The sun rises in Belen, and the dock workers prepare to go home for the day. They’ve been working all night to carry in the day’s produce, charcoal, iron, petroleum, you name it, in time for the 7AM customer rush. “Dock” should be thought of in loose terms. It really means where the water meets the shore at any given time of the year. Banana carriers have to be the most skilled of all the laborers. Balancing the bunches on their backs, sometimes three at a time, they transport them past the muddy riverbanks, up the hills of Belen and through the busy market alleyways, doing their best to evade the children who sneak up to pilfer the fruit from the stems.
As the Nile was and is to Egyptian civilization, the Amazon and its many tributaries are the lifeblood to the communities it penetrates, beginning in Peru at the Pacific Ocean and through Columbia and Brazil to the Atlantic. Iquitos, the largest city in the world unreachable by road, is situated between three rivers: the Amazon, the Itaya and the Nanay. The “island” within is only accessible by air or water. While wealthy residents pay to have their cars shipped in, the predominant method of transportation in town is the motocar, a hybrid of the rickshaw and the motorcycle. Beyond the rivers lies the Selva, the thick jungles and rain forests that are the source of fruit, vegetables, lumber, coal and many other resources that keep this city of over half a million almost literally afloat.
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 shantytown that straddles the riverfront. Bursting with energy, the largest market in Iquitos makes up the central-most blocks of the barrio. Anything can be purchased in Belen, from sex (legally), to pet sloths and tropical birds (illegally) to drugs (both kinds).
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.
Above: Standard Belenese overindulgence.
The most common occupation for those living in Belen is that of the fisherman. The Itaya and the Amazon are home to massive river turtles and snails, sturgeon, piranha, tiger catfish, sting ray, cayman and alligator, all of which show up in the market stalls in mass quantities early each morning. But the chances of these showing up in a fisherman’s net are just about as likely as pulling up the rubbish thrown overboard by a passing steam ship or by Belen’s residents themselves. Venturing beyond the immediate vicinity of Iquitos is increasingly more fruitful for these fisherman.
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) Kelley Yahuaecannih’s parents are fishermen. Working seven days a week, together they earn 64 Soles ($20.24) on the average per month from selling their catch in the market. Unable to afford bottled water and with no access to running water, 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.
Those that do have running water in the poorest areas often make a business of selling it to neighbors. Supplies are limited, however, as the water only runs in Belen for four hours or so each morning. Dora, 40, shown above with her youngest son Jackson, 2, lives in Belen and sells charcoal along with her husband. She has seven children, but only three are still living at home. She has no water or electricity at home but does not draw her drinking water from the river, figuring it is well worth it to buy water from a neighbor rather than keep stock of pills.
Above, an open sewer near Belen’s central plaza. Health problems are more widespread during the rainy season (Dec – May), when the sewers overflow and the water rises up to eight feet above street level.
Antibiotics, malaria medications, antidiarrheals and pain relievers are all available without prescription in Belen. However, without the advice of a pharmacist, medication is sometimes mis-prescribed and misused.
Above left, drug seller Cesar Garcia explains the different remedies available to a passing customer. Making an average of $240 per month, he makes a decent salary and lives outside of Belen.
Far from the river’s banks and back up the hill is a row of stalls of traditional medicine sellers. (Pictured above) One can find a cure for anything here from chuchuhuasa for dysentery (but also for arthritis when mixed with rum) to yellow boa oil for bronchitis. Some locals swear by these long-used potions while others prefer to buy pills, despite the greater expense. Other traditional healing methods that don’t usually require commercial exchange involve waving an egg over, or blowing smoke in the face of the infirm.
While sickness is prevalent in Belen, let’s not get the idea that the whole town is ailing at home in bed. Indeed, these people have strong stomachs and are hard working. I asked my boat driver if he knew anyone with Malaria and one man came to mind. But when he took me to his house, the man was out in the market working. It seems the people of Belen do not have the choice of not working if they’re to make ends meet.
Alicia Vela, shown above with her grandson Francesco, discusses her ailments in a port-side food stall while waiting for some customers. She has headaches every day and her husband, an alcoholic, deals with severe abdominal pains.
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 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 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 act 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.
Above, Nolberta Maitahuari leans out of the window of her new home in Belen.
Above left to right: Marjorie, Thalia, Zully and Luz Maitahuari hanging out on their front porch.
Officially a Humanitarian Organization, the PPOP is Christian-motivated and faith-based. Teams from around the world come into Belen regularly to run Bible schools for children. In addition to learning about the Bible, children are taught proper health and sanitation practices and Christian values to help them navigate the seedy and dangerous streets. Serving both Christian and non-Christian people in and around Iquitos, the POPP is able to learn through these school programs what kids are in abusive situations and what families are in crisis. Several girls from Belen have gone to live in a crisis center run by the POPP that houses girls that have come from abusive situations. Once girls at the center have finished their schooling, the POPP provides vocational training. The People of Peru Project are more than just a band-aid agency. Their operations address crises at hand as well as work through education to grow a better future.
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 business in Washington State but sold it in 2003 to found the POPP with his wife Sandi, who was in the US at the time I visited Iquitos. 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 just 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 our pressure. We don’t dangle the Gospel out there along with the medical help,” 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 in 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 heath care.
Above, Paul Opp with members of the Maitahuari family.
The People of Peru Project’s ministries have 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.
Outside Belen, the busy streets of Iquitos are dotted with billboards: the best Peruvian beer, the clearest mobile phone signal, the biggest bank in Peru. “Estamos Trabajando,” reads one of them, “We’re Working.” The advertisement, repeated several times all over town, is a horn-tooting PR campaign by Sedaloreto, a private company contracted by the Peruvian government to supply water to Iquitos. “Water in houses for all” it says, going on to list different neighborhoods in Iquitos, including Belen. The ad, complete with a happy girl being drenched with crystal clear water implies that it is a complementary service of Sedaloreto to provide water to all. However, the majority of Belen’s residents are without water, not because it is not available, but because it is unaffordable. A water connection is available to all who can pay, except those whose homes float on the river all year long. But as Paul Opp can attest, the process is expensive and sometimes mind-numbing. When connecting water to the POPP’s transitional house, they were forced to pay the connection charges twice because Sedaloreto at first mistakenly connected the house’s piping to a line that carried no water. Double charges are easy for an NGO to pay but crippling to a family living on $6 a week. Water from the tap is always hands-down preferable to river water. But Paul Opp, on visiting the Sedaloreto water treatment plant observed that the water of Iquitos is at times questionable: “When these companies are short on staff or supplies, the water sometimes goes untreated.”
Despite paying 15% of their income of $81/month to taxes, Sedaloreto is not working at all for the Natorce family. Jaimes, 32, (shown above with his son Andy, 18 months) works every morning from 3AM until 8AM unloading petrol and iron from ships in the port and carrying them on his back into the market, while Eloise (below, left) 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 the diarrhea but not kill the parasites.
Once in the past, Eloise took her children to see a doctor from the Peruvian NGO, CARITAS. The charity is funded by the Catholic Church in Peru and provides medical help and medicine to the poorest of the poor. The charity is most likely more cash-strapped than the Peruvian government however, and in that instance it did not provide free medication.
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 (I could only find the two companies I mentioned) 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.
Visit the People of Peru Project website.
all images Copyright 2007 Jake Lyell