The Peruvian Amazon, where even a simple roll of toilet paper can change your life!

Peru is one of Latin America’s fast-growing countries, with average 2013 growth calculated at around 5%. Together with other countries in the region like Brazil, Ecuador and Chile, just to name a few, it is the world’s economic engine for the coming years.

Maria Poggi, International Aidworker

Peru is the third country in South America for size after Brazil and Argentina. A multi-cultural country with a strong presence of a bilingual population belonging to different ethnic groups residing mainly in the Andes Mountain Range area and the Amazon Rainforest. Despite all the macro-economic indicators being on the rise, there are still large poverty and extreme-poverty areas among native populations (Quechua and Amazon), main victims of this social exclusion. Wealth distribution is still very unbalanced and the rural-urban development breach is increasing. In this context, fundamental human rights, too, like birth registry, education and health, are not guaranteed to everyone; in most cases, it is the weaker segments like children, women and those living in less accessible locations who suffer this situation.

I stayed in Peru two years for work, living with a native population in the Amazon forest, coordinating a development cooperation project to improve social inclusion of these populations through access to fundamental human rights like the right to be registered at birth, the right to an education and to health. The project was focused in the province of Condorcanqui, in the north of the country on the border with Ecuador, in the Amazonas region, in a territory historically occupied by native populations of Awajun and Wampis origin. The landscape is characterized by water: a crossroads of rivers that flow into the great Marañón (one of the main affluents of the Amazon River) that give rise to the biodiversity of the territory but at the same time make access problematic. The immense distances, the difficulties in communication, the lack of structures and social services and the alteration of the habitat due to deforestation or pollution are just some of the factors that prevent improvement in living conditions of these people who still today are victims of extreme poverty in a country that is growing at superlative levels. In that part of the Peruvian territory, drinkable water, sanitation and waste collection are lacking as well as other primary needs such as electricity, medicines, books and blackboards, soap and even food.

The population is organized into native communities living along the main rivers or even beyond - internally, towards the thickest forest. Here, people live on the products of the earth such as bananas, maniocs, mangos, papayas and the fruits of palm trees (coconut, aguaje, pijuayo). Another source of food is fresh water fish that is, however, becoming increasingly hard to find due to the strong pollution of rivers. Hunting, too, once the main supply of protein in the population’s diet, is decreasing, the animals are moving away from inhabited areas and hunting has become an increasingly difficult activity. In the community, hygienic conditions are precarious; there are no public fountains and river water or rainwater collected is the only source of supply of this precious element. River water is highly polluted so it must be boiled before being used for drinking and cooking. This has not yet become a habit with native families and diarrhea - even very serious forms - is the result, above all among children. There are no bathrooms and just in few cases public or private latrines are used. Goods are transported via river through the typical canoes built by carving out large trunks of wood from the forest and reach the community in sporadic fashion since much depends on seasonal navigation conditions.

In a context like this, nothing is taken for granted. A candle, a match or a roll of toilet paper are consider-ed luxury items, sought-after and expensive. Above all, toilet paper is scarce and the low diffusion of a culture of personal hygiene yields different uses than the ones we Europeans consider traditional. Very often it is used as a table napkin to clean the mouth and hands, many times as decoration for school or community events, cut and colored when possible. The cardboard of the internal tubes is set aside and used for the same purposes. These diffused habits belong not only to the most isolated native populations but are also found in populated centers frequented by many people for work and where communication with the rest of the world is more consistent. It is rare to find restrooms equipped with toilet paper in the small restaurants of the province’s capital.

So, a piece of advice for travelers who want to get to know this wonderful country: always bring with you a small roll of toilet paper. It could be useful in many situations and it will certainly make your stay in Peru a lot more pleasant! *

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