Economic whiplash

I have been up in the sierra on field work. It was an interesting and somewhat dramatic trip, for various reasons, and has left me with a lot to think about.

We came back yesterday: 8 hours on the bus between Huancayo and Lima. It was the first time I’ve made the trip up through the western side of the Andes in daylight. I’ve always been on the overnight buses previously. This time I was wide awake as we passed through the extensive mining concessions up in the high mountains.

Mining is dragging Peru out of poverty at the same time as it is destroying the natural wealth of the country. Mountainsides are pulverised and catchments are contaminated as the industry chews up the landscape with shocking speed. Legal and illegal mines alike take huge bites from the earth in the rush to consume its riches.

The mines are high: many over 5 000 mASL. It’s freezing cold, inhospitable country, and yet there are people, working in dangerous conditions in the hope of dragging themselves and their families out of poverty. As well as the miners themselves, there are the others hoping to make a little money from the business mining brings: men wrapped up in layers against the sub-zero temperatures trying to sell snacks to the passing vehicles; roadside restaurants in unlikely places offering a simple hot meal to cold workers.

On the bus...

Towns cluster around the processing plants, lower in the valley but still well over 3 000 mASL. Cold, inhospitable, treeless places where people live in earthen houses (the wealthier have concrete buildings) and signs advertise hot showers available for a handful of change. The women try to dry laundry in the cold, wet weather and kids play in the dust.

Around the bigger plants, established towns have grown up with proper infrastructure and the children wear smart school uniforms and the streets are paved and tidy. Peru’s mineral economic miracle is providing, and people trade beauty, warmth and the environment for a dream of a better future.

It’s a hard life, one that I can barely imagine, and it makes me think long and hard.

On the bus...

I get back to Lima, to an excited housemate who tells me she’s put in an offer to buy an apartment of her own, on a quiet street one suburb over. The place is beautiful and modern, with ocean views, and more than I could ever afford in Australia. She tells me how good the price is and shows me the room that would be mine if the offer goes through.

How do you even begin to reconcile such things? Oh Peru, Peru, Peru…

On the bus...

(photos taken through the bus window)

7 Comments on “Economic whiplash

  1. It’s a fascinating insight into the country, which resonates with the history of Wales. Here in rural Ceredigion the landscape is still scarred by the lead, zinc and silver mining that ceased over 100 years ago. For decades the rivers were polluted and abandoned spoil heaps bare. It is only in the past 30 years that nature has got the upper hand – the Rheidol river once more supports diverse aquatic life and the spoil is gradually colonised by heathland and even birch trees now. Of course, that was on a much smaller scale than you have seen in Peru, but it feels like history is repeating itself.

    • Hey, thanks for an excellent comment. I learnt more about Welsh history than I new previously. 🙂

      I think history is doomed to repeat itself until we can come up with new ways to support economic development that don’t cost the earth. It’s human nature to do what you can to give your kids a better chance. What I found confronting was just how far people can be willing to, or may need to, go to do that. Far beyond my first-world imaginings!

  2. I believe there is no political or social force that could change this excursion of Peru into mining. People being what they are, money decides. A few individuals may realize that following the power of money leads to destruction. But it still may take quite a while, until those few become many and the destruction is arrested – if ever. Thank you for that description. A suggested title: “Gateway to Hell”.

    • As long as there are people living in poverty, the environment will be traded for a chance to give their kids a better chance. Peru’s great challenge is to provide viable alternatives (economically and environmentally) that give people a better option than mining, cocaine production, illegal forestry or many of the other ills that trouble this amazing country. Part of that includes dealing with the corruption and disregard for the rule of law that this countries complex history has produced.

      Thanks for reading Stash, I hope you’re doing well!

  3. Thanks for dropping by my blog the other day. Your post has made me realise the gulf between life in the mountains of Peru (at a very basic level, I couldn’t begin to imagine what the cold must be like, much less standing in it to sell a few hot meals or working in the mines) and my life in Melbourne. I am going to enjoy your blog.

    • Hi Anne, and thank you! It is a different world, culturally, ecologically and environmentally, to most anything we see back home, though I’ve been wondering lately what life is like for the remote indigenous communities back home…

      I promise to post some more uplifting things soon, as there is much that is wonderful about this country. I’ve got some Andean plants to share too!

      • I will read them with interest. That’s one of the great things about this interwebby thing, I can visit Peru and get an indepth view of the country, without leaving home. (Although I do love to travel 🙂 )

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