The Andes Mountains, the largest mountain range in the world, are home to 32 percent of Peru’s population, many of which rank among the poorest communities in the country. The struggle to keep crops and livestock alive in the harsh conditions brings many to either leave for hope of a better life in the city (which often fails to provide relief due to the mass amount of people with this same sentiment all unable to find work), or be stuck with little hope of creating a better life in their own community.
As I sat in the back of a taxi driving through these mountains, headed to Granja Porcón, a small farm town, I watched the landscape change from arid, grassy, cold plains to a beautiful forest of pine trees. I noticed that the trees were growing in perfectly straight lines, though. And then, I learned they are all planted by hand – all 13 million of them.
Forestry has saved this once desolate and poor area. It has created jobs, income, and resources for new businesses, all because of the trees.
Problem: Poverty in the Andes Mountains due to limited natural resources.
The people in this region were among the poorest in all of Peru and only had livestock as a source of income. There was no fuel. Freezing temperatures would kill their crops. There were no roads to connect them to the cities. And potable water was scarce. Work options were limited.
Solution: Plant trees and use forestry as a means to create jobs and income.
“Planting trees where opportunities exist can generate much-needed income, especially through the establishment of community-based enterprises,” states Chapter 3 of Better Forestry, Less Poverty (published in 2006 by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations).
In the 1950s, the Peruvian government began promoting the creation of cooperatives, farms, and businesses owned and operated by its members, who share the profits and benefits. An evangelical cooperative called The Workers Agrarian Cooperative Atahualpa Jerusalem (more commonly known by the city’s name, Granja Porcón) was created about 45 minutes outside of Cajamarca.
Its leader, Don Alejandro Quispe Chilón, believed that planting trees would be the means to lift his people out of poverty. However, the people did not believe in Chilón’s vision at first. In fact, he was deemed, crazy, in need of a doctor. This was an area known for straw grasses; no one wanted to wait 20 years to see trees mature.
“The people here would ask me, ‘So what, you’re going to give us sticks to eat?’ ” said Chilón. “‘We aren’t going to eat the sticks,’ I would tell them. ‘We will eat because of the sticks.’”
In the 1970s, he pushed forward. He planted 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres) of trees, which caught the attention of Belgian representatives, who were looking to invest in forestry in Peru. The Belgian corporation was impressed by what the people of Granja Porcón had done.
Subsequently, they decided to invest in this area. Why? They were drawn to the people: a hard-working community focused on creating a better life for themselves. Belgium helped provide training and resources, and invested in research to find which types of trees would work best in the harsh Andean environment, eventually settling on pines.
“They planted with the thought that in the future if they wanted to have a program that would have a successful economic and social impact, they would need to start from square one, using a very organized and ordered system,” said Charles Carton, the Belgium forester who has been working with Peru since the beginning of this program.
“The trees are all planted in rows, 3 feet by 3 feet apart. If the soil is good, you are able to harvest them by their 20th year. The cooperative has a strict rule of planting two trees for every one tree cut down,” Chilón said.The result: Job creation and a steady flow of income for the people of Granja Porcón.
The project hasn’t been without its struggles and failures, but overall the lives of the people in Granja Porcón have improved, and people from other areas in Peru have asked to become a part of the cooperative because of the stable and good life they can have here.
“The house, the log, the wood, completely changed the life of the women and the people,” said Carton. “They now have fuel to cook, a means to boil water, it gives them a way to have light in the evenings and meet up as a family because before this was not possible.”
Stand alone, solid structures have been erected; whereas before, mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Roads have been built, and new businesses such as artisan shops, dairy production, restaurants, and even a hostel (for tourists to come and spend the night in) are now creating livelihoods.
“As a nurse, I have seen an improvement in the health of people,” said Manuel Quispe Chilón, one of the members of the cooperative who saw the program evolve from Day One. “Now there is even family planning, because before people were having 8 or 10, 12 children. With family planning they now have about 1 or 2. Potable water is also available now, and it wasn’t previously.”
Schools have also been constructed, whereas before people didn’t think they should have schools or education, for fear that education would make their children want to leave to find jobs and not herd the sheep, Chilón explained to me. He taught himself to read while tending to the sheep when he was young. He told me stories of how he would dig through trash cans to find old newspapers in order to learn how to read.
Could it work other places?
“Yes of course,” he answered when I asked him this question. “The only thing that I would say, which I’ve told those that have come here from other regions, is you have to be honest. You also have to have the goal to benefit the whole town, not only benefit yourself or a specific group.”
The opportunity to create other communities and resources such as this exists. However, the conditions of Granja Porcón make it a rare and exceptional case. This place is a cooperative full of people all willing to work together for the greater good and share the benefits and profits. They are all dedicated to the evangelical faith and made the joint decision to not allow drinking and drugs for any members of the cooperative, saving them a lot of money and creating a sense of responsibility and determination throughout the cooperative. They are incredibly hardworking and honest, all striving to create a better future.
“We’re getting there,” said Carton when asked how he felt the progress of the project was going. “Not everything is finished, and we are still far from being perfect. But the will and the work is here. It’s not a paradise without problems, but at least we can walk together with hope. I feel like this is a suitable solution.”