High in the Peruvian Andes, at an altitude of 3,700 meters, many Peruvian citizens find themselves living in impoverished, isolated, and hard-to-reach communities. Having been neglected by their own national government, the villagers in these communities lack access to quality education, clean drinking water, and health care facilities.
Moreover, the Andeans live off of a diet of potatoes due to their environment’s harsh climate and barren soil. This lifestyle has resulted in the presence of developmental delays and diseases among the Andean children. In fact, over 30% of the children under the age of five are chronically malnourished. Without the necessary aid, these families, disconnected from and forgotten by the rest of the country, are trapped within a cycle of poverty.
To address the needs of these isolated villagers, an NGO called Por Eso! Perú was created. Founded in 2007, Por Eso! works in 25 schools and 13 villages in the Cuzco region of the Peruvian Andes. To combat the problem of malnutrition and poor living conditions, the group focuses on creating school and home vegetable gardens, greenhouses, and improving family homes.
So, what’s their goal? To achieve better living conditions for the poorest people in the Peruvian Andes. In other words, “to fight diseases and malnutrition by keeping healthy and varied food on the menu…in an environment that that can no longer be classified as ‘extremely poor.’” To learn more about Por Eso!’s work, Latina Republic sat down with one of the organization’s co-founders, Simone Heemskerk.
LR: For our readers who don’t know, could you explain who you are, what your position is, and how you founded Por Eso! Perú?
SH: I’m Simone and I’m Dutch, but I’ve lived here in Peru for 12 years and I’m 50 years old. I’m one of the association’s co-founders. We started with a school vegetable garden project in Guatemala 16 years ago. My partner, the co-founder Yolanda, worked for la Asociación Bendición de Dios y Los Niños.
When that vegetable garden was on the right path and for personal reasons having to do with the violence in Guatemala, we looked for another area to work in. By chance, we began in Peru, in a community in the Cuzco region. Today, we work with 35 vegetable gardens in the Cuzco region and with 1000 families in 10 communities.
Food security for the malnourished children in the Andes
LR: Within the Andean communities your group assists, the children suffer from malnourishment because they live off of a diet of potatoes. Can you explain why this is the case?
SH: Without our collaboration, they eat potatoes because of the weather circumstances at a height of 3700 meters or more. The potato is the only crop that can resist drought, cold, and poor soils. Sometimes, the villagers have small vegetable gardens, but they don’t have much knowledge of how to farm at such high altitudes…They can buy vegetables in the valley markets, but normally they eat potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There are different ways to prepare the potatoes. However, they peel and eat them by hand. Here, there isn’t much of a habit of focusing on improving one’s diet because they don’t have kitchens with stoves or firewood…, [Por Eso!] focuses on improving their diet.
So, it’s not that the children die from hunger like they do in Africa, but they are malnourished. No one can grow to be strong and healthy if he/she doesn’t eat well. You and I would not die from having a cold, but these villagers will because they don’t have all their vitamins.
LR: Your organization’s goal is to help create sustainable change by teaching people how to create and take care of gardens. Can you describe the climate you work in and how you’re able to grow food other than potatoes despite the harsh environment?
SH: We can grow things, happily. We do so under a greenhouse and with a mesh to protect the vegetables. This is the climate: there are six months of drought and six of the rainy season. At this height, the sun is very strong and it rains heavily with frost or hail. The ground is poor and lacks minerals.
We use a biointensive method, an ecological method, and enrich the soil with minerals and compost. That’s what we show the Andeans…and they, at first, weren’t very confident because they thought, “no, it’s impossible. I’ll never have cherry tomatoes at this height,” but we can do it. Sometimes, the kids do a potato planting test and the people can see that it turns out a lot better [in the vegetable gardens] then in their fields.
We always start our work in the schools because we focus on the children. In the school vegetable gardens, the parents participate and we show them how to prepare vegetable beds so they can do the same at home. That’s the idea, so we always work together with the community.
It would be easier to go out on trucks filled with materials and install vegetable gardens, but we don’t do that. Step by step, we teach them and sometimes we take a long time…but it’s more sustainable this way.
LR: In addition to being malnourished, the children in the villages you work suffer from things like anemia and iron deficiency. Are there other diseases and conditions you’ve seen in the villages? How does your vegetable garden project work as a solution?
SH: Due to the climate, they have a lot of respiratory-related problems like the flu. Por Eso! members can recover from the flu within a week, and we also work to protect them. When you eat healthy, your body is stronger, but that’s a long term sort of thing. I’m not saying that when you eat spinach on Wednesday, you’re healthy Thursday, no.
We at Por Eso! Measure the impact of our vegetable gardens with blood/anemia tests to see if our students have improved. When we start a project, we create a baseline and measure how many children are anemic. Every half year, we supervise and re-measure the anemic children and they always improve.
Today, I don’t know [these numbers] because of the pandemic. I don’t know how the kids are eating at home, so it will be very interesting to re-measure the communities in 2021. [Outside of food] there are many more influences on health because you can eat healthy every day but if you don’t have water at home and drink from dirty rivers, you are going to get parasites. Por Eso! cannot solve everything, but we are supporting them in the best way that we can.
LR: You all have been working with Peru’s Ministry of Education to conduct horticultural lessons as a part of the school vegetable gardens project. What was your experience like working with the Peruvian government and how successful has that been?
SH: It is very difficult, but we try. We have had a good year of collaboration with the Ministry of Education. We’ve even had a staff to focus on how we can incorporate our horticultural classes/school vegetable gardens into the school curriculum, but there are many factors here.
For example, in the communities where we work, they are so isolated that not many teachers want to stay for very long. The teachers change every year. Sometimes you have a teacher who isn’t motivated by anything because they would rather be in the cities closer to their family, but occasionally, there are good teachers.
Until now, there is no result with a school that will automatically take on our school vegetable garden project the way we want. We always have to insist, but I’m not going to retire until those classes are a part of the school curriculum.
The Andean villagers and Por Eso! work together for home improvement
LR: Working in the Andes, Por Eso! assists indigenous communities that speak Quechua. Is there a language barrier or do some of the people you assist know Spanish? Do a lot of your staff members speak Quechua?
SH: Everyone who works here, except me, speaks Quechua. That’s one of the requirements. The men and women who work here, nine in total, are from here. Aside from speaking Quechua, which is super important, they also understand the community’s reality, culture, and how to approach them. If I go to a community to teach, the villagers don’t get it.
They just look at me, and see that I’m very tall or that I speak Spanish poorly, but the team is part of the community; they are part of the beneficiaries, let’s say, and that’s one of our strategies. The association doesn’t work with volunteers from abroad because foreigners don’t relate, like the people from here, with the families in the communities.
That’s one of our association’s talents, the equity between our team and the villagers. It’s a very important value for me. Where we live, the majority speak two languages: Spanish and Quechua. In Cuzco, in the cities in the mountains, it’s less normal. The custom, the tradition, is being lost, but here, the children are taught in both languages, and the majority of the parents only know Quechua.
LR: Our understanding is that your goal is to assist families in creating a healthier lifestyle to continue living in the Andes. That being said, has a family ever requested your help in moving down and out of the mountains?
SH: Migration of the communities to the valleys? Yes. Especially in recent years because many males are dedicated to being porters on the Inca Trail. So, because of tourism, almost 80% of the males and the high Andean communities in Cuzco are involved with this. They have an income and with this money, sometimes their dream, the maximum for them, is to move to the valleys and live in a small house.
Although there is a lot of migration, there are also families that return to their communities. One motive for moving to the valleys is education for the children because there are better schools in the valley. In the last few months, due to the pandemic, many extra families have returned, even from Lima, to their communities and we’ve been supporting them.
I don’t think they’ll return to Lima or Arequipa again…Here, if you live in one of the communities where we work and you move to Calca, and you only speak Quechua, the people will understand you because the majority speak Quechua.
In other places, there’s like a middle class and there’s a lot of discrimination. I prefer that the families stay in the communities where it’s safer and hope the education system will improve here.
LR: Your group’s project for home improvement takes six years. Can you give a brief overview of the project and how it starts out?
SH: The project lasts six years, three years of installations and implementations and three years of monitoring and supervision. We never give things away. The first step is to work under the community’s request for assistance. We never look for the communities. They look for us.
Then, we investigate to see if they meet our conditions; is there extreme poverty? Is there no other NGO working there? Is there a need? Later, we go to a community assembly and explain how we work. We ask for commitments from them and they can also demand things from us if we don’t perform our job well.
We sign an agreement with the community and with each family. There, they can read every step and every module they can earn during the first three years of installations.
LR: During this phase of your NGO’s work, you all give out various installments to the villagers. How does the eligibility for “new installations” work? What role do the villagers play?
SH: The first step is to have a vegetable garden and a few vegetable beds at home, and organize their homes because the villagers live together in their kitchens with their guinea pigs, hens, with everything in one room. We follow the WHO criteria: separate the bedroom from the kitchen, remove the guinea pigs. etc.
Everything is centered on hygiene. The modules they can obtain during the first three years are, first, improved kitchens or kitchens that don’t emit smoke and use less wood or dung. Second is a pantry or cupboards. Third is a water source to use in the vegetable garden and/or for use in the house.
Also, they can get a raschel mesh, an irrigation system, and finally, a greenhouse, but everything has its criteria. So, the villagers will get a water source once they have 12 vegetable beds with different vegetables, when we have proof that they are using their vegetables, etc. Each family has a contract with us.
We sign them and monitor the families twice a year. In this way, we define, “okay, this family is red, yellow, or green under the criteria that we have maintained.” For the modules we install, they always do their part by laboring and providing materials from the area like sticks or rock. Por Eso! sends the materials that aren’t in their area.
We are very strict and serious about sustainability, but sometimes it’s difficult because the communities can be accustomed to receiving assistance from the government or other NGOs. To seek sustainability, we’re patient and that’s why we spend six years in these communities, up to ten years in some communities.
Response to COVID-19 and a message of thanks
LR: Like any other NGO, Por Eso! Has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. Overall, what has been your NGO’s response to COVID-19?
SH: As of July 30th, we’ve given out almost 3700 grocery baskets and 2012 packets of school supplies because virtual classes aren’t for everyone. We, with the team back in April, took the decision to support our communities during the pandemic. Under an agreement with the municipalities, they are in charge of providing empty trucks and we fill them.
We’ve distributed grocery packages to 37 communities. For the high Andean families, the situation is very difficult because, as I said, 80% of the men are dedicated to being porters and there isn’t tourism anymore. They’ve lost their source of income overnight…The children are also lost because there are no classes, there’s nothing.
I’m very proud of the team and our decision to continue working. Tomorrow [July 31st], the team will be re-tested [for COVID-19]. We are complying with all the protocols, our health is a priority, of course, because now in Cuzco, it seems to me that, starting Monday [Aug. 10th], we’re going to enter quarantine again because the cases of the virus are high.
LR: To those who have supported and are now discovering Por Eso!, what message would you send as encouragement to further support your organization’s mission?
SH: Thank you! Spread the word about the work we are doing. Thanks to the dissemination of our work, more donors reach us. We are an NGO and everything that we are accomplishing is thanks to the donations arriving from around the world. That is the best support we can receive.
To continue learning more about Por Eso! Perú, check out the links below to their website and related social media accounts:
Main website: https://www.poreso.org/en/
Simone’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/sieview?lang=en
Simone’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/poresoperu/
Dana Carreno | Johns Hopkins University
My name is Dana Carreno and I’m a rising junior studying Molecular and Cellular Biology at Johns Hopkins University. Born in New Jersey and now living in North Carolina, I’m the daughter of two Peruvian immigrant parents. As an undergrad, I enjoy applying my skills to new public health and healthcare opportunities, particularly those focused on promoting diversity in the workplace, and improving minority access to health and educational resources. For this reason, I’m interested in working with Latina Republic to research non-profit organizations working to eliminate health and education inequalities in Peru and neighboring countries. I’m excited to learn more about Latina Republic’s work and to contribute to the formation of new partnerships with individuals and groups in Latin America.