During the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Peruvian Government’s draconian lock down, Maria walked with her three daughters from Lima, the capital city with a population of 10 million, to her home community in the eastern jungle province of Ucayali. All transportation was suspended, and Maria was left with a daunting journey. This trip would take a normal hiker 180 hours, and include 38,000 feet of ascent. That is the same amount of uphill as walking from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest plus an extra 10,000 ft. She did all of this with three daughters, including a toddler who had to be carried. Like millions Maria had lost her job; she said, she could either starve in Lima or walk home, so she walked. Maria was not alone, hundreds of thousands of people left cities in Peru and walked to their ancestral homes. They are referred to as “The Walkers” and they are taking part in the largest internal migration this country has ever seen. They are flooding back into their ancestral communities, working the land, enlisting in local leadership and reinvigorating traditional agriculture practices. Incredibly, the pandemic has created an unexpected renaissance of indigenous culture in Peru.
The phenomenon of the Walkers is portrayed by most news outlets in Peru as urban poor who struck out, suffered the impacts of a global pandemic and had no alternative but to return to their rural beginnings. It is portrayed that sadly these Walkers are returning to indigenous communities where they will suffer the plight of the rural poor; they will have to sacrifice all over again so they can aspire to return to the city and the hope of making a decent life. To be fair, if we are measuring someone’s well being on how much money one makes then yes, urbanization is good, in that people earn more money in the cities. There is, however, a reality of this phenomenon that is overlooked. We have to ask the question: Why did so many people instinctively leave the city and make the grueling, dangerous trip to their communities? What awaits at their destination? What do these communities have to offer these Walkers? The answer is security.
Indigenous communities in Peru are some of the world’s most sustainable and resilient communities. These communities are considered one of the world’s centers of origin, which means that Peru is one of the first places in history to develop agriculture. The agricultural biodiversity created in Peru is critically important to all of humanity. The potato is the third most important crop globally according to the International Potato Center, and it comes from Peru. Compared to other Centers of Origin like the fertile crescent, in the middle east, or central Asia, Peru is unique because the communities that invented agriculture thousands of years ago in Peru still exist today. They still speak the same language, use the same tools, organize their work in communities the same way they did five thousand years ago. Over the span of those five thousand years these indigenous communities have weathered natural disasters, invasion, conquest, capitalism, racism and surviving countless other crises. Indigneous communities have proven to be resilient, sustainable, and incredibly innovative. Despite these strengths, indigenous communities in Peru have been disappearing for decades.
Rural life in indigenous communities should not be overly romanticized. The work is difficult, the hardships are numerous and many people long to experience what life is like outside of rural Peru. By 2010, 6.5 million rural Peruvians had left their communities and today, the rural population of Peru is only 7 million according to the United Nations. People have valid reasons for wanting to leave rural communities: Poverty is prevalent, and being an indigenous farmer comes with a historical and societal stigma. The poverty piece is straightforward. Most rural livelihoods revolve around subsistence farming and economic opportunities are few. The stigma of being a poor farmer requires a bit more investigation. Centuries of discrimination have created an indigenous culture in Peru that is ashamed to be who they are. The Spanish annihilated the Inca empire in the 1500s and established a hacienda system that essentially forced indigenous people into slavery working on Spanish-owned land and in the mines extracting gold and silver. The hacienda system has long since disappeared but globalization, media, and outside culture have convinced many in indigenous communities, especially young people, that their ancestral communities have little to offer in the modern world. This stigma and low-economic opportunity are why people have left their communities. So now that they are coming back, what awaits them in the indigenous communities?
Most of the Walkers are returning to rural areas where farming is the main source of income. The populations have significantly decreased. Communities consist of older residents and the number of students in schools are half of what they were in the early 2000s. Farming lands that used to provide for large populations have gone unplanted for decades. Most of the Walkers will use their time farming, helping out relatives, and taking part in community activities like communal work and community activities. Many community members have a source of income that has been impacted by the crisis. There is security in indigenous communities because they are able to produce food sustainably. Animal manure is used to fertilize crops, seeds are saved, and manual labor is the norm. Since the pandemic, some communities have been implementing strict measures to decide who can enter and leave a community. Communities have been closed off and locked up since March and they say they can continue to take this measure until the end of 2020. The idea that they can close themselves off for months is the definition of sustainability. The ability to sustain themselves and community without any outside resources for months on end is incredible and inspiring. The structure of sustainability in indigenous communities in Peru is impressive to say the least. It’s hard to imagine any neighborhood in the west being able to close their walls and not engage with the rest of the world.
What’s happening now is unusual. For the first time in decades school enrollment has increased. Young people coming back to their communities and working land that had long gone abandoned. Community work days have twice as many workers, and are filled with the energy of young men and women supporting their families. Returned Walkers are getting engaged in local leadership. An ancient system of trade between farmers has been resurrected and reestablished. These communities are absorbing huge increases in their population and incredibly they are able to feed, house, and insert this population into local community life. To be sustainable is one thing, but to provide that security to an influx of returning families is quite another. It’s time to address the fact that the rest of the world should be watching, be learning, and be critical of unsustainable systems that crack and crumble during this pandemic. We are witnessing a silent master class in resilience and sustainability here in Peru.
Is there a cultural revival happening in the Andes? Will it last? What happens if it doesn’t and we lose these communities for good? Will we lose thousands of years of indigenous knowledge? We don’t know the answers to these questions but whatever the fate may be, we need to rethink modern life. It took a pandemic to reveal that the most resilient communities are oftentimes the most overlooked. It’s time to listen and learn from indigenous knowledge and livelihoods.
All photos are courtesy of the author