Cusco was considered by the Ancient Incas to be the navel of the world, and served as the capital of their empire. With Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently named one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, nearby the tourism industry is booming. Thanks to a citywide ban on all foreign, corporate restaurant and retail chains (such as McDonald’s and Starbucks), visitors are encouraged to eat and shop from locally run businesses. Tourists can appreciate the fact that they are making an impact on the local economy and enjoy spending time in a city that, without the standard signs of globalization, feels a bit off the beaten path.
While a growing tourism industry is a welcomed sign of change for Peru, the prosperity is not well distributed and many Peruvians live in extreme poverty. In Cusco the underemployment rate is 74% and the average life expectancy is only 41 years. Chronic malnutrition for Peru’s children stands at 20%, but is estimated to be 43% in Cusco’s provincial region. There is only one doctor for every 1,300 people in Peru, mostly in urban areas, restricting healthcare for Peru’s rural communities. About half of all Peruvians live on less than $2 per day.
Although these statistics sound severe, they in no way define the Peruvians’ spirit or their future. Pumamarca, a rural village 40 minutes from the centre of Cusco, is a great example of how a community has worked hard together to change their present situation and learn how to create a future with more opportunities for their children.
I spent two months this summer working as a volunteer for the non-profit organization Peru’s Challenge. Started in 2003 by Australian Jane Gavel and Peruvian Selvy Ugaz, the organization works at providing education, health care and a safe environment for children living in extreme poverty. They choose communities to work with that agree to put in as much time and effort as Peru’s Challenge does, and are also willing to learn new things to keep improving their lives.
Peru’s Challenge uses sustainable development methods with both their donated resources and their volunteer workers. They establish educational and health development programs, teach the community members how to run these programs independently, and network within Cusco to help maintain resources for the community. Peru’s Challenge has helped build an elementary school for 140 students and is currently organizing a medial clinic for Pumamarca.
As a volunteer with Peru’s Challenge I taught English and Art classes, helped with construction projects and became very interested in the mothers’ workshop group. Talleres, the Spanish word for “workshop,” is held three times a week for women and is a place for them to learn new skills, make friends, build community spirit and help supplement their family’s income. Pumamarca is primarily a farming community, thus often leaving any family’s income at the mercy of weather or other factors out of their control. At talleres, the women learn how to knit, crochet, paint, weave, and make jewelry and greeting cards that are sold at bi-monthly exhibitions. They love developing new products with the volunteers and are rightly very proud of the things they make.