This is an excellent expose' written by photojournalist Jake Lylle. He found People of Peru Project actively engaged in meeting some of the overwhelming needs in Belen.
Jake was very insightful as he captured the essence of this water-borne disaster and he finishes the last half of this investigative report, sharing People of Peru Projects' approach to making an impact in Belen.
Puerto Belen, a neighborhood in Iquitos, is a suburb of +/- 25,000. Sprawled out along the Itaya River just before it intersects the Amazon, Iquitos residents refer to Belen as the Venice of Peru, due to the heavy boat traffic along its shores that during the rainy season moves up around the thatched-roof shacks, making the neighborhood a floating marketplace. The slum is a series of twisted alleyways and market stalls that begin in South Iquitos at 104m above sea level and wind down a hill to the stilt-elevated
Despite the wealth of resources available from the various rivers and the surrounding Selva, life is desperate for many of those living in Belen. Because Belen is the hub of prostitution, drunkenness and gang life in Iquitos, local authorities and their contractors have long refused to expend resources to provide water, sewage or electric utilities to its citizens. It’s estimated that about 75% of people are living without running water in their homes, and many more go without electricity
Thick piles of garbage line the shores and alleyways of Belen and the riverbeds of the Itaya, as well as parts of the nearby Amazon. Trenches transport raw sewage from the farther areas of Belen into the river, though it shows up in the street sometimes as well. During five months of the year most of Belen is not accessible by motor car or foot, and canoe is the only transportation method around the palm-thatched shacks and market stalls. However, many dwellings line the riverfront and are floating houseboats all year long. Outhouses are built alongside or in back of the raft houses, emptying directly into the Itaya or into the trenches leading to it. Sailing along the river houses, one hears the sounds emanating from the enclosed rafts within. It is the river’s chaotic soundtrack: babies crying, pigs squealing and chickens clucking – all of which harmonize with the radio chatter blaring downriver from the central market.
Given the conditions, it’s inevitable that many of the residents here deal with constant health problems. Among the most common are parasites, dysentery, venereal diseases, tooth decay (soda is cheaper than water) and dengue fever. (Pictured above with her baby brother) Kelly's parents are fishermen.
Kelly’s family’s situation is not uncommon in Belen; they drink from the river, bathe in the river, eat from the river, put their waste back in the river. Lora (Kelly’s mother) says that diarrhea is an ongoing sickness for her entire family. Of her household of six, two or three are usually sick and taking anti-diarrhea medication at any given time. Costing anywhere between 1.10 – 5 Soles (35 cents to $1.58) for a pack of ten pills, such medication is available in the market but eats up a significant income portion of any family living in the area.
Leovina Perez is a college student in Iquitos studying child psychology. She grew up in Belen in a house with her mother Mercedes (shown above), father and Grandmother. Mercedes sells candy and the family is well off when compared to others that live closer to the river; they have running water and a toilet in the house. Ironically, they have no electricity despite Senor Perez’s status as a career electrician. When Leovina’s grandmother bought the house several years ago she discovered that the previous owner owed back-bills on the utilities and they wouldn’t be turned on until paid. The family scraped up enough to pay the water bills but never could manage to cover the former owner’s electric debt.
Leovina (above) now lives in housing outside of Belen provided by the People of Peru Project, a Humanitarian NGO (Non-Governmental Organization, a.k.a. charity) founded by American Paul Opp. It works specifically in the Iquitos area in a number of ways including health care projects, vocational training, educational sponsorship, and child mentoring. POPP is also paying for Leovina to attend university, and in return for the housing and education she receives, she works as a translator for volunteers that come to work with the NGO.
Only about 20% of the People of Peru Project’s work is done in Belen. They have outreach projects in other areas of Iquitos as well as in the jungle. “We focus on specific individuals, specific families, and specific communities, because if you go around dropping casual good works everywhere, you’re spitting in the wind.” says Opp, referring to the “volunteer” teams that come down to Belen for a couple hours to hand out toys and (of all things) candy, or to put on a drama for a couple hours before retreating back to their air-conditioned hotel rooms.
Belen is certainly a tough egg to crack because the poverty runs so deep, and people are often unwilling to change their habits. So the People of Peru Project takes it one or two families at a time. A good example of this is their transitional housing program. They own a two-story house in central Belen in which certain families live that need a boost to get going. Families, up to two, stay at the house and pay less rent than a house of its size would normally cost. POPP saves half the money they pay and when the family is ready to move on, applies it to the purchase of their own home. “If we didn’t help them buy a house, in the end we’d be just another landlord, and we’re not in that business,” says Opp. Families are held to certain standards when living in the house. Alcohol and drugs are forbidden, and children are not permitted to beg on the streets. Again, Paul Opp: “We have to hold people’s feet to the fire sometimes. If they don’t want our help they’re free to leave. People have turned down transitional housing because they would not give up their abuse of alcohol.”
When I visited the POPP’s house in Belen the Maitahuari family (above) had moved in two days before. “We are happy because we have more space, and living in the room was tiny.” says father Victor Maitahauri, 39. The family of six previously lived in one small room in an apartment with seven or eight other families, everyone sharing a communal kitchen and bathroom. You can bet living in their new home is a breath of fresh air and a step in the right direction toward a transition out of poverty.
Walking along Belen’s streets, Paul is warmly greeted by the passers-by. It’s obvious that his organization has a strong presence in the neighborhood. Paul used to own a logging company in Washington State but sold it in 2003 to found the organization with his wife Sandi. When I asked him why he chose this path, he responded “The first answer is; feeding hungry kids, relieving human suffering, clothing the naked and taking care of orphaned children is simply the right thing to do. But as a Christian, I believe it’s the right thing to do because it’s what God instructed us to do. The people that have accepted the Christian lifestyle have done so because of our example and not pressure. We don’t dangle the Gospel out there along with the medical help as an incentive,” Opp says, referring to the NGO’s medical programs around Iquitos.
Last year over 400 volunteers came to work with the POPP from around the world. Many volunteers are doctors and nurses who establish mobile clinics, providing medical care and even performing surgery on patients from Belen when needed. Furthermore, they know what help (however little) is available to the poor from the Peruvian government and help navigate patients through the bureaucratic process of getting healthcare.
People of Peru Project is officially a Humanitarian Organization, and teams from around the world come into Belen regularly to run children's programs and adult health education seminars. The children are taught proper health and sanitation practices and moral values to help them navigate the seedy and dangerous streets. Serving people in and around Iquitos of all backgrounds and orientations, People of Peru Project is able to learn through these school-based programs what kids are in abusive situations and what families are in crisis. Several girls from Belen have gone to live in the center run by the organization that houses girls who have come from abusive situations. Once girls at the center have finished their high school programs, People of Peru Project offers them an opportunity for advanced education. People of Peru Project is more than just a band-aid agency. Their operations address crises at hand as well as work through education to grow a better future.
Despite paying 15% of their income of $81/month to taxes, Sedaloreto is not working at all for the Natorce family. Jaimes, 32, (shown below with his son Andy, 18 months) works every morning from 3 AM until 8 AM unloading petrol and iron from ships in the port and carrying them on his back into the market, while Eloise watches their three children. Unable to afford a water line and the subsequent monthly bills, Jaimes and Eloise buy their water from a neighbor when they can. They both know that the water in the river is dirty and shouldn’t be drunk, but they have several times resorted to doing so because supplies were limited or the line was cut off for maintenance. “My children have parasites,” says Eloise. The medicine she recently purchased in the market was ineffective and all the children have diarrhea. It appears that what Eloise purchased was a drug to temporarily stop diarrhea but not kill the parasites.
When Eloise (above) was asked what she would change about her life if she could, she began to cry. “I worry about my kids’ illnesses… I worry about food, my kids…” The interview became too difficult for her to continue.
With so little humanitarian assistance in Belen, the large-scale problems don’t seem as if they’ll improve any time soon. Organizations like the People of Peru Project are in need of funds to expand their services. Other organizations that are experienced at tackling deep-seated issues like those found in Belen must move in alongside them. We’re now seven years into the eight promises known as the Millennium Development Goals, made by the UN community and led by the world’s richest governments. Among them are to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty and halve the number of people without access to safe drinking water by the year 2015. However, it seems our leaders are more adept at making promises than keeping them as funding goals continue to fall short every year.
I’m sure if the folks in Belen were even privy to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, they would certainly like to be included somewhere in all that halving. People like Eloise and her family who are struggling financially, physically and emotionally every day appear to be among the very last in line to catch a break. For them, 2015 won’t come fast enough.
People of Peru Project has grown significantly since its founding in 2003. The organization, a non-profit both in Peru and the US, now has a full-time staff of 20 Peruvians including two nurses. In addition to working in Belen, they have outreaches in the Santo Thomas area of Iquitos as well as in the jungle community of San Jose Village, 50 miles by boat from Iquitos.