Solidarity and a sense of community are bulwarks against poverty

“A silent tsunami is sweeping Peru.” The words of Nils Kastberg, the regional director of UNICEF, reverberate as I cross the Andes to where the road from Lima ends in the Amazon jungle at Pucallpa, Peru’s frontier port on the Ucayali River.

Kastberg was referring to a just-released study prepared for UNICEF that says six million Peruvian children live in poverty. And of the children five years old and younger, 30 per cent live in extreme poverty, 27 per cent are chronically malnourished, and 44 per cent have no access to early childhood education. Peru’s total population is 28.35 million.

“A quarter of of (Peru’s) intellectual capacity is evaporating for lack of attention to children,” Kastberg said, adding that chronic malnutrition should be seen as a national emergency.

The study was done by Peru’s National Institute for Education and Information with support from the Canadian embassy in Lima.

I was travelling to Pucallpa to meet a Catholic priest, now 58 years old, who has lived in solidarity with Peru’s poor all his working life. In Pucallpa he’s with the order Missions Étrangères from Quebec, and is known as Padre Gregorio. I know him as Greg Chisholm from Toronto.

He lives within the precepts of Liberation Theology, which he is quick to point out is not a theology in itself. “It’s a way of doing theology.” And it has everything to do with struggling against poverty.

I met Greg 17 yeas ago at Villa El Salvador, then one of Lima’s many shantytowns, when Shining Path guerrillas and the Peruvian army under the dictatorship of Alberto Fujimori were at their murderous worst, vying for control of the 350,000 people in Villa. I vowed I would return one day to see him — if he survived.

In Villa then, and in Pucallpa now, Greg wrestles against fear. In Villa it was fear of violence — torture, injury, or death. In Pucallpa it is fear of the days when there is no food and no work. Fear of sickness, of accidental injury, of a future no better for children, or even a future that’s worse because of drugs or AIDS.

“Fear is demobilizing,” he says. “Demoralizing and isolating in every way.” It gnaws at people spiritually and psychologically, stripping them of a true sense of who they are.

“It is fear,” says Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the principal founders of Liberation Theology, “not unbelief, that is the enemy of faith.” It’s also the enemy of social justice, says Greg. “One of the greatest things that allows poverty to continue is structural fear” — fear bred by a social system that turns away from the poor, and abandons them to cling to the edges of survival.

Despite its poverty, Pucallpa is bursting with energy. The streets are clogged with rickshaw motorcycle taxis that create a din so pervasive that taxi conversations verge on shouting.

The main businesses in this city of 340,000 are lumbering and transporting fruit. The Ucayali River is one of the main tributaries to the Amazon River, and every day barges of massive logs arrive from downriver destined for Pucallpa’s sawmills. Also from downriver plantations come bananas and papayas.

But sawing lumber and transporting fruit aren’t enough to sustain a city this size, and no one can tell me how it survives, even with its thriving underground economy.

Its dilemma, as with so many cities in Peru, is growth. Pucallpa’s population has grown ten times in only 50 years, and as elsewhere in Peru, most of the growth has come from squatters arriving from the backcountry.

They appear overnight in groups that throw up makeshift shelters — usually with no more than reed mats for walls and a sheet of plastic for a roof. Then they begin building, using whatever is at hand. The process continues for years, even decades, as the more fortunate transform their shelters into small cinderblock or poured-concrete homes.

The settlements are called pueblos jóvenes — literally young towns — and in Pucallpa, as in Lima, they account for almost 70 per cent of the population. As time passes, cities generally adopt the settlements and provide electricity, water and sewage services. Until then, people steal electricity if they can, carry in water from wherever they can get it, and toss their human and other waste out of doors.

Sometimes there are battles with police if a municipality tries to evict them. Mostly, however, the squatters are allowed to stay.

Pucallpa is 850 kilometres northeast of Lima, in the Ucayali Region where the UNICEF study says 63 per cent of children between ages 6 and 11 live in poverty, and 32 per cent of children who are 5 years old or younger live in extreme poverty — a rating only slightly worse than the national average.

The worst of Peru’s regions has 94 per cent of children between 6 and 11 living in poverty, and 88 per cent of those aged 5 and under living in extreme poverty.

In Pucallpa, most of the people are young: fewer than 35 per cent are over 30 years of age. Prostitution is  prevalent, the rate of AIDS is second only to Lima’s, alcoholism and drug addiction are rampant, and pregnancies among girls 13 and 14 years old are common. According to the UNICEF study, domestic violence is common across Peru, with 37 per cent of women with young children reporting physical abuse in their homes. Pucallpa is no exception.

The one bright spot, says the study, is that infant mortality in Peru dropped 51 per cent in ten years, falling from 43 deaths per thousand babies under a year old in 1996 to 21 deaths per thousand in 2006. In Canada, by comparison, the infant mortality rate is 5.4 deaths per thousand babies.

However, the decade preceding 1996 was hideous in Peru. Inflation by 1990 was increasing at a rate of 30 to 40 per cent a month. Shining Path had blown up about 1,500 electrical towers and had inflicted more then $2.7 billion in damages, civil rights had been suspended, and there were more than 600,000 internal refugees, hunted by both the Peruvian army and Shining Path. Small wonder that infant mortality has dropped in recent years, now that inflation has been tamed, Shining Path has been routed, the army has been reined in, and people no longer are on the run.

But poverty remains. To Liberation Theology this is the reality the church must deal with as it preaches the gospel.

For Gutiérrez, now in his eighties, the history of Latin America has been an endless chronicle of poverty, written from the underside of Western development where the emphasis has been on radical individualism — every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. The result for Peruvians hasSolidarity

If Peru were to modernize along Western lines, he says, it would result in expanding privileges for the rich, not embracing everyone within the nation’s life.

Canadians have heard this kind of language before. The message is not much different from that delivered 80 years ago by the Antigonish Movement in Nova Scotia, and the Social Gospel in central and western Canada. The Antigonish Movement pioneered a new approach to cooperatives and brought credit unions to English Canada; the the Social Gospel, which in retrospect is a Protestant mirror image of Liberation Theology, provided much of the intellectual stimulation for creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor of the New Democratic Party. In the words of Canadian historian Ramsay Cook, its aim “was not born-again individuals, but born-again societies.”

For all three of these movements, the goal has been to create societies of sharing. Places of human dignity and universal grace of spirit. This has meant countering unbridled competitive individualism, by building solidarity and a sense of community — by removing what Greg calls the crippling effects of fear.

He should know. Villa El Salvador withstood the worst that Shining Path had to offer. That came on an evening in February 1992, when gunmen burst into a barbeque and machine-gunned Mariá Elena Moyano, Villa’s deputy mayor, and then blew up her body with dynamite.

It was an act of desperation. Shining Path had already lost the struggle for control of Villa. Terror no longer worked. There were strong residents’ committees running neighbourhoods and a variety of community-established services. Greg, himself, had climbed a neighbouring hill during one tense moment to tear down the Shining Path flag. Residents had staged a 25-kilometre peace marathon that wound from Villa to one of Lima’s fashionable downtown neighbourhoods, raising $30,000, enough to equip four clinics.

The organizing skills that Greg honed in Villa, he brought to Pucallpa. I trail him around the city, and discover that the key to his organizing success is humour — he makes people laugh — and constant contact: he barely goes 100 metres without stopping to talk with  someone.

He provides counselling every afternoon at his parish church office. I go with him as he visits a communal kitchen, drops in on a pueblo joven where the church has built a reservoir and water lines to 50 homes, checks on construction of a new retreat that will focus on “value training” for teenagers, solves a problem where a neighbour has been stealing from a water line to one of the church’s buildings. He tells me of plans for a variety of community celebrations for anniversaries and holidays. He stops to talk with the head of a neighbourhood residents’ association.

Perhaps most insightful in terms of long-range thinking, is a committee meeting following evening mass. Its purpose is to elect a “guide couple” whose child is ready for her first communion. Their job will be to provide leadership to other parents during the seven months that they teach their children about their faith before the children attend first communions. You’d think such a meeting would be a dry affair. Far from it. Greg has invited a group of young adolescents whom he is helping to develop a singing-performing routine. The committee meeting rocks.
However, it has a subtext. “Being a guide couple is good training for them to move on politically,” he says. “They develop a sense of responsibility. They get some skills in working with people.” In short, they too will learn to network. To participate. To contribute to solidarity.

It’s in these most minute of small steps that building a sense of community occurs.

As we talk about solidarity and community, he offers a startling example of their worth. A group of psychologists and psychiatrists did a study of people who had been questioned and tortured by the army or by Shining Path. “They found that those who had actively participated in a group were infinitely more capable of handling the abuse,” he says. “Those who had no sense of solidarity fell apart. They were overwhelmed by fear.”

At the core of his approach, and at the core of Liberation Theology, is the conviction he’s not there to work for the poor. To do good works. He’s there to be with them. “The big thing comes when you realize you’re not going to save them, or to rescue them, that you’re there simply to be one of them. To share with them.”

I ask what he wants to achieve. “It’s to see people take on the power to control their own lives,” he says. “To gain dignity.”

“It’s good to be here,” he adds. “This has been a hard time for poor people. But things are starting to get better, and I have this optimistic feeling that it just might take off.”

Back in Lima, at Plaza de Armas, the grandest square in the city, something highly symbolic has occurred. I like to think gives some weight to Greg’s optimism. The large equestrian statue of Pizzaro, the conqueror of Peru, that has dominated the square since the nineteenth century, has disappeared. It’s been moved to a minor park elsewhere in the city. In its place is a lovely water fountain.

The symbol of conquest, the reminder of exploitation of the less fortunate, is gone. Moving it doesn’t put food in the bellies of the poor. But it does make a statement.

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