On the fringes of Peru’s capital city, where disaster looms over migrant families, Rosario Quispe and PREDES are dialing down the risks.
The steep mountains outside Lima, Peru, are home to thousands upon thousands of families who have made their way from the Andes and the Amazon to the outskirts of the capital city. Some fled the armed conflict between the government and the Shining Path guerrillas. Others set out to pursue a dream—that one day they or perhaps their children could make their way out of poverty. Now they live in tiny shacks that cling to the hillsides, praying each day that earthquakes, fires, disease, and rock falls will spare their families.
“They live an emergency every day,” says Rosario Quispe.
Quispe is the vice president of Oxfam partner PREDES, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Disasters in Peru, an organization that has been working in these communities since 2009, helping with earthquake preparedness and Zika and dengue prevention, and advocating for access to water. She is at ease as she makes her way through the settlements, and for good reason. “My father was a migrant from the mountains,” she explains.
Quispe grew up in a home that lacked running water and electricity. Her mother was a child bride—married at age 13—who bore ten children. “My family was very poor,” she says. They read by the light of a kerosene lamp, but the greater obstacle to studying was that education wasn’t seen as a priority, for the two girls in particular. “I wasn’t able to finish school,” she says, “because I needed to work for my family and care for the other children.”
But life afforded her a different kind of education, and a glimpse of suffering that far outstripped her own. As a young woman, she joined PREDES and took on a challenging role: responding to earthquakes and other disasters high in the Andes Mountains. There she came face to face with communities whose isolation and poverty shocked her. “It opened my eyes,” she says “to a reality I didn’t know existed.” Her mission was to help create durable homes in the aftermath of earthquakes. She trained community members to reinforce traditional adobe with rebar, for example, and to paint wooden columns with tar to prevent rot. It still pains her to remember the sacrifices she had to make in those days as a parent—often laboring for weeks on end without a visit home to her young children—but she could tell her work was making a difference to people who were in extreme need.
Creating relationships of trust
“When I see communities where people are suffering, I identify with them. I know what they are talking about,” says Quispe. Which is why whenever PREDES begins to work in a new community, she leads the team. “Creating a relationship of trust is the foundation of our work in the communities,” she says. “I know how to talk to people and help them feel comfortable.” But PREDES and Quispe don’t settle for compassion and trust. From the outset, they work to build a sense of empowerment and equality.
“When we start to work with a community, we explain clearly who we are and what we are and are not able to do. We listen to people, and we are careful not to raise expectations higher than we can achieve. Most importantly, we explain that we are not going to do things for the communities. We are going to do everything together. We want a relationship that is equal.”
This is a key reason that Oxfam supports local humanitarian leaders like PREDES: they can build relationships with disaster-affected communities in ways that outside agencies can only dream of. Meanwhile, international agencies like Oxfam can provide local and national NGOs with training and resources. “Oxfam has been able to open our eyes to the issues around water, sanitation, and hygiene, and we’ve learned a lot,” she says. “Now the government recognizes us as specialists in these areas.”
Quispe and PREDES still work in the mountainside communities, but they have also joined forces with NGOs and with Lima’s government authorities at all levels to create systemic change. Oxfam and PREDES helped convene a roundtable focused on water, sanitation, and hygiene in emergencies, and now there is a protocol in place that clarifies what leaders at the provincial, municipal, and community levels need to do when disaster strikes. (Read more.)
When the UN hosted its first World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, one message emerged loud and clear: the international community needs to invest far more in local and national humanitarian leaders. Until that happens, organizations like PREDES—despite their importance to disaster-vulnerable communities—will struggle along on shoestring budgets.
But if her story tells us anything, it is that Quispe will persist.
“Rosario is committed,” says Elizabeth Cano, Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator in Peru. “She can feel and understand the struggles of people who can barely keep their families alive. Her heart is in this work.”