This month the city of Huánuco was blockaded by angry peasants for a week. For seven days businesses closed, prices soared, food and basic goods disappeared from markets as protesters attacked any moving vehicle and clashed with riot police. At least two people were killed and many were injured. Everyone in our church community suffered, some of the poorer members suffered miserably.
This is the second nationwide strike by farmers furious over low price of potatoes. They blame fast-food restaurants in Lima for importing frozen, peeled potatoes from Holland which they claim drove prices down unfairly. However, the restaurants have been doing this for over a decade with no significant impact on the price of potatoes nationwide.
In reality, foreign imports only account for 0.7% of potatoes consumed in Peru. The real cause of the drop in prices was overproduction. Last year, potato prices were high, so millions of farmers switched to planting potatoes. This year Peru´s farmers produced much more potatoes than the country consumes. In fact, the farmers produced 5% over the maximum national consumption of 450 million tons. Naturally, prices dropped. People can only eat so many potatoes. Failure to understand basic high school economics has some bloody consequences.
The problem is bigger than economic ignorance. Peru not only has a glut of potatoes. Peru has a glut of potato farmers. A full 25% of the Peruvian workforce is in agriculture. (In the USA by contrast, agriculture accounts for less than 2% of the workforce.)
Even in the best of times, very few of these farmers are getting rich. My wife’s home province of Pachitea is one of the leading potato producing regions in the country. Yet, one in three children in Pachitea suffer severe malnutrition before age five.
Why keep farming if you cannot even feed your kids? Are there no other jobs available? Yes, and no.
Amazingly, Peru has a growing economy and there are well-paying jobs available in country, in certain sectors. However, all of these jobs require further education and specialized training. Few farmers or their children have access to these kind of technical and professional jobs. There is a huge gulf between the opportunities and the daily reality of many people in Peru.
Part of the problem is simple lack of knowledge and skills. Even emerging nations like Peru are joining the knowledge-based global economy. Knowedge requires education. Sadly, public education has not prepared Peru´s citizens for the 21st century.
Many are locked into a bleak inner world of despair and blaming others. People are trapped in poverty, not from lack of opportunity but from the inability to access the opportunities that exist. Peruvians often bitterly refer to their country as “a beggar sitting on a mountain of gold.”
Our desire is not to perpetuate bitterness or blame. Our desire is to help people access the solutions that God has put under their feet. By training children, we help families learn possibilities they never knew existed. Our desire is to see families thrive and flourish as God intended. We believe that serving our neighbor this way honors Christ and glorifies God.
And, it just might lead to fewer strikes in the streets, someday.