Water and the Transformation of a Native Village in the Manu Rainforest Biosphere, in the Southeastern Peruvian Amazon
How it Began: It’s been eight years since my first trip to Peru. I was a commercial fashion and advertising photographer in Los Angeles when I decided to take a 2 month trip to South America with no itinerary and not a word of Spanish. My journey led me to the Manu Rain Forest in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, first on a converted Russian Army tour bus and then switching to a flat bed truck filled with locals and their animals. It was there that I fell in LOVE with indigenous people, their children and the absolute beauty and magnitude of the forest.
So how did House of the Children and the first clean water and indigenous health project in a native community in the southeastern Peru Amazon all come about?
I found my way to a small native community called Santa Rosa de Huacaria in search of a shaman/medicine man because of my interest in healing, medicinal plants, and native ceremony. What I found in my journey of self-discovery were the children...or perhaps they found ME! It was easy for me to connect with their beauty, their strength, and an innocence in which I found compelling. On a physical level I could see their health was poor, their stomachs distended, their faces bloated. I began to help the village school teacher with what I today refer to as my “western bandages:" basic school supplies, tooth brushes and toothpaste. The pencil sharpener was a big hit because the kids no longer had to sharpen their pencils with their teeth! I realized as "noble" as my efforts were, they couldn't help kids drinking contaminated water or playing next to their open septic pit full of human waste.
The school teacher asked me if there was anything I could do to help with the contaminated water and from that day my life changed forever. I returned to the states, made a decision to take a sabbatical from my career as a photographer, and with a small group of friends, I established House of the Children, a 501(c)(3) a public charity organization.
Our founding principle was to support the children, families and indigenous cultures from their strengths and not from a place of weakness or as victims. Our mission, then and now, is to honor global cultures and provide sustainable, quality programs of clean water, basic sanitation, health and education for children and adults in context to their cultural and environmental needs.
Why Manu: Despite decades-long scientific and anthropological research and NGO activity in Manu – including the recent completion of a seven-year, 7 million dollar international development program – I witnessed first hand that the indigenous communities were still sorely in need of effective solutions to their precarious health, sanitation and educational status.
We Can Do Anything When We Believe: With no formal education in water or indigenous health, I began to consult with experts in the fields of water, sanitation and indigenous health. I built my global team one step at a time, all by word of mouth, and through countless hours of research. I had never written a grant before in my life, and I had the good fortune to meet a professional grant writer, who donated her time, and helped me raise over $500,000 in a five year period. I don’t know where we would have been without her. Her humor and love got me through times when funds were low, and my fears high, that we could not continue. But the money always arrived in one form or another, mostly in the 9th hour. I am convinced that the whole process “of how the money comes and when” remains synchronistic and divinely guided.
No Model to Follow: There was no successful model to follow in Manu, or anywhere else in Peru for that matter. I was clear that I wanted to achieve an improved quality of life for the community through low tech water and sanitation systems that were environmentally friendly, involved active child participation, and that eventually the people by themselves would be able to maintain to achieve long team health advances. I knew intuitively that health education for the entire community and technical training of a village based water committee, were the “keys” to support all structural advances. So that is where we started and 5 years later it has proven to be a highly successful model.
Health Education: Once the community accepted the project, HOTC established the water committee that became responsible for building the water and sanitation systems. Our health educator was onsite 18 - 20 days per month to work with the children, mothers and community at large.
Integral partnerships with the health and education ministry were formed, which allowed us to share resources and reinforce the existing health infrastructure. We were also able to improve relationships between the community of Huacaria and the health personnel at the local health post. We were clear as an organization our work was to improve upon the parts of the existing health system that were not functioning and not recreate the wheel. We initiated programs that have become very successful including strengthening general health education, oral health, and yearly health evaluations of parasite and anemia loads. The people became involved and began charting their progress each year. Chronic diarrhea has dropped significantly (nearly 45%) in the children, and babies are being born healthier because the mothers are better educated through our health education programming. The lives of the children and families changed for the better.
Transformation of a Village: I knew in my heart that the transformation of this village had to be led by what the people desired for their lives and the lives of their children. We respected lifestyle, customs, and choices made even though at times some of these choices were difficult for our western minds to understand. The time frame was at a pace that corresponded to their lifestyle. We had to find a balance—and most definitely it was a process of give and take.
Our health educator worked with the children, the mothers and families, the schoolteacher, village health promoter, and the shaman/medicine man consistently over 4 years gaining their trust and confidence. Our staff participated in blessing ceremonies to “mother earth” before construction began, and then once structures were completed, we all gave thanks in a formal ceremony. My close relationship with the shaman promoted cultural revival through native ceremony, and the kids absolutely loved participating in these ceremonies.
We used art as a means of self-expression. The children painted words of praise and thanks on the slow- sand filter tanks in four languages, Spanish, Matsigenka, Wachipaeri, and Quechua. They also painted the “Wanamey” (Tree of Life) on the tanks and created a health campaign through painting positive health messages on large piece of wood. These paintings were displayed at the United Nations NY headquarters at their Global Indigenous Forum in May of 2007. Our project was also chosen as a beneficiary a UN youth led initiative, Pumped Up For Peace. Project Huacaria was featured as an online interactive photo gallery in association with Pumped Up For Peace on the UN Cyberschoolbus website. The photo gallery taught children around the world about fresh water issues and how they can make a difference in their world. Project Huacaria was also featured on a PBS children’s programming special called :Planet H2O" hosted by America Ferrera in April of 2006. The segment is available on the gallery section our website.www.houseofthechildren.org
Technical Team: Our project gathered the best international, regional and local talent to form our technical team. All construction used local resources and materials whenever possible. Our US technical team interfaces with our Peru team, and the synergy of the teams is highly successful! The sharing of ideas, technology, and mutual problem solving has created a united team, a FAMILY that to this day continues to respect each other, and work toward the “good of the indigenous life in Manu.”
The village water committee in Huacaria developed a close relationship with our engineers and project foreman. They take great pride in maintaining the structures, testing the chlorine levels of the water supply and, teaching weekly classes in water safety at the village schoolhouse. Certain members of the water committee have now gone on to earning wages with HOTC as they help us bring clean water to other indigenous communities. The components of partnering with the health and education ministry continues to evolve, and works to promote long term sustainability
Gravity Flow Water Systems and Bathrooms for the Schoolhouse: HOTC renovated and expanded the existing gravity flow water system within the village that was left unfinished by the government. We constructed an additional gravity flow water system in a sector of the community that was not reachable by the central system. We used slow sand filtration and chlorine disinfection to purify the water. Slow Sand Filtration is a natural biological process that removes up to 99.99% of the harmful bacteria, parasites and algae from the water supply.
Stone utility sinks with underground greywater drains were constructed at each home and at the village schoolhouse.
A bathroom with flush latrines and a septic system that naturally decomposes waste was built for the village schoolhouse. All construction was in harmony with nature with structures built almost entirely from the stones, sand and gravel from the surrounding river banks.
Communal Involvement: We involved the CHILDREN and community members in all aspects of construction and inspired the community that a job worth doing, was worth doing well. HOTC invested in quality materials, and gave direct and “Equal”access (24 hours per day) to safe drinking water to each household. The bathroom structure is made almost completely with rocks from the river, is well ventilated, and has the finishing touch of a native thatched roof. It is a work of art. None of this would have been possible without the active ongoing participation of children and people. They carried rock on their backs, and they were involved hands-on in the construction of their sanitary installations.
Change Not Being Always Easy: I was almost always the devil or the saint, pushing at boundaries, and limits, to attain quality, functionality and harmony within the ecosystem in all that we did. I used the mistakes made in the field by both HOTC, and the community as a teaching forum. Sometimes in the process I was not very popular but in the end we all saw the difference in completing a job well done. Huacaria is now the first indigenous community in the southeastern Peru Amazon to have safe drinking water, sanitation that does not contaminate the local ecosystem, bathrooms at the schoolhouse, utility sinks at each home, and health education that empowers the people to claim their individual and communal responsibilities to live health and abundant lives. This is monumental in the history of a native community in Peru.
Capacity Building and Technical Training: Our pilot program included four years of capacity-building, cultural and environmentally appropriate health education and technical training. Bi-yearly technical follow-up visits will continue for a period of two years. The natural, low maintenance technologies were implemented gradually, and allowed the necessary organizational and technological changes to be understood, and integrated into everyday life.
Some of the Challenges: As the village advanced, and clean water flowed, the people in the surrounding villages became somewhat envious. There were constant rumors from a colonized pueblo within walking distance from Huacaria that HOTC was only helping natives because we were going to steal their land, and that all of the money was going to my salary. The people of Huacaria sometimes fell victim to these rumors and doubts filled their minds. Years of failed programming made them wonder if they could really trust the direction we were pointing them towards. For all misunderstandings we talked things through in community meetings. In the end, things always calmed down, and the truth always set us free!
Native cultures are often looked upon in Peru as the lowest common denominator, uneducated and lazy. HOTC worked to empower the children, and families to achieve their greatest potential. We all worked together, through the doubts, wind, rain, illness and death, at the deepest levels of soul and heart, knowing that the truth of our work would “one day” illuminate the path to those who did not yet understand.
Statistic on Water: Water is as fundamental to life as the air we breathe. The lack of safe water and sanitation is the single largest cause of illness in our world. Approximately 1.2 billion people in the world lack clean water, and 2.4 billion lack proper sanitation. Water related diseases kill a child every 8 seconds and that is approx 4 million lives each year. In Peru, safe drinking water, basic sanitation and culturally appropriate health education is almost non existent in native communities. My team and I continue to work to transform these statistics one village, one region, at a time.
Lessons Learned: Our lessons learned were many. We learned what sustainable, low technology methods worked best for rainforest tribes living in a tropical environment. We learned to problem solve daily through small and large disasters that came from heavy tropical rain, mud slides, dangerous travel, intense heat, accidents, babies dying, and cultural misunderstandings. We learned to be kinder human beings, and less judgmental at the 100 metaphoric arrows that were shot at us by those who feared the change. Five years later, water flows clean and pure and the community themselves no longer contaminates their surroundings. We all know that this is a long term process and we continue to monitor the effects of our programmings.
What the future holds for HOTC: Project replication throughout the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, with a commitment to continue to strengthening relationships between NGOs, communities and social service agencies, and partnerships that are interdependent, rather than co-dependent on ongoing outside aid.
We believe true health and well being evolves from working at a communal, local, regional and national level. Our goal is to continue to interface our programming with the existing health agencies, educational system, local and regional governments, and state environmental agencies, as well as national and international scientists and organizations working in the region. Working together with these diverse leaders, scientists and agencies will help to achieve a sustainable health system. Our long term goal is sustainable communities and sustainable in -country health infrastructure empowered by its own people, resources and talents.
Our Next Community and Global Teaching and Learning Center: The remote native Matsigenka community of Tayakome located in Reserve Zone of the Manu Biosphere is the next community that HOTC replicate clean water, basic sanitation at the village schoolhouse, and health education, over a five year period. Tayakome is only accessible by river boat
We will also establish a global teaching and learning center in Lima to capacity build and technically train at a regional and national level with leaders, institutions, and technical personnel working on the forefront of public health.
Thanks to All!
Thanks to all for taking the time to read about my journey with the indigenous people of Manu. I think when all is said and done, I do this because it lives in my heart and soul to do so. I was guided to Manu so that I could grow beyond all I know myself to be. My love of humanity,-- and the human journey, is truly the light that guides my way.
Thanks again for your time. Please share our work with others, and for more on HOTC long on to www.houseofthechildren.org.