BROOKFIELD, Wisconsin — The South American country, Peru, is home to the famous Machu Picchu and was once inhabited by the highly advanced ancient civilization, the Inca Empire. Once a powerful and elaborately designed commonwealth, the Inca Empire attracted attention because of its unique economic structure and efficient road and bridge system. However, modern-day Peru continues to struggle with high levels of poverty among descendants of the Incas as well as children. Poverty in Peru demonstrates the hardships that certain populations undergo, often as a result of government inaction. Mamás Voluntarias aims to help Peru’s most vulnerable population — children.
The Inca Empire
In the 15th century, in South America’s Andean region, a blossoming empire with a strong emperor and aristocratic bureaucracy boasted one of the most successful central economies based on agriculture — the Inca Empire. All trade in this empire took place between bartering individuals and its emphasis on unified labor proved to be rewarding as the civilization prospered. The ayllu, or “center of economic productivity,” led to the wealth of the Inca people. And, because the government claimed leftover wealth, the government granted citizens cost-free food, clothing, education and health care.
One aspect of the empire’s economy truly set it apart from others; there was no form of money. The highly organized government met every citizen’s basic needs and placed high value on social wealth. The unified labor, expected of all citizens, meant working on projects that would better the community as a whole.
Aside from its agriculturally central economy and impressive work ethic, the citizens of the Inca Empire were remarkable engineers. These engineers built the most intricate bridge and road system, the Qhapaq Ñan, spanning more than 18,600 miles. Through these routes, constructed in some of the most rugged terrains of the Andes, people used llamas to carry and distribute goods to other parts of the empire. Despite not having knowledge of the wheel system or access to horses, the Incas’ well-integrated network of roads and bridges allowed them to effectively distribute products and relay messages.
Descendants of the Incas
Approximately 45% of Peruvians are descendants of the Incas. These Quechua-speaking people live in the Andes in rural communities that utilize traditional agricultural techniques. In general, about 20% of Peru’s population lived under the national poverty line in 2019, but Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by poverty for many reasons, such as marginalization and structural barriers.
Resource Extraction in Peru
In South America, Peru has one of the fastest-growing economies. In order to strengthen the economy, the government often welcomes many multinational corporations to establish projects and resource extraction jobs within the country, such as constructing oil fields or mines. These projects endanger the livelihoods of many Indigenous people because the companies do not fairly distribute the profits from the extractions to communities and these activities commonly lead to environmental contamination and degradation.
In addition, the government has harmed natives by ignoring the effects that contaminated water had on certain areas in the country’s Amazonian regions. Peru’s Regional Health Authority conducted a water quality study of the Cuninico community in 2014, finding that the levels of aluminum rendered the water unsafe for human consumption, Amnesty International reports. Despite this alarming discovery, leading the government to declare the situation in the area a “public health emergency,” the government has not made any significant effort to provide health care to those affected or investigate the issue further to address the contamination.
Minga Peru is an organization that focuses on supporting Indigenous peoples in the Amazonian region of Peru, providing plenty of social programs to foster leadership and civic participation since 1998. The nonprofit offers leadership training, involving the discussion of disease prevention and human rights, spreading education throughout communities. Other programs are implemented to lessen the impact of food insecurity and protect the environment.
Child Poverty in Peru
While Indigenous and rural communities have faced many obstacles compared to those living in the most developed areas of Peru, certain types of poverty still loom within the larger cities. Child poverty is a particularly pervasive issue, as many families are affected by unemployment and find hardship in providing for their children. By December 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused 1.2 million children in Peru to fall into poverty and more than 700,000 children faced some disturbance in their education or the risk of education disruption.
AVINABIF Mamás Voluntarias, a group of determined volunteer women, has been combating child poverty in Peru for 28 years. Across the country, hundreds of children reside in INABIF shelters, which are often used as temporary housing.
Mamás Voluntarias aims to bring support and affection to children living in these shelters and to promote their future prosperity. Dressed in outfits with bright, distinguishable yellow streaks, Mamás Voluntarias President Virginia Cardenas Galdos and volunteer Consuelo “Choco” Agusto Calmet spoke with The Borgen Project. When asked about the vivid signature yellow on their uniforms, Cardenas Galdos answered simply, “It’s the color of friendship.” She says, “Yellow always gives you the feeling that there is light… because when the children see us, they immediately run to us because they relate to us with affection.”
The organization’s volunteers support children living in the shelter in many ways; in addition to caring for the children, Agusto Calmet teaches embroidery while Cardenas Galdos educates them on plant and vegetable cultivation, both skills that are useful for the future. Among the many activities offered, trips to the theater, working on arts and crafts and singing or reading together are common.
According to Agusto Calmet, poverty in Peru has continued to worsen since her childhood. Poverty is often seen in “ollas comunes,” or “communal pots,” which describes a scenario where communities that struggle with food insecurity cook in a large public pot. “They carry the food themselves and a lot of people eat from that pot,” Agusto Calmet recalled. “You didn’t see that much before. Now we do.”
Despite the immense dedication that Mamás Voluntarias already shows, it has plans to broaden its impact. “We don’t know if one day we’ll be able to achieve it, but what we want is… for the Peruvian State to give shelter to children who have reached 18 years old,” Cardenas Galdos explained.
Fulfilling this dream would prevent 18-year-olds housed in shelters from experiencing the abrupt and difficult transition to complete independence, after which poverty usually follows. When discussing how the organization’s work reduces poverty in Peru, Cardenas Galdos emphasized, “We mainly eliminate the very poverty of the soul and of the heart.”
While working toward this dream, AVINABIF Mamás Voluntarias continues to devote its time to providing friendship and care to children of all ages, including young mothers and even the elderly. Agusto Calmet says, “We are doing our bit. Little, but it is something [impactful].”
– Caroline Zientek