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Country profile - Peru


Peru is perhaps most well known as the land of the Incas, one of the last ancient Andean civilisations. The Incas were warriors, but they were also accomplished farmers, growing a diverse range of native crops including root crops, grains and legumes. Where climate and terrain posed a significant challenge, Inca engineering was up to the task. Extensive terracing with built-in irrigation and drainage systems turned steep hillsides into workable farmlands, which were fertilised with manure from llama and alpaca herds. Up to 15 million people were fed under these farming systems and an elaborate road system allowed transport of food throughout the region.

Poverty in the mountains

Today the Incas are gone but their descendants still farm the Peruvian highlands, growing many of the same crops, the majority of which remain unknown outside the Andes. But whereas the Incas were a privileged people, their descendants are among the poorest in present-day Peru. Some of the challenges that faced the Incas still hold - erratic rainfall, difficult terrain - but lack of support for rural development by recent governments has not helped the livelihoods of highland Peruvians.

Inca terracing
Inca terracing

Most are smallholder farmers, struggling to grow enough food for their families. Potato is the most important food security crop, and over 4000 different varieties are known. Other crops include other roots and tubers like yacon, oca and maca, and grains such as quinoa at higher altitudes; maize and vegetables at lower altitudes; and lower still a range of tropical crops. Indeed, the marked variations in elevation and microclimate, and the efforts of farmers over thousands of years, have made this one of the world's most important centres of plant domestication: potatoes, maize, peppers, cotton and cassava are just some of the crops that Andean farmers have given to the world. Yet today these farmers and their families still have no or very limited access to education and health services, good transport, financial services, and basic farming needs like quality seed. It may not be coincidence that this region was the birthplace of the Shining Path terrorist group, which sought to right these injustices.

The rise of asparagus

Things are rather different for Peruvians farming the narrow coastal region to the west of the Andes. The area is desert, with almost no rainfall year round, but surprisingly it is the most agriculturally productive in Peru, generating an estimated 50 per cent of the gross agricultural product from an area that comprises just 4 per cent of the national land total. The secret is elaborate irrigation systems, some built thousands of years ago, that exploit the many small rivers running from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. Flat land, good temperatures year round, and plenty of guano and fishmeal fertilisers from the nearby coast have also contributed to the farming success of the region.

But the fortunes of the farmers have fluctuated over the years. Before the Land Reform Act of 1969 about 80 per cent of the farmland in this region was owned by a small number of wealthy families. The Act transferred ownership to cooperatives comprising the former employees but this measure created its own problems, among them lack of individual incentives, and in many cases productivity fell. At the beginning of the 1980s the land was mostly converted into individual holdings, which has allowed farmers to seek and benefit from new opportunities.

Meanwhile the population in the region has been increasing rapidly. Lima, with its present population of approximately 8 million, lies on the coast and altogether more than 50 per cent of Peru's population now lives in the region. Farmers have diversified to supply these urban markets and at the same time have looked outside the country for other lucrative options. Asparagus, with its high international demand and high prices, has proved an astute choice, bringing about US$206 million into the country in 2003 and displacing coffee as Peru's leading agriculture export. Year-round production has provided the advantage for Peru, but the market is thought to have reached a mature point with demand unlikely to increase dramatically in the coming years. Sugarcane and cotton are the more traditional cash crops in the region.

Fruits of the forest

Peru's third main ecoregion comprises the lush eastern slopes of the Andes with their cascading rivers, which level out into the Amazon basin with its huge meandering waterways and dense rainforest. And here again, life is very different. The people have traditionally lived in small villages, fishing the rivers, hunting, farming by slash-and-burn methods and accumulating knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants.

The tremendous natural wealth of the region, which covers 63 per cent of Peru, has long been recognised and frequently been exploited. Gold and rubber have had their day; unsustainable logging of hardwood species is an ongoing issue; and natural gas is the latest controversial forest extract. The plan is to transfer the large gas reserves by pipeline to Lima, and also potentially outside Peru; the problem is the environmental damage caused by construction of the pipeline, which is currently underway. The Inter-American Development Bank recently acknowledged the potential severe negative impacts by delaying a US$75 million loan to the project, but it seems unlikely that the project will not go to completion.

Peru's most infamous agriculture export is also from the rainforest. Now farmed in large illegal plantations higher up the hillsides, Peruvian coca supplies a large part of the international cocaine trade, bringing up to US$600 million into the country annually. Attempts to curb these activities have had some success, with the UN recently reporting a reduction in area under coca to 44,200 hectares (from an estimated 109,000 hectares in 1998). Farmers are however defending the right to grow coca for legal traditional uses; and the fall in cocoa and coffee prices means that government subsidies will be needed to make other crops viable options for the farmers. Meanwhile both growing and not growing coca are causing damage to the environment: the plantations have led to serious deterioration of soils and the environment generally, while chemical spraying and clearing of vegetation are measures for eliminating the illegal crop.

Peru's current president, Alejandro Toledo, came to power in 2001 largely on the strength of his promises to help the rural poor - he himself grew up in a poor family in the highlands. But so far the promised actions have failed to materialise: the economy is growing at a steady 4 per cent annually and inflation was down to around 2 per cent last year, but poverty is not declining. The government is said to have 'lost its vision of the future' and Toledo's popularity has plummeted. He recently said that he will give greater freedom to his ministers while he redoubles his efforts to fight poverty - Peru's mountain farmers are among those who are eager to see him succeed.

Statistical information
  • Country: Peru
  • Capital: Lima
  • Area: 1,285,220 sq km
  • Population: 27,544,305
  • Languages: Spanish (official), Quechua (official), Aymara, and a large number of minor Amazonian languages
  • Life expectancy: 71 for women, 67.5 for men
  • GDP: (purchasing power parity) - US$146.9 billion (2003 est.)
  • GDP per capita: (PPP)- US$5200 (2003 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: services 64.4%, agriculture 9.6%, industry 26% (2001 est.)
  • Major industries: mining of metals, petroleum, fishing, textiles, clothing, food processing, cement, auto assembly, steel, shipbuilding, metal fabrication
  • Natural resources: copper, silver, gold, petroleum, timber, fish, iron ore, coal, phosphate, potash, hydropower, natural gas.
  • Agricultural products: asparagus, brazil nuts, coffee, cotton, sugarcane, rice, wheat, potatoes, corn, plantains, coca; poultry, beef, dairy products, wool; fish
  • Export commodities: fish and fish products, gold, copper, zinc, crude petroleum and byproducts, lead, asparagus, brazil nuts, coffee, sugar, cotton
  • Land use: arable land 2.85%, permanent crops 0.38%, other 96.77% (1998 est.)

Date published: September 2004


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