In the lush green of the Peruvian province Madre de Dios (‘mother of the gods’) lies Manu National Park, a protected area of 20,000 square kilometers, rising into the last strings of Andean Cordillera in the West and plunging into the Amazon lowlands in the East. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered one of the most pristine areas of rainforest in the world.
Here lies the rural town of Salvación, where women still wash their clothes on the banks of the river Madre de Dios. There are some stalls catering to the basic needs of rural life, one small internet cafe, a school and even a small swimming pool. The traffic rules are simple: buses and playing children have right of way before free-roaming chickens and dogs and passing somebody without a greeting of “Buenos Dias” is a no-go.
Along the road is Chaskawasi (‘House of the Stars’ in the Andean language Quechua), a dwelling built in 2004. It serves as a school-term home for 15 children from various isolated communities within Manu.
Ten of the children belong to a group of indigenous communities known as Machiguenga, who live peacefully in the deeper jungle, generally inaccessible to outsiders. Many children travel a considerable distance to reach Salvación, and some had to persuade their parents to let them do so.
– Walking home from school in Salvación –
Five children are from campesino families, non-native peoples who reside in more urban areas. Tending to move around a lot, these families often have various domestic problems. Many of their children are enrolled later in school than is the norm, which makes their integration into the educational system difficult.
Chaskawasi comprises a large complex of buildings: a kitchen, an eating porch, two gender-separated sleeping quarters, bathroom huts as well as an impressive biohuerto—a garden to grow produce such as tomatoes, yucca and bananas. The entire complex dozes beneath a parrot-filled sky and is bordered by jungle, with frequent sounds of monkeys and other animals.
– Having soup on the eating porch –
Life here is led with a strong conscience towards nature: The food is rich in home-grown vegetables such as yucca and plantains and poor in meat. When the children gallop around la cancha, a small pitch designated to football and volleyball, they are reminded not only to avoid poisonous snakes in the grass, but also not to harm the ones that aren’t.
There are two classrooms, where children also do homework and other studies after school: La Primaria for the younger kids up to the age of 11 and La Secundaria for the older ones up to 16.
Seven adults live here and collectively manage everything: the garden and household, the fundraising required to fuel the project as well as creating a supportive learning environment for the children. The latter can be difficult due to some of the children’s problematic backgrounds and involves both a lot of discipline and a lot of love. The enormous amount of work needed to maintain Chaskawasi is undertaken by these people on a purely voluntary basis.
In spite of this, the project is fighting many problems, the largest of which is lack of funding. Resources are scarce: Acquiring necessities for the children such as clothes, shoes or school materials relies largely on donations. Only recently the house acquired a washing machine; before then everything needed to be hand-washed. Any shopping necessitates an eight-hour long trip to Cuzco, the nearest city, or to one of the neighboring villages. While this doesn’t sound like a very large feat, two-hour trips easily stretch into five due to never-ending road works and only few daily buses commute between the villages.
– Studying in La Secundaria after school –
Even greater are the difficulties organizing anything at all with the rest of the world, due to the meagre phone and internet connection, the latter only available in one small shop in Salvación. Even this is only intermittent because the one available transformer routinely has to switch between two villages.
Medical care is another issue: When the small pharmacy in town does not suffice, people must either undertake the long and costly journey to Cuzco, or wait for the annual visit by a team of American doctors. For one day in the year the whole village queues for hours in hope of doctors’ advice for a variety of ailments. At the last visit, four of the Chaskawasi children had been unable to see a doctor for problems with their eyesight because the system works on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.
Lastly, environmental problems also take their toll on the town: Once virgin rainforest, Salvación today is succumbing to the ever-growing pressures of urbanization. Goods from Cuzco bring with them plastic packaging, from ‘Inca Cola’ bottles to bags used to sell home-made drinks in. It is unclear where this debris goes at the end of the day. There is no infrastructure that would cater to recycling in a world in which the transport of any item means cramming it into an over-crowded bus.
Despite such issues, it is really admirable that Chaskawasi manages to insist on its sustainable approach towards nature. It is truly an inspiring project that gives children access to what their own communities cannot give them: education. Chaskawasi enables them to become part of the globalized world, while simultaneously strengthening their core: respect towards nature.