An endless line of huge trucks and buses is baking in the Peruvian sun. Our fearless taxi driver Fernando is sneaking through to be quicker, if not blocked by angry camioneros. We´re in the middle of the desert between Ica and Nazca, El Niño has crushed parts of the Panamerican highway just the night before.
Over the past few days, the heavy rains and rivers emerging from their banks, caused by the natural phenomenon of El Niño, have worsened. With thousands of people forced to leave their houses, and a country-wide shortage of water, Peru is experiencing the gravest El Niño (or huaico, as it is called here) since 1957.
‘The current government of president Kuczynski doesn´t have the capacity to invest in the roads’, Fernando says, as he sees my eyes straying unbelievably over the chunks of asphalt that have been pushed away by the brown and muddy water. But toll taxation should be sufficient to solve this capacity problem, right? He grins: ‘no, that’s not worth it’.
Infrastructure is still an issue in Peru. According to the World Economic Forum, Peru occupies the 89th position of 140 countries when it comes to the quality of infrastructure. Although its economy grew by an average of 5.6% in 2009-2013, growth stuck in the past two years as world prices for metals and minerals went down. Almost 60% of the country’s total exports is formed by minerals such as copper, gold and petroleum, supplemented with all kinds of agricultural products. Despite its relatively fast growth over the past decades, economists agree that without diversification of the economy, such a level cannot be sustained.
Even Rosa Elena, a limeña in her fifties whom I met at the airport last week, underwrites this. She works for Uguil, one of Peru´s biggest mining equipment companies. Ironic as it may be, with a determined voice she keeps repeating that the mining sector in Peru cannot sustain the economy: ‘long-term investments in infrastructure and education is what we need’.
So, are these ideas new and fresh? Unfortunately not. The current debate seems to be an exact copy of the one started by the dependency-economists of the 1960s, of which my professors have spoken a million times: ´periphery´ countries need to become less dependent on low-skilled, primary sectors, as to become less dependent on ‘center’ countries and develop. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The heavy El Niño rains and the damage done to villages and industries in many parts of Peru, form a painful illustration of this incapacity in long-term thinking. ‘Unfortunately we haven’t learned our lesson’, says local expert in El Niño, Lizardo Lizarraga, in newspaper The Guardian. ‘People keep settling where there were once the riverbeds and gorges’. Already in 1579, demands in northern Peru (a region which now has been hit the hardest) were made by local Spanish authorities to improve defensive systems against the heavy rainfall. Yet apparently, the Peruvian state is still not sufficiently prepared.
As I am hearing all this, I’m struck by the idea that both with respect to El Niño and the economy, history seems to repeat itself: the same things are being said every few years.
Nazca is in sight: cabbie Fernando has managed to brave the road. Yet let’s hope Peru’s road to development will not remain stuck in historical cycles.