed to help out with household chores makes for a beautiful dynamic that shows you can make a new life built around respect between people and nature. And from there you can make a distinct life with dignity for everyone.

So the life of these rural people can change and they see in ESCAES a salvation and that this is what needs to be done. The regional and local governments also see that it is possible to change these peoples lifes in the rural zones. But there have to be decisions that are agreed upon and plans that are managed in an honest and transparent way.

PR: Going off the theme of the environment, Peru was obviously hit very hard by El Niño and the heavy rains in 2017. How badly were people affected in the rural areas and how much did it change their day-to-day lives?

DCR: The campesinos lost their animals, their seeds, their crops. The rain took it all away. Their roads and highways suffered from collapses and landslides. We’re still in reconstruction in a way. It’s as if there was an air raid of bombs or an earthquake. But it’s getting better.

Everyone knows the political problems we’ve had in the country and we hope that this time they begin taking reconstruction efforts seriously by showing some commitment, dedication, and transparency.

PR: In Peru, 50 percent of the campesinos are impoverished. What can local governments and the government of Peru do to help install projects and spur on development to cut down that horrible statistic? Does everything revolve primarily around education?

DCR: Yeah, well the government has done educational campaigns. But education isn’t just about learning to read and write. Education has to involve integral human development, allow people to feel proud of their culture, give them a reason to have self-esteem and develop leadership skills. It’s about enacting lessons where people can see themselves learning and they tell themselves they can do it.

It’s a long process that we’ve been working 30 years on and if we’ve been successful in anything, it has been the rural people realizing that it is possible to live in a different way. There have been some who have resisted this change but when you see your neighbor changing you say to yourself, ‘Oh it was true and maybe it’s good to do that. I want to be part of the ESCAES family, too,’ they’ll say.

But with these changes in government now there has to be a national plan put in place that is respected and followed. And each local government has to decide who will oversee and sustain these plans.

PR: Meanwhile, if the government remains absent, what are some other noteworthy projects you all are doing at ESCAES to help the campesinos?

DCR: We are making human development projects that entail several strong sectors. First is overall food security and the economic relation to that. Second is the promotion of health within families and communities, and this extends too to the social factors that determine health.

And also we work on focusing on social inclusion among genders, focus on protecting the environment and on land development. All of this is worked on through a dynamic of leaders that promote fundamental rights so that people end up better organizing themselves, end up participating in the decision-making process, and present projects to their local governments.

For example, the municipality of Cutervo has 15 urgent projects currently in the red tape process. Bureaucracy doesn’t allow us to advance. It’s paperwork after paperwork and there’s the President (Vizcarra) visiting Piura and he said ‘For the reconstruction projects there were 25 million soles but they only spent 10 percent of that because everything is still within the parameters of bureaucracy. We can’t advance like that. A lot has to change.