Heifer International: Famine Prevention and Sustainability

Author Barbara Kingsolver describes her journey to the Andes in Peru to witness the famine prevention and sustainability projects accomplished by Heifer International.

| December 2005/January 2006

My first sight of the Andes was exactly as I’d imagined them since I was a child: white, sharp points laid row upon row, like the teeth of a shark yawning at the sky. Crowned with permanent ice, the mountains stand with their feet in green, humid tropics on the Amazonian side while their western flanks include some of the driest deserts in the world. Peru is a nation of surprises, where an intrepid traveler with light baggage may encounter some 90 of the world’s 125 classified ecosystems.

Our plane carried just this kind of traveler — a dozen Heifer International devotees from the United States who’d come to bear witness to the works we had supported for years with our hearts and wallets. We would see places as diverse as Peru, from the dizzying altitude of Cuzco (where we’d find out “dizzying” is not a metaphor), down to some of the world’s most marginal inhabited lands in the coastal deserts. I had been told that just a few dollars’ worth of assistance wisely spent, in these harsh places, can make the difference between famine and survival. This is what I came to see for myself.

When our plane touched down in a dust-covered coastal town, I shed my jacket in the heat and struggled to recall what month this was: November. Peru’s Southern Hemisphere calendars would call it spring, but here in the state of Piura — just a few degrees south of the equator — the season is nearly always just called dry. We emerged from the plane into a town that felt profoundly reminiscent of the Arizona-Mexico border, where I lived for many years. In the skin-prickling aridity I felt strangely at home — doubly so as I chatted with Fidel Calle Calle, a staff member from Piura’s Heifer office. As we passed through the city I was struck by another familiar sight — mesquite trees, old and enormous, shading the benches of the town square. Beyond the hopeful, spruced-up little park, Piura’s crumbling adobe structures began to betray the truth — this is mostly a poor town with desperate outskirts unraveling in every direction.

We crossed the Rio Piura, a scant trickle over bone-white stones in a broad riverbed. The rainy season, technically, is January to March, but many years pass with no rain at all. Every few years El Niño revs up a good head of steam and drops some moisture. It’s good for the land — the trees grow then, Fidel explained. This year the prediction was for medium rains.

At our hotel we changed into farm clothes, climbed into several pickup trucks and barreled out of the city.  Fidel steered us skillfully around three-wheeled mototaxis and crowds of people pursuing the business of their days, in endless districts of houses built as minimally as any I’ve ever seen. Connected one to the next like flimsy condominiums, running in long banks beside the road, the shops and residences were all made of crisp-looking, leafy dry bamboo cut from the riverbanks. The walls looked as substantial as a grass skirt, with roofs even more provisional. Of course, with no rain or cold to keep out, a structure that offers shade and privacy is presumably good enough.

The office’s pickup was equipped with what we called in my childhood “4-60 air-conditioning” (roll down all four windows and hit the gas). We inhaled the day in hot gulps. Between stretches of dry forest lay flat, white-crusted fields — former rice fields, Fidel explained, abandoned after years of being irrigated and fertilized until the land could bear no more insult. Flood-irrigation evaporates quickly in this climate, leaving behind dissolved mineral salts that accumulate year upon year until the soil is ruined, too salty to support life.

12/10/2010 11:48:56 AM

I've supported Heifer International for many years. It is one of the few charities, in my opinion, that does effective, sensible work. Thanks for writing about them. I'm giving a few flocks of chickens as meaningful Christmas gifts this year and I encourage others to do the same. I'm looking forward to explaining to my nephew that I gave a family the ability to feed themselves as a celebration of my love for him. I think he is old enough to "get" it this year.

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