International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001

In the Spotlight: Moutain Areas


Organizing Andean Mountain Communities for Disaster Reduction: A New Challenge
Sergio Álvarez Gutiérrez Sergio Álvarez Gutiérrez is a disaster and emergency consultant.

As in the case in many other countries in the region, Peru’s experience of adverse natural phenomena detonating into full-blown disasters has taught local disaster managers and decision-makers that efforts to ensure the sustainability of rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts are doomed to failure without the participation of the affected communities, rural or urban.

In an urban environment, disaster reduction aimed at sustainable development, though difficult, can still be managed. In rural areas, particularly among the communities that live high up on the Andes, the challenges are much greater.

Emergency situations generally prompt the local community to quickly link with local health services, providing the first line of response in the aftermath of a disaster. While this is also true in the high Andean areas, additional obstacles need to be overcome, having to do with language, lifestyle, myths, the socioeconomic situation, and existing social organizations.

Language – Most of the people in these areas speak various dialects of Quechua or Aymará. This means that even the presence of an interpreter is not always a safeguard, since dialects of the same language can vary greatly and cover a relatively circumscribed geographical area.

Lifestyle – Many Andean communities, deeply conservative, retain their ancestral ways of life. This can be seen from their eating habits, dress, every-day work, religious practices, celebrations and entertainment. Such traditions should be preserved, and are, but in extremely adverse circumstances that detract from the communities’ ability to respond to additional challenges such as disasters and emergencies.

Myths and Beliefs – While many of the beliefs of Andean mountain dwellers show a remarkable awareness of the need for a balanced relationship with nature and respect for the environment, several of the myths involving supernatural beings and processes can lead to fatalism or the belief that disaster reduction requires atonement or ritual, rather than preventive measures.

Geographical Location – The geomorphology of most of these villages greatly affects prompt access when response is urgently needed. Some of these communities live at altitudes of up to 4,100 meters above sea level. Many are sited in high-risk areas prone to earthquakes, landslides, floods, drought and volcanic eruptions.

Socioeconomic Conditions – Most Andean mountain communities manage to survive exclusively from subsistence farming or the selling of modest crops. Poverty is a well-known indicator of the likelihood of natural phenomena having a significant impact.

Existing Social Organization – Most communities do benefit from traditional grassroots structures that can help them to cope with emergencies—without exempting them from the other challenges mentioned above. However, due to the lingering disruptions imposed by colonialism and discrimination, a significant number of communities lack even such basic organizational structures.

A New Approach to Intervention Strategies

In spite of these challenges, the Andean mountain people are keenly aware of the need to curb disasters and promote their own development. But it would be foolhardy to engage them as if their cultural matrix were entirely Western-oriented, when their own cultures have existed far longer than the half millennium that Europeans have ruled over their native lands.

Intervention strategies must adopt a new approach. Respect and sensitivity towards the customs and traditions of each community must be shown, so that prevention measures are not seen as the patronizing imposition of new rules of conduct by a postcolonial elite.

The following steps are considered essential to achieving this goal:

  • Strengthening local organizations. Grassroots organizational capacity-building must target municipal and community authorities, leaders and institutions active at the local level.
  • Empowering individuals and groups. Disaster reduction is an impossibility unless people feel they have at least a modicum of control over their own fates. This calls for greater educational opportunities and the provision of vital services so that the inhabitants of local communities can unleash their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in the service of their own welfare and that of the community as a whole.
  • Encouraging joint efforts by key stakeholders. Grassroots organizations, public institutions and the private sector need to act together in order to achieve common goals in the most effective way possible, by invoking the many synergies that can result from the pooling of efforts and resources aimed at sustainable local development. However, they must first be identified and brought into the process, so that other stakeholders, perhaps less visible or obvious, can also be encouraged to play their role.

Local Sustainable Development Networks

Based on the considerations above, the need should be apparent for the establishment of Local Sustainable Development Networks that integrate socioeconomic, environmental and risk-reduction goals. The following are some of the actions that might be undertaken to encourage and nurture such networks.

  • Helping communities to organize themselves into local civil protection teams, with members chosen democratically by the community at large.
  • Strengthening existing grassroots organizations.
  • Training community teams.
  • Facilitating communication and coordination among grassroots organizations, the private sector and local government institutions.
  • Facilitating the planning, execution and assessment of short-, medium- and long-term risk reduction and sustainable development activities.
  • Empowering the community to accept responsibility for local health management and play a role in the relevant decision-making process.
  • Integrating local sustainable development networks into broader community networks, and cooperating with other, more specialized networks and actors at the local, provincial or national level, in order to ensure that all relevant stakeholders can play a positive role in disaster reduction.

For more information, please contact:
Sergio Álvarez Gutiérrez,
National Epidemiological Bureau,
Ministry of Health, Lima, Peru