Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Lights Up in Carhua

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Lights Up in Carhua

Article excerpt

Thanks to a deeply rooted communal tradition and government participation, this once-isolated Peruvian village is now wired for the future

The village of Carhua hangs off a mountain, over a mile straight up from the banks of the Chillon River. Some two hundred houses lean against the slope, clustered about eight switchbacks of a narrow track carved out of dirt and stone. Just past the last house, three steps off the road in the wrong direction would plunge a man or a mule to his death. Far below, five villages lie among a quilt of terraced green plots. They are neighbors, silent companions, just a short distance across the great gulf of space. The road carves and folds around the mountain, dropping past the other villages, past Pariamarca, Canta, San Miguel, past San Buenaventura and San Jose. Lima lies a little under fifty miles across the map, but until not long ago the trip to the coast was eight days long.

The farthest visible village, San Jose, is a day away by foot. Under the clear alpine sun, the villages feel close and warm. But on a moonless night Carhua is utterly alone. Darkness consumes the road and spirits the village into a void.

Then, several years ago, an island of light floated across the darkness from the other side of the canyon. Canta had wired electricity. The bulbs of a handful of street-lights swarmed like will-o'-the-wisps, and Carhua could sight its neighbor at any hour. One by one, the villages in the valley strung cable and posts until an archipelago of light shone across the sea of the night.

Progress wound up the mountain. After years of isolation, the villagers of the Chillon Valley joined officials from Peru's Fondo Nacional de Compensacion y Desarrollo Social (National Fund for Compensation and Social Development), known by its Spanish acronym, Foncodes. Foncodes offered to finance projects that the villagers would control and build - anything from rural electrification to potable water, irrigation, roads, schools, and clinics. For government planners, it may have been a novel concept: let the community choose. But in the Chillon Valley, to join for the common good was an old idea.

Neighbors work together in the sierra. They gather to clean canals in springtime or rebuild the terraces that gave the Andes their name, from the Spanish andenes, or steps. A communal task is called a minga, a Quechua word, and dwellers of the sierra have come together for centuries to do them. A million people live in the three cordilleras that form the country's backbone. Anthropologists estimate that before the Spanish conquest, twelve million more must have populated this immense geography to have done enough mingas to build the roads, canals, and terraces that still speckle these peaks and canyons today. Foncodes, however, pays for modern mingas. And residents of the Peruvian sierra have overwhelmingly chosen to wire theft villages for electricity.

In October 1993, before the rains started and planting began, Justiano Grados called together the community of Carhua. Grados, in the middle of his two-year term as the highest elected authority of Carhua, looked around at his neighbors gathered in the communal hall facing the narrow wedge of smoothed dirt that served as the plaza, the flattest space in the village. Eighty-seven of one hundred residents had come; yet their numbers were falling.

Three decades ago there were eight hundred here. Too many families had been driven to Lima by low prices for their potato crop. Not much else grows up at these altitudes, nearly eighty-five hundred feet above sea level. A bit of corn, beans, a few skinny milking cows, but hardly enough to live on. What's more, Carhua was no longer a good place to raise children. Caring parents would not subject their offspring to this life of dwindling returns. Lima was progress; it was education and hope for a job that did not gnarl the joints and stoop the back. It was a life where one could afford more than one set of clothes. …

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