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A deadly earthquake struck Mexico. Help save lives.

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We are the people who live here

By Elizabeth Stevens
Jose Llovera Riojas processes the plum harvest with his family on a quiet afternoon in Las Juntas. “When the water levels rise, we communicate about it with Civil Defense through the radio. When we decide it’s time to evacuate, I turn on the siren. We walk down the paths and call out to each other. The Civil Defense committee sends buses, and we go to a shelter in Illimo.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

When the Peruvian village of Las Juntas joined forces with local authorities to reduce disaster risks, the impact was far-reaching.

The tiny settlement of Las Juntas, Peru, doesn’t look like a hotbed of innovation.  The homes are simple and made of adobe, and—because cars rarely make an entrance—often all you can hear is the bleating of sheep and the peeping of baby chicks as they forage for food.

But it is here that a groundbreaking initiative took root.

Las Juntas sits next to a river called La Leche, which is by turns its greatest friend and foe. La Leche, which spills over its banks most years, soaks the land and renews it with fresh sediment. The healthy fields of sweet potato, corn, and alfalfa in Las Juntas, and the stands of lentils, papaya, and passion fruit owe much to the river. But the floods can sweep away everything in their path, and the people who live here have at times lost their homes and all they own.

The river hasn’t changed its ways, but residents and local authorities have, and the way they’ve learned to work together has had implications for Peru’s national system of disaster risk management.  

An ethic of neighbor helping neighbor

Picture drawn by a fifth grader in Las Juntas. Floods are a scary fact of life in the village. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

“There is a widespread notion that rural community members are ignorant and need to be told what to do. We think the reverse,” says Rosa Rivero, the founder of Oxfam partner organization CEPRODA MINGA.  “We think they have valuable knowledge and traditions to share.” And that the knowledge, priorities, participation, and leadership of people living in hazardous communities should be fundamental to any system of disaster management.

So, back in 2009, Rivera set out to prove her point.

She identified the three communities most at risk of flood disasters in the northern region of Lambayeque and, working hand in hand with the government, launched a pilot program on community-based disaster management.   

Miguel Siesquen, a member of the region’s civil defense system, worked closely with her. “When we started this project, we visited each community several times,” he says. “We gathered their ideas and tried to understand their culture, their way of living.”

Based on what they learned about the residents’ priorities—most notably, the strong ethic of neighbor helping neighbor—Rivero and Siesquen encouraged each community to set up a local committee focused on emergency preparedness and response, and to help create a flood early warning system.

Fast forward to the present

Miguel Siesquen cleans a water pump that will be used in flood emergencies. “We are the people who live here. We are the ones who see what the problems are before an emergency happens, and the ones who will be here when it’s over.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

The El Niño rains expected this year in Lambayeque never materialized, and by late March, La Leche was just a quiet stream. But Las Juntas was ready, just in case.

What’s changed since the bad old days is that floods don’t take people here by surprise anymore, and the government doesn’t wait to act until the worst is over.

Now, when water levels are rising upriver, Civil Defense authorities in the nearby town of Illimo notify the community, sometimes five hours in advance of a flood. A bridge over the river near Las Juntas has been measured and color-coded–from light green at the bottom to high-alert red at the top—to provide a local means of tracking the water’s rise. There’s a radio and loudspeaker set up at the entrance to the settlement, so when it’s time to evacuate, everyone hears about it. Residents have undergone training, so they are ready to provide one another with first aid, water rescues, and assistance with evacuation.  And there is a committee of trained leaders in place, ready to take charge in emergencies.

Andres Gonzales is the president of what people refer to as the communitarian committee.  His team knows where every elderly, disabled, and pregnant person lives, he says. Gonzales has lived in Las Juntas all his life and has survived at least 10 floods. In the past, there was little help available and zero coordination with authorities.

“Now, we have a district committee that supports us,” he says. “They’re always here when the river is about to spill over. Ten years ago, they never would have come.”

Siesquen agrees. “In the past, we didn’t know the people or their problems. Now, when danger arises, they communicate with me and together we address it.”

The system gives residents peace of mind.

“We feel more secure now that we have an early warning system, and now that we’ve had training on how to evacuate,” says resident Clorinda Bances Rioja. “We’re more organized now, and we’re calmer because we know we’re doing the right thing. We no longer scramble around in a panic.”

“Now, people in the communities near the river are prepared to respond,” says Rivero. “They are even prepared for nighttime flooding. If they didn’t have trained leaders and if they didn’t have autonomy, they might hesitate to act, and that could cost lives.”

Investing in a key asset: expertise

Meanwhile, CEPRODA MINGA and Oxfam have engaged and supported government authorities at all levels in Lambayeque in risk-management trainings.

“Before, we had authorities with key roles in civil defense—mayors, for example—who had no knowledge of disaster risk management,” says Cristina Huamanchumo Leyton, who works for the regional emergency authorities.  “They are better informed now, and are responding well to recent small emergencies.”

Siesquen, for example, has had a chance to study international humanitarian standards, how to analyze damage and needs in emergencies, effective ways of working with communities, and more, and he now has a diploma in risk management. “The training I’ve received has made a big difference,” he says.

An idea goes viral

“We have used this life preserver to rescue people from the floods,” says Clorinda Bances Riojas. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam America

As a pilot program, developing local committees for disaster management was a success, and the model was embraced by Civil Defense authorities and municipalities across the region.

“The municipalities have been replicating our system,” says Rivero. “In Lambayeque, there are now more than 200 communitarian committees.

What’s more, the national system of civil defense has taken its cue from Lambayeque: it now includes community- level committees as part of the civil defense structure.

“Five years ago, the government was skeptical about integrating local committees,” says Oxfam humanitarian coordinator Elizabeth Cano. “Now, they welcome and promote them.”

And there are signs that the system is become less top-down in its perspective.

“The communitarian committees know their own reality,” says Isabel Angulo Salazar, a government risk-management specialist in Lambayeque. “NGOs and government authorities need to listen to what they have to say.”

“Oxfam wants to focus resources on helping people living in vulnerable regions around the world become effective disaster managers,” says Enrique Garcia, who manages Oxfam’s humanitarian work in Latin America, “because—provided they are coordinated and well trained—organized citizens and their governments are the fastest and best emergency responders.”

It’s an approach that has a strong following in Lambayeque.

“We are the people who live here,” says Siesquen. “We are the ones who see what the problems are before an emergency happens, and the ones who will be here when it’s over.”

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