A shared vision for the landscape? Sand, water, and entrepreneurs in Peru

It’s been just over a week since I returned from a fascinating week in Peru at the Sustainable Food Lab’s 10th Annual Leadership Summit. The 5-1 win of the Dutch team during the last afternoon of the Summit was just the icing on the cake of a week of food for thought!

As always the Food Lab had put a lot of time into organising three Learning Journeys to areas illustrating a particularly interesting agri-food theme. My trip – with 12 other professionals from certifiers to big company sustainability leaders to farmer-focused NGO – took me to the northern Peruvian coastal area around Trujillo. For all of us it was a totally unknown landscape: a desert (average 25 mm annual rainfall) stroke with mountains of stone sandwiched between sea and higher, wetter Andean mountain ranges. And in that desert increasingly large swathes of green productive land resulted from a billion dollar investment in a massive irrigation scheme.

After visiting 2000 year-old ruins of civilisations that had risen next to waterways bringing year-round water from the Santa River, we discovered that irrigation was nothing new for the region.

What is new is the scale at which this is happening. This and other irrigated areas have turned Peru into the world’s largest exporter of asparagus, and a breadbasket of avocado, blueberries, mango and more – most of it for export.

Apparently the 1 billion investment has generated nearly 3 billion in revenue so far, and with an eternal spring climate and endless water, the deserts are feeding the world. All good, right? As always in life: yes, and no.

One key practice of learning journeys is to ‘suspend judgment’. Before each day we were asked to be aware of internal assumptions. Many of us admitted we came to the area expecting a ‘mega-project catastrophe’ only of value to big investors and ripping off the poor. By the end most of us were pretty optimistic about how Peruvians were making this work with sensitivity to people and environment. We visited Camposol, a 4,000 hectare farm producing primarily avocado, asparagus and recently blueberries for the export market. They use 100% drip irrigation, thus maximising water efficiency. They have a 60-person IPM unit dedicated to producing nematodes, natural predators and other ingredients to manage pests and diseases on their plantations using virtually 100% natural means. And they have 7,000 workers at any given moment with up to 13,000 at peak seasons. That’s a lot of jobs for the region! Research also shows these workers get 30% higher wages than their counterparts on surrounding small-scale farms.

We also visited Danper, a processing company built from the ground up on principles of social inclusion. They have 6,000+ workers. (Danper provides better pre-natal screening to all workers and their communities than the local hospital.) The company has education programs, mental health support, and is the only company in the region without a workers’ union that resulted from conflict situations.

And we visited REOPA, a burgeoning farmer cooperative of smallholder asparagus farmers who in the past 10 years have managed to create their own small processing facilities and build their own market. Its slow going, and plenty of outside help has been needed, but they were clearly so proud of what they’ve achieved to date.

Learning journeys are meant to open the mind and stretch the thinking and we did go away with some new impressions and big questions, such as:

– It’s amazing to see a desert bloom! We all agreed we’d much rather see this land being so productive. BUT, this whole area is utterly dependent on run-off water from Andean glaciers. And climate change is causing them to shrink. How resilient will this system be in 20-40 years time? Already the anticipated area cannot be irrigated due to limited water. Will the region be able to deal with increasing pressure on such a scarce resource?

– And, the lucrative market for asparagus is sparking massive asparagus production in a region further to the south. Only they don’t have an irrigation scheme, so it’s based on groundwater extraction. This has led to 20% drops in water tables in just 10-15 years, and cadmium poisoning of drinking water. How can that be managed differently?

– The irrigation scheme we visited was built for large-scale agriculture. Only in the past 5 years, in response to complaints from small-scale producers, has some attention been going to seeing how they can benefit. REOPA made it clear they were not benefitting yet, nor others around them. That’s not good, of course. BUT, with the large amount of decent work being generated is creating jobs for local communities. Are we focusing too much on smallholder sourcing as the main necessary added value?

– We moved from example to example of shining leadership. Clearly that’s where real change comes from. But why were they still the exception rather than the rule? Could those individual examples be fostered to spark wider emulation?

– And finally, a personal question. It was great to see the local economic activity being generated by this scheme—and great to see all this food being produced—but are green asparagus tips a priority for food security? Why is nothing being grown, for example, for the millions living in Lima? The cost of the irrigation scheme and other investments demands a focus on very high value crops. Will this region only feed those who can afford blueberries grown in deserts, or can it be designed to also contribute to more basic needs?

I rejoined the annual Summit in Lima with a mixed bag of optimism about how the wider value of such a large-scale scheme. And the sense that we all need to be even more creative about how to integrate complex dimensions of resilience in the face of climate change, food security and food rights, stimulating local economic development and caring for a landscape.