In Peru, farmers and shopkeepers wonder how they will begin again after destructive rains

By Celia Aldana
The rain and floods ruined this year’s corn harvest in Urubamba, Peru. Farmers are selling their crops for a tenth of their price and wonder how they will salvage next year’s harvest. Photo: Liesel Diolosa

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For 30 years, Irene Salinas and her husband lived in a house along the banks of the Vilcanota River in Urubamba, in the Cusco region of Peru. She ran a small shop out of the house, selling groceries and liquor, and her husband, Teodoro, had his welding workshop there, too.

Now, it’s all gone—their home and their livelihoods--destroyed in floods triggered by heavy rain in the mountains of southern Peru. Across the country, the rains have affected more than 190,000 people. Eighteen of Peru’s 24 regions have been hit, including Cusco, which has experienced unprecedented amounts of rainfall.

"Suddenly we found ourselves with no house, no business,” said Salinas, as she showed an Oxfam team the plot of land on the river bank where her house used to stand and where now there is only debris.

"I didn't want to leave. I had to be carried out,” Salinas said, describing how the river water rose hip-deep in her house. She wanted to save her goods and her husband's work tools. Three days after she was evacuated, the house collapsed. Now the couple is living in the temporary shelter in a stadium, thinking about how to start over again.

María Gutiérrez, 50, from the district of Izcuchaca in Anta Province told a similar story.

"I used to be a storekeeper,” she said, using the past tense because the disaster has left her with no capital. She would buy corn, wheat, and beans, and store them in her house to sell. But all of that was washed away by the river.

"Even if I had the money, I couldn't set up my business again because I used by house for storage and now I wouldn't know where to store the goods", Gutiérrez added.

‘What are we going to eat?’

While shopkeepers wonder how they will recover their losses, a larger worry for the region may be the harvest. According to Peru's Civil Defense Institute, 21,730 hectares of crops, or more than 53,000 acres, have been destroyed and more than 130,000 acres have seen a partial loss of crops, mostly in the Cusco and Puno regions.

"Nearly 100 percent of the crops have been lost,” said Juvenal Durán, mayor of the district of Yucay in the Sacred Valley. "The farmers have lost their crops: the corn and cabbage are rotting. Agricultural insurance only covers 400 soles ($141), and there are people who rent their land, so what are they going to do when the crops fail? Yucay is dependent on agriculture. What are we going to eat? Where are we going to live? How are we going to be able to send our children to school?"

The communities in the upland regions have also been affected.

"In my community the crops are riddled with pests, late blight. What's more, as we farm on slopes, the soil is being washed away,” said Alejandro Huamán from Andahuaylillas. He’s worrying because farming is how his family makes a living.

Helping agriculture recover

The local authorities are aware that the focus must be on how to safeguard the next harvest.

"We've got a plan to ensure the next harvest: seeds, fertilizer, training, river defenses. In addition, we need to rebuild the bridges to improve trade and the irrigation channels,” said Gilberto Gil, a councilor in Urubamba.

At the same time, officials know that they need to think about how to help local communities adapt to unpredictable weather.

"This is going to be permanent due to climate change. We must prepare for rains and droughts. We have to address the immediate problems but also plan for the long term,” said Gil.

"One of our biggest concerns is that these disasters will increase poverty", said Elizabeth Cano, Oxfam’s humanitarian aid coordinator in Peru. "One of the main sectors that has been affected is the small-scale farming sector. Unlike the tourism sector, many small-scale farmers live in poverty, so it takes them longer to recover. We are appealing to the central government to increase support measures for this sector."