Welcome to Belen, where the poorest of the poor float for half the year on the floodplains of the Amazon.
When government officials and local community members meet to discuss the needs of “the Venice of the Amazon,” they bring chairs and set them up in the street. Each time a local three-wheeled auto rickshaw needs to pass, the officials and neighbors pick up their chairs and let the rickshaw through. Then they put their chairs back together and resume their meeting.
That is in the dry season. During the six months of the year that the Belen Neighborhood of Iquitos, Peru, is flooded, these meetings are held on planks connecting stilted and floating huts. At these official meetings, attendees have fallen from the planks into the river, which is polluted with raw sewage.
The city of Iquitos is considered the Capital of the Amazon River, is the sixth largest in Peru, and the only city of its size that cannot be accessed by road. All travelers to Iquitos come by air or water. One of the four districts composing Iquitos is Belen, the Spanish name for Bethlehem. The rest of Iquitos does not get flooded despite being surrounded by rivers, but the poorest of the poor live on floodplains, and the poorest 13,000 inhabitants of the jungle have been pushed to the least desirable land.
Adam Frange is executive director of Community Health Council. With graduate students, undergraduate interns, and volunteers, the CHC provides public health outreach on vectors of disease, dispenses vitamins and works with the government of Peru to contain the health crisis the floods represent each year. Nine organizations operate with CHC in consortium as La Red por Belen (The Network for Belen) to bring resources to 6,000 residents of Belen.
The people living in Belen do not have running water or electricity. Their huts, depending on their proximity to the river, are on stilts or built to float when the waters rise. Although there are designated latrines and garbage dumping areas, there is no money for a garbage truck to haul it away, so in the flood season, the Belen dump is washed away. The waste is spread out along the shore and into the Amazon. “It cakes as the waters recede each year. Every square meter contains thirty kilograms of waste,” says Frange. “It’s an incredible public health hazard. You can’t realize it until you’re standing in the mud of it. It amazes that people can survive in it. They can’t afford shoes so they’re walking in the waste. They have all kinds of infections. It’s an incredible burden.”
As critical as the sanitation and poverty conditions are in the Belen Neighborhood, the residents themselves have identified social problems as their highest priority. “Imagine Katrina in your town six months out of every year,” says Frange, evoking the life of a typical Belen resident. Imagine life in an un-airconditioned, unlit hut the size of a trailer, with no toilet or refrigerator, and not only your own family living in such cramped conditions but likely another family as well. Instead of a yard, roads, and neighbors you can walk to, your home floats on polluted floodwaters. Mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and malaria, as well as other diseases of poverty—juvenile pregnancy, STDs, and malnourishment—are rampant.
“In a resource poor setting, the causes of illness are just as attributable to social causes as to microbes,” says Frange. Public services that Americans take for granted are non-existent or inaccessible in Belen. There’s no one you can call, no 911, if someone in your household becomes suddenly violent, or sick, or injured. Although Peru has a system of schools, they are grossly underfunded and require fees to attend. If you can afford the fees to send your children to school, you must still ferry them there yourself, possibly in a canoe you carved yourself from a tree. The school doesn’t have a library: no one in Belen has been to one. The nearest library is too far, and has a dress code.
Try to imagine raising children in this environment. Now consider the tragedy of a parent in Belen dying of an easily treated illness, and how much more violence this represents in a child’s life, growing up without this protective force.
The Belen Project traces its roots to a 2005 service mission to Belen undertaken by clown doctors from two organizations: the Gesundheit! Institute and Bola Roja Clown Doctors. The clowns noticed that children in Belen do not play nearly as much as the children in other places: even children who are as poor, or who are refugees, or experience other trauma, will play with whatever is at hand. Part of the reason children here do not play is because there is no place to play. Just as the officials must meet in the dirt road or on a plank floating on the river, children are also under too much pressure from overcrowding. According to Frange, Gezundheit and others hypothesize that there’s a link between community and family violence and lack of play as part of the culture of childhood in this area. In an effort to recreate a culture of play, La Red puts on a festival of nonviolence and play every year, with crafts, games, and a parade.
In talking about the efforts of La Red por Belen in addressing the misery of life in Belen, Frange begins describing the “broken windows” theory of crime. Popularized in New York City, the criminological theory suggests that when your government doesn’t care to haul away your trash or regulate the safety of homes, when no one in the neighborhood seems to mind visible signs of breaking and entering, drug abuse, and other crime, that their own criminal acts will also go unnoticed. Alcoholism and domestic violence are rampant in Belen, making “family and community violence” the number one priority of the neighborhood and of The Belen Project. With donated paint, the waterfront huts were painted in vivid, beautiful colors. Classes are offered on all aspects of health, from self-esteem to how to wash your hands and safely handle meat. “If the amount of disease drops, well being goes up, so there should be a correlating drop in community violence,” says Frange, explaining the long-range utility of such relatively inexpensive measures.
Other NGOs before La Red have come to Belen and made promises, only to find that the problems of this poor and precarious neighborhood were too great. La Red has been granted a parcel of land by the government of Peru, on the provision that they build a community center on an agreed-upon timetable: the foundation and first floor are projected to open next year under a temporary roof, and a second floor to be built by 2014. The center will give officials a place to meet, clinicians to serve patients, and children to play. It will contain the first library that most residents of Belen have ever had access to. In a community where the literacy rate is 30%, the center will be a place where adults can learn, too.
The University of Washington operates a lab outside of Belen, and includes in its budget scholarships for local children to attend school. It was through these scholarships that La Red first gained access to Belen’s community. The educational system is not strong enough to produce applicants to American universities, but perhaps in the future, this could change. The community center will become operational after the modest investment of $82,000, and the technology is already available to bring free Harvard distance learning courses to rural areas. Alongside classes for newly expectant mothers and other services, the community center can increase literacy in the area, provide classes on job skills, and other tools to help the residents of Belen raise themselves from the floodplains of poverty on the banks of the Venice of the Amazon.
If you would like to learn more about how you can help the poorest of the poor, visit patchadams.org/belen-project to make a donation. Because this project is already administratively funded, more than 99% of your donation directly helps the people of Belen.
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Images courtesy of Adam Frange