“We are all strangers here”: Hope and chaos in an irrigated desert

From dry desert to prospering boomtown: Welcome to El Pedregral

Welcome to El Pedregal (Photo: Astrid Stensrud)

”It is a bad place, it’s a cosmopolis with people from all over, without any roots. You shouldn’t stay there long, you will be corrupted”. This was the reply from some friends in the highland town Chivay when I said that I wanted to go to El Pedregal, the urban centre of the Majes Irrigation Project in the coastal desert of Arequipa, Southern Peru. Obviously this spiked my curiosity even more. On the one hand, Majes is seen as a green paradise of opportunities, and on the other hand, as a chaotic place that is growing out of proportions at an accelerated speed. Some of the typical comments that I have heard from people living here are: “There is no culture here”, “We have no identity”, “We are all strangers here”, “There is a mixture of cultures”.

When the first settlers came to the pampa of Majes in 1983, there was nothing there, just arid desert land. Determined to work hard, they started to pick stones and prepare the soil. Then came the water, seeds and new technology; the desert was transformed into fertile green fields and more people came with dreams of money and hopes for a better future. 30 years after, people keep coming. People from all over Peru, with different cultural backgrounds, but with one thing in common: a hope for new opportunities to make money. Here is enough work for everyone: manual labour in the fields, jobs in the agro-export industry, commerce and business opportunities.

Irrigation of alfalfa Fields (Photo: Astrid Stensrud)

Yet, this prospering boomtown is extremely vulnerable: it is totally dependent on the irrigation canal – also called “the umbilical cord” – that brings water from a highland dam. If this canal breaks down, it will lead to a total crisis for the thousands of persons and cows living in Majes. The Condoroma Dam and the 100 kilometres long Majes Irrigation Canal was constructed in the 1970s, as a gigantic state development project under the reformist Velasco government. The international consortium Macón – consisting of companies from Sweden, England, Spain, Italy, South Africa, and Canada– constructed the Canal with engineers from Europe and local labour. The Condoroma dam has a capacity of 285 million cubic meters of water, but today it contains less than 50 per cent – 130 million – due to the lack of rain in the highlands.

When the infrastructure was finished, people could apply to buy fields of 5 hectares, and today there are around 2600 farmers with square fields of this size. Later, land was also sold to export companies, like Pampa Baja, which owns 1200 hectares. All the farmers started out with alfalfa cultivation (to nourish the barren soil) and dairy cows. Most of them sell the milk to two big companies – Gloria and Laive – while a few local cooperatives make artisanal cheese and yogurt. The Gloria company, which earlier had foreign owners, is now owned by a couple of brothers from Arequipa, who have expanded to several other countries and are now among the richest men in Peru and have also made it to the Forbes lists of the world’s billionaires. They are not only dominant in the Peruvian and South American market, but also export milk products to the Middle East and Africa.

Today, farmers in Majes are also growing artichokes, which they sell to DANPER, a Danish-Peruvian company exporting to USA and Europe, and other products, like avocado and quinoa, for national and international markets. Quinoa has become especially popular the last year because of the high demand and good prices, and the farmers hope that these prices will stay high. People talk enthusiastically about “the quinoa boom”, and everyone wants to have a piece of the cake before it’s too late. They remember the paprika boom some years ago, when everyone earned a lot of money growing paprika for export, until the prices plummeted because of the competition from China. The problem, they say, is that there is no planning. Because of the free market based on supply and demand and the free trade agreements with various countries, agriculture is “like a lottery” where you can win a lot of money or risk losing it all. Many farmers have become indebted and lost their farms after having taken up bank loans to sow and then lost it all when the prices have dropped due to overproduction.


Quinoa harvesting in Majes (Photo: Astrid Stensrud)

This is the downside of the bright picture that the local authorities paint when they talk about the dynamic economy and all the financial institutions that have established themselves in El Pedregal. That agriculture has made the basis for a thriving economy of industry and commerce is very true, however. Thousands of people have moved here to start a business or find a job; “here is work for everyone”. According to the last official census in 2007, there were 70.000 inhabitants in Majes. In 2014, the political authorities calculate that there are approximately 120.000 people living here; the annual population growth is around 12 per cent. The neighbourhoods grow at an accelerated speed and it’s hard for the municipality to follow up with projects of water and electricity to everyone.

Since Majes became an independent district 14 years ago, land invasions, property conflicts, land trafficking, and violent encounters have been escalating. On 25 February, two persons died and six were injured in a confrontation between land invaders and police during an eviction of an illegal settlement. The main problem is that land traffickers sell pieces of land that are not theirs to sell, and one lot can suddenly have two or three owners, leading in some cases to violent fights. There are rumours about mafias, hired gunmen and corruption, which lead to a lot of insecurity. The sad part is that there are families who really need a place to live, people who have moved from a poor rural community, where making a livelihood from small scale farming is becoming more difficult every day. But the ones gaining money on the need for land are traffickers who make it a “profession” to invade and to resell the land. Some even invade the land that others have invaded before. Many of the victims are migrants from the highlands who have been fooled into buying a piece of land from someone who is not the legal owner, and afterwards they have to go through a lot of trouble with the municipality to formalize the property. These properties are desert land with no water and electricity, where people live in precarious houses made of straw until they can afford to buy bricks. The municipality provide them with free potable water that is delivered in trucks once a week. There are plans to supply the whole population with water pipes and electricity, but these projects are not implemented in a neighbourhood until it is populated with people actually living there (and not only “on paper”).

Planting trees is a way of marking ownership to a piece of land (Photo: Astrid Stensrud)

Today, people are lured to move to Majes because of future prospects of more water when the second stage of the project – “Majes-Siguas II” – becomes a reality. On 6 February this year, I attended the opening ceremony of the Majes-Siguas II, which includes the construction of the new Angostura dam and the irrigation of 38.500 hectares of desert land in the pampa of Siguas. This land will be sold in units of minimum 200 hectares each, which means that big business will be a dominant presence here. The ceremony was moved from highland Angostura to Siguas, to avoid the protesters from Espinar province who contend that the new dam will leave them without water. The constitutional court has overruled these protests, however, and the 400 million USD project will proceed as planned. The concession has been awarded to a Spanish-Peruvian private consortium called Angostura-Siguas. At the ceremony, the president of Peru gave a flaming speech where he promised “a modern agriculture, an agriculture that can be exported and which will generate 200.000 work places”. He also promised that “the water will not be privatized”, a statement that received big applause. However, the new infrastructure will be administered by the private consortium, and the farmers in Majes fear increased water tariffs. “We call this privatization”, a farmer told me. No matter how strongly the government argues that the water is still public property, the farmers know that the operator who manages the infrastructure also controls the water flow. If the infrastructure and the operator are privatized, it will affect the small farmers’ livelihood, and they will probably not accept it silently.

Peru's president Ollanta Humala spoke about modernity and development at the opening ceremony of the Majes-Siguas II Project (Photo: Astrid Stensrud)

By Astrid Stensrud
Published Mar. 12, 2014 3:29 PM - Last modified Mar. 16, 2014 11:04 AM
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