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Posts Tagged ‘aid relief’

Thanks to a stirling effort by Bullfrogs nightclub in Cusco, a few thousand soles were raised from one of their nights to put towards the efforts of  Hogar de Los Niños del Sol (Home of the Children of the Sun), a project founded and run by Carlos Gibaja Tapia.  Priorities for Carlos were to create a covered communal space for the homeless members of the Sacred Valley communities to be able to cook and eat, providing an end-point for the foodlines that he had already been set up.  Solutions for housing would be shortly to follow, replacing the crowed Ministry of Defense tents that had been distributed in limited amounts around the affected communities.  Thanks to connections with Leander, founder of the UK charity MySmallHelp that was acting with Carlos to recieve donations from  overseas, our presence was requested to assist with the building of a comedor, or cantina.

Building a comedor, PaucabambaBuilding a comedor, PaucabambaBuilding a comedor, Paucabamba

We met Carlos early on Saturday morning and shot down into the Valley in a hired truck to pick up some wood to build the frame of the design that he had been drawing up over the previous couple of days.  A straightforward timber frame affair with tarpaulin sheet walls and a corrugated plastic roof, it wasn’t going to win any design awards, but it was relatively cheap, quick to put up and apparently very durable.  A similar design had been installed in a community a few years back and was still standing to date.

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

We arrived in the community and got to work straight away, the community members levelling out an empty patch of ground with picks and shovels, shoring up the downhill side of the plot with stones.  Throughout the day I was very impressed with the skill that the locals showed in everything they did, shaving paper thin layers off wooden beams with unwieldy picks and knocking 7″ nails into wood with a couple of blows after I’d bent a handful trying to do the same job, cursing for all I was worth.

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

Lou, Carlos, the locals and I worked together for about 3 hours until a couple of trucks rolled up stuffed with volunteers from Bullfrogs and a Cusco-based social project that Lou worked for, Aldea Yanapay.  Despite the enthusiasm of the volunteers, there were more hands than tools and tasks and progress actually slowed for a while as people charged around the crowded plot trying desperately to find ways to assist.

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

Eventually a debris clearing operation was found a little further down the valley and half the mob left in the trucks topull building materials out of flattened houses.  The pace of work picked up again, and soon the comedor was taking shape, as Lou and I committed our efforts to make a table for the comedor.  After our cheerful construction of a frame that could only be described as ‘functional’, idle locals descended upon our efforts to finish the job, resulting in a pretty decent looking piece of furniture.

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

Building a comedor, Paucabamba

We finished the comedor in about 8 hours of solid work, and as night fell the last nail was hammered into place.  The structure was christened with a meal from the food which had the result of donations from two lovely Americans, George and Kathy; simple but wholesome fodder of noodles, potatoes and meat.  Beer bottles arrived to toast the efforts of the construction crew, and by the light of the single bulb suspended from the rafters of the roof, Carlos thanked all present for their efforts and instructed them to make the most of their new facility.

Building a comedor, Paucabamba
Building a comedor, Paucabamba

It was a fascinating experience in which to be involved, and very interesting to see the interaction of volunteers with the work effort of the locals; there’s a great deal to be said for striking the balance between helping aid recipients to build their own facility, but giving them the lead in taking ownership of the resource that should be theirs for years to come.

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A nice surprise...

Since the last weekend of sobering revalations, people have been busy in Cusco.  Tuesday morning dawned and I stumbled down the stairs to find Lou staring slightly confounded at her laptop.  She was coming to terms with the fact that she had just recieved a very generous donation from some UK business contacts, a fairtrade sales and distribution company called Peros.  If you want to know how much, check out the JustGiving link, and while you’re at it, please leave a few quid yourself…

Now to anyone, a donation of this size would be a marvellous godsend.  That is, until you realise that you have to navigate the tricky waters of how to spend a large amount of money and make sure that you get every ounce of value possible.  With small donations, the logical route is to chip away at relief effort, but a large sum opens up long terms options; how can the money be invested to really benefit communities in the long term?

Options pop up for the coming months, including:

  • Debris clearance, relocation and reconstruction projects for affected communites
  • Investment in small businesses to diversify income from farming, which has been seriously affected by the distruction of the crops

and of course, right now

  • Ongoing relief aid; people need food, water, clothing and shelter, and in many cases are still not being provided with it

How do you balance the immediate need for aid and the sustainable investment of donations in longer term projects?  And just as importantly, how do you choose the right partners for the long term options?  There are a lot of community projects, NGOs and government schemes, but the waters are muddied with the mistrust between locals, government and foreign interests founded on a long history of corruption.

Rest assured the connections that are already forged with the communities of the Sacred Valley allow for a diverse range of perspectives about choosing the right options for development, and the right  partner to do them with.  It’s just a matter of time…

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Down To The Valley

Ruins in Calca

The remains of Calca. Gracias a Johan por este photo

I stand on the bank of earth that separates one stagnant lake of water from another as the fetid pools stretch to the distant adobe walls.  A putrid odour rises from the surface and smacks into my nostrils as I stare out over what used to be the village of Calca in the Sacred Valley, about a two hour drive out of Cusco.  Brick stacks that used to be walls stick out from the surface like broken teeth, wooden beams that once supported roofs and floors, splintered and broken, lie in tangled heaps.  Plumes of smoke rise from the chaos where something burns, and figures are barely visible, moving through the wreckage, searching for something, anything, that might be left.

It has been a week since the heavy rains that have swept violently through the Cusco region of Peru, causing rivers to swell and burst their banks, sweeping away houses, roads and bridges.  Landslides have been prolific, with hillsides tumbling onto houses, roads and sometimes people.  When the Vilcanota River burst its banks at about 4am on the morning of Sunday 24th January, the waters sprawled over the flat and fertile reclaimed soil on which, for decades, the local population had been building their houses and growing their crops, the fundamental source of income outside tourism.  Eyewitness stories that came from those who had visited the Valley were not pretty.  On Sunday the 31st of January, I had the opportunity to assist in a supply run to the affected communities with a group from the English school at which I work, and see the situation for myself.

High river in Urubamba

We crossed the swollen river that ran bloated beneath the bridge; its brown waters a dormant menace, like a carnivore resting after its last big meal.  Its banks were flecked with the detritus of buildings, trees, plants and possessions.  Urubamba was eerily quiet, the uphill side of the street a disarmingly normal scene.  The riverside, however, was a different story.  Buildings rose at crooked angles out of a mud-soup, tangled piles of brick, wood and metal showing where the rising river had mercilessly swept away the infrastructure.  We left town in search of a smaller community off the main supply route of the community organisations that were providing aid in the absence of government support.  We soon discovered that the more remote collections of houses in which to distribute the contents of the heavily laden truck were deserted, as the people chose to cluster around the main towns, waiting for assistance.  Turning back on ourselves and heading back in the direction of Urubamba, the decision was made to move along the main road and distribute a proportion of the supplies as and when families and groups were encountered.

Supply run in the Sacred Valley

It was a bizarre experience, travelling along rural roads overhung by trees and bordered by flowers as the steep green walls of the Valley towered above us.  The warmth of the midday sun cast a calm and lazy blanket over everything, and it was almost at times as if nothing had happened.  Then the tents started appearing at the side of the road, dark blue and boxlike, with families and groups sitting around them, or emerging blinking in the sunlight as the truck stopped for a drop-off.  Each time we asked how many families were affected, and had been forced to retreat from the weakened shell of their houses which could collapse at any moment to pack into the tents that sat beside them, and each time received sobering answers; eighteen families, four tents; twenty families, three tents.  Weary, red eyed elderly women broke down in tears as we handed over tins, and stony-faced men spoke of how they had lost everything.  Those who were not lucky enough to qualify for a tent sheltered under plastic tarpaulins, bundles of clothing and possessions heaped on the ground.

Supply run in the Sacred Valley

My companions were cautious as they handed out the tins, sacks and bottles; word had spread that certain people were taking advantage of the situation, claiming as much in aid resource as possible, and then selling it to fund upcoming construction work.  We saw one man struggling to haul a 10kg sack of pasta, a staple food delivery, through the front door of his shop.  Individual tins and bottles were handed out to each family in their roadside tent, with the sacks and bags given to community centres, where grasping hands and hungry eyes crowded around the truck, to be shouted back by the group leader.  Sadly, cries of “We’re homeless!” were treated with caution and mistrust as we tried to understand as best we could if we were giving to the desperate, or those who were going to sell to them.

Ruins in Calca

Our journey ended in Calca.  The once bulging tail of the truck almost empty, we arrived to the desolation of what once used to be the riverside residential district.  There we encountered the acting president, who led us to the community centre.  Inside were mountainous piles of clothes, the result of a donation, but only a few sacks of food in sight.  “We don’t need clothes,” he explained, “but that’s all they are bringing.”  Talking to him further, the frustration in his voice was clear.  “The mayor has left the town,” he continued, “And we think he’s useless.  They are having a meeting in Lima to get money for repairs, but he has been gone almost a week and we have heard nothing.”

Community centre in Calca

Forty-five families were sheltering in the community centre, some one hundred and forty-five people.  At the time we were there the vast majority were out working the land, trying to salvage the remains of the waterlogged and rotting crops that were about to be harvested before the rains struck.  Maize and potatoes form the majority of the export crop, and without the income from the harvest, the future is especially bleak for the families of the Sacred Valley.  Without housing, income and support from their government, the long hard stretch through the rest of the wet season and out the other side into urban regeneration and soil renovation and replanting seems like an insurmountable task.

Food distribution in Calca

Flooding doesn't stop mischief...

We left the Valley with the little consolation that meals for the day had been provided to some of the families, but the work that needed to be done was much longer and harder.  As testament to the spirit of the people and their resistance to hardships that they have doubtless endured over the years, a few of the local kids were stalking the streets armed with brightly coloured water pistols and balloons bulging with river water; February is Carnival month, in which periodic soakings are exacted upon members of the public, and especially tourists.  To lighten the mood, one member of our party decided to purchase a couple of balloons to exact some mischief on a car of fellow volunteers.  As we accelerated level with their vehicle, he hurled the balloon through the open window of the other car, only to see it bounce harmlessly intact out of the passenger window.  Adding insult to injury the remaining balloon burst in his hand, soaking the crotch of his trousers and leaving our driver cackling at the ineptitude of his broma.

NB: If any of you wants to donate to a project that is already helping to deliver food, water and clothing and build mobile kitchens and shelter for those affected in the Sacred Valley, you can donate through JustGiving.  £10 will feed around 16 families.  Further details of the project can be viewed at MySmallHelp’s webpage.

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