'This Didn't Use to Happen': Peruvian Communities Reel From Stronger El Niño

Talking to the locals in Lurigancho-Chosica, Peru, after a devastating season of landslides
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Members of a family attempt a highway flooded after three mudslides in Chosica, Peru, in January 2009. (Photo: Victor Palomino/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1998, the district of Lurigancho-Chosica in Peru, about an hour from Lima, suffered the devastating effects of heavy rains caused by El Niño. The most vulnerable were the villages nestled along the valley on the banks of the Rímac River and on the mountainside. During that year's storm season, the rain loosed shards of caked earth and huge boulders that hurtled from a height of 1,000 to 3,000 meters and down several ravines, taking lives and homes with them before breaking the surface of the river. The river itself burst its banks, flooding the surrounding area and destroying the main bridge.

Lurigancho-Chosica is a district known for landslides, many of them attributed to El Niño. Disaster struck again in 2008, 2012—and then most recently last year, when nine people died and six more were declared missing, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in the area. Communities were left reeling.

"I saw people falling, being buried by the mud, children getting lost, crying," says 16-year-old Gabriela Perez, who during the 2015 storm was in La Libertad, a small village along the valley. "I had to climb walls of mud to get to safety and all I wanted to do was get to my mother who was at home."

Where El Niño used to be more sporadic, in recent years it has become a regular occurrence, upturning the lives of these villagers.

"Seven years ago the landslide came down the other side," Perez says. "But this time it came down the Carossio Gorge at Rayos Del Sol where we didn't expect it. The lady that collects recyclable goods has a house there. She wasn't home but her daughter was there with her baby and her brother. Many families lost their lives apart from them."

"The most recent statistics show that El Niño can appear every seven to 10 years," says Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the country's minister for the environment. "However, in the past there were longer periods between each one. Right now we are suffering almost continually from its effects."

"The only solution will be try to get people onto higher ground. Our focus is on saving the children and the elderly."

If you want a historical perspective on El Niño in Chosica, just talk to Nicanor Dueñas, a senior citizen who has lived in the area since 1961. In those days, rich Limeños would frequent the area, drawn by its mild climate and natural beauty.

"The climate has changed dramatically," he says. "Some days it's really hot and other times really cold. Chosica now has days when it gets to 40 degrees [Celsius]. That didn't use to happen."

"The thermic action causes us to think that the greenhouse effect is happening,” says William Zegarra from the non-government organization Practical Action, which is training locals in disaster-prevention techniques. "These types of emergencies are becoming more common and with the greenhouse effect and pollution we think these might accelerate."

Right now, the government is installing reinforced metal nets and concrete walls along the path of one of last year's landslides; the nets and walls that are meant to absorb the brunt of the force of a landslide. But there's a lot more that needs to be done.

"It's only been the central government that has been installing the metal pillars and giving us money for the walls," says Ana Ninahuanca Gómez, president of ProHoga Association that represents the rights of the villagers who live near the Carossio Gorge. "We're waiting for local authorities and the Lima regional authorities because they were supposed to work on the dykes and, so far, they haven't."

"Where the water came down with the most force it has destroyed the road. But that is the only way out in the event of a landslide, which means we don't have a way to escape," Dueñas says. "The only solution will be try to get people onto higher ground. Our focus is on saving the children and the elderly."

The lack of action by regional and local authorities is just one thread in an intricate knot of social and political issues complicating life for impoverished communities vulnerable to El Niño.

In Lurigancho-Chosica, the Ministry of Housing is working to establish a program to relocate some of the most vulnerable, offering them free housing in safe areas, but many locals do not want to leave.

"Sometimes, because people are poor, they decide to invest their life savings in the construction of a house on a cheap plot of land and then they do not want to leave those homes," Zegarra says.

Compounding the problem are the mafia de terrenos, groups of land traffickers who rent or re-sell the empty plots as soon as they are evacuated, even if they do not own them.

"We have witnessed this in the past in Chosica" Zegarra says. "People have come and invaded someone else's property that may have been evacuated and are now living there."

Invasiones, or invasions, is the term used to describe the illegal tenure of land. Along the mountainsides in Lurigancho-Chosica, many of the shanty villages that hang precariously on the path of past landslides, or sit along the valley floor at risk from floods, have been founded through invasiones.

Many of these impoverished settlers share the same story. Coming down from some of the poorest Andean regions in search of economic opportunity, their priority is to be as near as possible to urban areas. Unable to afford land in the cities, in this they will settle for squatting on nearby inhospitable land that is exposed to the effects of El Niño.

"Unfortunately for the poorest people, often their vision is a short-term vision," says Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, minister for environment. "People quickly forget the last El Niño. It is a balance, a trade-off between their immediate economic and housing needs and what consequences they may or may not need to face in the future."

In some cases, settlers may, after some years, even gain the title deeds.

"The regional governments are very weak and don't have all the information to try to deal with this kind of problem," admits Pulgar-Vidal. "We need to make it clear that people who settle in areas that are forbidden are not going to be given any kind of land title."

Gaining land titles is a great incentive to settlers and a way for politicians to win supporters in a country where voting is mandatory.

"It is also very sad because this sometimes happens as a way to gain votes," Pulgar-Vidal continues. "This may be seen to be giving advantages to those voters but is actually not giving consideration to the risks for those people."

"Sure, there are areas where people shouldn't live," Dueñas admits. "But before there was no danger, and that's why people have just constructed their houses there. As time has gone by the landslides have become stronger and now they get worse every year."

"We are so vulnerable and nature damages us," says Perez, who has grown up in the new normal. "But we practically bring it on ourselves. We live in areas that we shouldn't live."

After decades of putting up with the consequences of El Niño, Perez and others of her generation refuse to live in denial. Instead they have formed a youth brigade and are working on rallying the local population to become proactive and educate themselves in disaster prevention.

"We are learning to defend our rights," Perez says. "We have marched, we have made flyers, we have made T-shirts and we have gone from school to school to raise awareness and offer training and information."

While Pulgar-Vidal admits that local authorities need to take stronger action in these circumstances, for now, his focus remains on risk management and disaster prevention.

"ENFEN [the National Institute for the Study of El Niño], which are the seven agencies which study and monitor El Niño, has just reduced the possibility of El Niño from strong to moderate," Pulgar-Vidal says. "But we are still investing a lot of money on preventative measures, on managing an emergency and on rehabilitation, if we do suffer consequences."

"We also have an alliance with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from the U.S., which is giving us information on El Niño when it is beyond our coast," he adds. "Very soon, we also hope to have a satellite that will improve our prospects of predicting an El Niño."

Meanwhile in a village in Lurigancho-Chosica, away from the blinking lights of the monitoring devices, Nicanor Dueñas, Gabriela Perez, their families, and their neighbors brace for the next catastrophe.

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