A River for Millions

Urban and Rural Lifestyles Meet in Peru


by and | Dec 13, 2013

Photo of the Santa Eulalia River from above.

The Santa Eulalia River from above. Photo courtesy of Gonzalo Alcalde

Seventeen–year–old Erika Ybazeta went to school in the small town of Santa Eulalia in the Peruvian highlands. The town is less than an hour’s drive from Lima, the coastal city of nine million that is the nation’s economic and political center. After graduating, Erika was only able to find work doing subsistence farming on her family’s small parcels of land in the nearby rural community of Cashahuacra. Thus, she is now part of what has been traditionally the main economic activity in the Santa Eulalia River basin.

Modern life in Lima, Latin America’s fifth largest city, would be unthinkable without the natural resources from this Andean valley. Located in the province of Huarochirí, it has been renowned among limeños for centuries for providing them with custard apples (chirimoya in Spanish) and avocados, as well as many other fruits and vegetables. However, few in the city are aware that the valley also provides more than half of their drinking water and 70 percent of their electricity, through hydroelectric power.

Life for approximately 30,000 people living in the Santa Eulalia basin is very different from life in metropolitan Lima, despite the geographical proximity and close ties. Only 30 percent of rural dwellers have electricity; 92 percent don’t have access to water, and 69 percent have no sewerage. In two of the ten districts in the basin, more than three out of every four residents have unsatisfied basic needs in terms of housing, water and sewerage, education, and income. It is not entirely surprising, then, that economic opportunities for young people like Erika are few and far between in rural Santa Eulalia.

Water supply and agricultural produce are not the only valuable assets for economic growth in the valley; ancient archaeological sites, traditional cuisine and striking natural landscapes have made this area a favorite weekend destination for thousands of limeños, especially over the last decade. The town of Santa Eulalia, a rapidly growing urban center, has experienced much unplanned growth as a result of increased tourism.

Erika’s father, Rony Ibazeta, is governor of Cashahuacra and the community’s political representative in the town of Santa Eulalia. Thus he has seen at first hand the dramatic surge in restaurants, riverside country clubs, and other places frequented by people from Lima who escape the city’s gray skies and hectic pace.

While tourism has brought growth and business opportunities for some in the town and surrounding areas, it has also led to water and waste pollution, as well as other problems that rural dwellers like Rony view with uneasiness. Although armed with greater budgets, politicians in Santa Eulalia and the Huarochirí province have concentrated the provision of new services on new urban dwellers and have tended to forget the rural communities. For centuries, the latter have considered themselves guardians of the river and of the natural and cultural heritage that are now sources of wealth for perceived newcomers. Rather than an opportunity, many like Rony see tourism as an antagonist that seeks to exploit water resources for its own purposes, without offering any direct benefits to lifelong residents.

An Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) project implemented in 2012 sought to harmonize the interests of the different groups using the water from the river basin. However, the project did not yield the expected results. Without competent leaders formulating clear objectives for dialogue, such initiatives generally fail. Communities in different parts of the basin have had little experience in coordinating their activities, and there is a significant lack of trust among various rural actors outside tightly knit communities. Dialogue is even more problematic between these rural actors and their urban counterparts. Rural dwellers consider their territory to be highly vulnerable, and they regard the case of Santa Eulalia as a cautionary tale of the negative impacts of tourism, which include undesirable social and environmental consequences.

In general terms, citizen consultation workshops held during the recent IWRM project revealed that there is discontent regarding the marked inequality in access to basic services between urban and rural areas, as well as with the perceived preference shown by state actors for addressing the needs of urban areas. Moreover, the rural population sees the proposed construction of a new paved road, connecting lower and higher areas of the basin, as a threat to their lifestyles rather than an opportunity for selling and transporting their products.

One of the people involved in the IWRM project consultations was Enrique Wangeman, a forestry engineer and businessman from Lima who owns a house in Santa Eulalia and whose grandparents were landowners nearby. Wangeman has played a key role in two associations that provide some hope for improved coordination among water users in the basin. First, he is president of Asociación Yacuñahui, a group that brings together most of the area’s avocado producers, providing a space for dialogue within an important sector of water users. Perhaps more importantly, he was also one of the main driving forces behind the formalization in 2011 of a commonwealth association (mancomunidad) that provides a platform for coordination and policy dialogue among all the local governments across the ten districts in the river basin. The commonwealth is still in its early stages and has not yet produced concrete results.

To date there has been little government communication or consultation regarding the benefits of tourism and improved infrastructure in the valley. Such an initiative would be valuable, given the fear expressed by local communities that tourism could increase to unmanageable levels, thereby reducing access to water by farmers, damaging land and hindering traditional festivities. At present, neither the people nor the tourist attractions are well prepared for a large influx of limeños.

Mario Tavera is one of the thousands of middle-class limeños who already visits Santa Eulalia when he needs a day or two away from the traffic jams and air pollution. Although Tavera is careful about garbage disposal, the restaurants that he visits generally throw out all their waste directly into the Santa Eulalia River. The restaurants do not have many alternatives, as public sewerage and waste disposal systems are very limited. Mario is not aware, either, that this is the same water that will eventually reach him in Lima when he takes a shower or cooks.

Coordinating the use of water resources in Santa Eulalia is complex in many ways, not least because of the diversity of actors involved. Three types of populations depend on the small river in this area: farmers; residents and business people in the urban area; and millions in Lima who are likely unaware of the importance of the river basin to their everyday lives.

At the same time, three levels of government are involved, together with a multitude of civil society and private sector actors. National government action is important in many ways, especially as it provides the legal framework for water use. Such legal frameworks have traditionally only considered agricultural use of water and have not fully accounted for other uses like tourism.

Passed in 2009, a new National Water Law holds different users accountable for their water consumption. The Lima Regional Government should enforce the law, but this has not yet been the case. The Regional Government has also failed to adopt an integrated view of the basin’s social and environmental needs when formulating new infrastructure and other development projects. Finally, local governments have been more preoccupied with attending to areas with the greatest density of voters rather than anticipating and preventing conflict between social groups with particular interests and preferences regarding water resources.

In addition to this complex set of actors, once-active mining continues to affect the water resources in the basin. The river water has been found to contain significant levels of heavy metals and other elements that are the result of natural sedimentary processes and mining activities. Most of the mining activity in the area finished decades ago, but the impact on water resources that are vital for millions of Peruvians is still evident. Laws and policies addressing the environmental liabilities of closed mining projects are unclear and weakly enforced at all levels of government.

Thus, potential conflicts loom behind the idyllic landscapes of the Santa Eulalia basin. In February 2012, President Ollanta Humala visited Huarochirí and announced that the Central and Regional Governments would soon construct the long-postponed paved road to connect the different areas of the basin. This includes the community where the Ybazetas live and work and also dozens of other small villages that have remained in far greater isolation from the urban issues of Lima and its inhabitants.

A small river can provide livelihoods for millions. Yet in a country with a rapidly growing economy, increasing social conflicts and changing consumption habits, the use of even a small river must be carefully managed if it is to be sustainable. Where tourists like Mario see natural beauty and rural traditions, local citizens like Rony and Erika increasingly see social exclusion and threats to their way of life. At the same time, however, some aspects of the ancestral relationship of farmers with the river may need rethinking. The growing use of modern elements like fertilizers, detergents and other substances by small farmers is not properly addressed by their traditional methods of water and soil cleaning. In the Santa Eulalia River valley, dialogue and capacity building is necessary for all those involved, not just the newcomers.

Winter 2013Volume XVI, Number 1

Gonzalo Alcalde is a researcher at the Peruvian think tank FORO Nacional
Internacional. He received a PhD in Public Policy from the University of Texas at Austin (2009).

Diego Espejo is a research assistant at FORO and participated in the IWRM Project in Santa Eulalia.

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