A message from Peru's forgotten farmers

By Cecilia Niezen
Antonia Figueroa is from the remote Andean village of Chiluyo, Peru, where she and other small-scale farmers are struggling to make a living. Photo: Cecelia Niezen/Oxfam America

Share this story:

Virginia Nunoncca makes high-quality cheese, and she would like to market it to a broader clientele. Antonia Figueroa breeds alpacas, and she would like to sell their wool for a better price. Figueroa’s son finishes high school this year, and he would like to study tourism so that he can show people the mountain region where he lives, with its impressive vistas and deep canyons. 

Getting your goods to market; selling them for a fair price; paying for your education. These may not seem like unrealistic goals. But for Nunoncca and the Figueroas, they won’t be easy to achieve. As residents of the remote Andean village of Chiluyo—population 50, and more than 15,000 feet above sea level—they face the same challenges now affecting many of Peru’s rural people. Though locally led solutions can help, unpredictable prices, a declining investment in agriculture, and changes in the climate are making life for these herders and farmers more uncertain than ever.

Selling less, eating less

Every Monday, Antonia Figueroa walks five hours to the nearest market, in Suykutambo, where she sells her alpaca wool, fiber, and chuño (a freeze-dried potato product dating back to the time of the Inca Empire). Last time, she sold 20 soles, or $7, worth of goods, and immediately spent the money on cooking oil, sugar, rice, and noodles for her family—all the while hoping the price of staples wouldn’t increase. “We are continually producing less and selling less, feeding our children less, and therefore our children’s health suffers,” said Figueroa.

Along with farming, most residents of Chiluyo and other highland communities rely on alpaca breeding as their main source of income. Because the area is so remote--making it difficult for people to reach markets where they can sell their products--it remains one of Peru's poorest regions. In the broader Suykutambo district, the average per capita income is just 127 soles, or $46, a month.

As small-scale producers like Figueroa and Nunoncca struggle to eke out a living, the Peruvian government has decreased its support for their efforts. For example, a recent study conducted for Oxfam by analyst Epifano Baca found that investments in small-scale agriculture made up just 2.6 percent of Peru’s national budget in 2010, down from 3.2 percent the year before.

“Why is there a lack of support for a sector of the economy that produces most of the food consumed in Peruvian cities?” asked Baca. “[Small-scale producers] sustain millions of families, especially those living in extreme poverty.”

Battling a changing climate

In addition to economic challenges, residents of Chiluyo say weather patterns are changing in ways they have never experienced before. Periods of drought and extreme heat and cold affect not only people but the livestock they depend on for survival. “It doesn’t rain like it used to. We don’t have water for our pastures, [so] our animals die,” said Figueroa.

Oxfam’s local partner the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) gathered testimonies from rural people throughout Espinar province, where Chiluyo is located. They described water scarcity, harsher frosts (some zones have recorded temperatures as low as 3 degrees Fahrenheit), and increases in solar radiation which have destroyed agriculture and grazing lands, resulting in higher livestock mortality rates.

The Peruvian government’s response to climate change includes efforts designed to reach the maximum number of people, like increasing hydroelectric power supply to cities and building irrigation projects along the coast. But in far-flung villages in the Andean and Amazon regions, thousands of residents—mostly indigenous people—are being left behind.

“We want to produce.”

Responding to growing concerns about drought, ITDG looked for ways to help communities manage water more efficiently, using methods like reservoirs, channels, and spray irrigation systems. To date, ITDG has built 20 reservoirs in Espinar at a cost of $1500 to $1800 each, benefiting a total of 40 to 60 families. 

“While the focus is on water resource management, this project is part of a broader strategy that also introduces forage grasses resistant to weather conditions,” said Lorena del Carpio, Oxfam climate change specialist. 

ITDG also worked with small-scale producers to make sure they had a voice in their local governments. Throughout Espinar, herders and farmers are now involved in developing community budgets that take their needs into account. Some municipalities have committed to allocating more than 50 percent of next year’s budget to pressing issues like water management and combating climate change. 

With new President Ollanta Humala taking office this month, the challenge now is to elevate these voices to the national level. Figueroa, for one, doesn’t hesitate to identify what she’d like to see from her country’s leaders—solutions to help her increase her productivity, access to markets, and urgent support in the face of climate change.

But she’s also clear that, like many of Peru’s forgotten farmers, the hardworking residents of Chiluyo are not looking for a handout.

“We don’t want them to give us anything,” she said. “We want to produce.”