Friday, June 10, 2022

A Kaleidoscope of Peru

Second year MAIS student Austin Frenes was part of the inaugural HNC-in-the-World experiential learning trip. He and several other classmates visited Peru with HNC Co-Director Adam Webb during the 2022 spring break.  To watch a full discussion on the impact of this trip from all the participants, follow this link:

During spring break, I had the opportunity to go on the first ever “HNC-in-the-world” experiential learning trip to Peru. We looked at Chinese influence in Peru and heard a variety of perspectives across topics such as immigration, mining, labor rights, and international trade.

My journey to Peru had a rather rocky start with an overnight flight out of Los Angeles, very little sleep, and an 8-hour layover in Bogota, Colombia. Luckily, fellow HNC student Rebecca Ash-Cervantes was on the same flight as me and hatched a plan to experience Bogota during the layover. We went to a scenic mountain area called Monseratte that was at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. I tried Colombian tamales and took some amazing photos, and although it was the literal and figurative high point en route to Peru, it was not the absolute highest point we would find ourselves at during this trip, again, both literally and figuratively.  

We arrived in Peru in the evening. It was dark outside, and as we exited the airport we found ourselves engulfed in a scattered crowd of people and constantly approached by tenacious taxi drivers in business suits. Luckily, Co-Director Webb was kind enough to pick us up, although we had to shake off multiple offers before finding him. I had met Rebecca before in Los Angeles and Co-Director Webb in Bologna, but I had not yet met any of the other classmates on the trip in person. The first night I got to meet Marco at the hotel, and over the next day or so everyone else trickled in. I even got to meet Zhang Naiqian for the first time after peer-reviewing her papers for nearly a year and half. 

Apart from researching Chinese influence in Peru, there were several other things that drew me to attend this trip. Growing up, I had a couple of close friends who are Peruvian-American, and they often exposed me to Peruvian food. I wanted to try dishes like “Lomo Saltado” and “TallarĂ­n con Pollo” in Peru and explore other aspects of Peruvian cuisine. Those two dishes in particular are the most clear and well-known examples of Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine, the former being a stir fry dish with beef, onions, and fried potatoes, and the latter being a noodle dish similar to what we know in the United States as “Chicken Chow Mein.” What was amazing to me about Peruvian food is that it integrates Chinese, indigenous, Spanish, and African techniques and flavors to create something truly unique. 

Being a Latino-American with
indigenous Californian and indigenous Mexican ancestry, and also having majored in Linguistics during undergrad, I was also hugely interested in exploring the indigenous aspects of Peru. I was amazed by our visit to the “Larco Museum” that boasts one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian artifacts in the world. Rebecca took a group of us to a unique bookstore in Lima where I was able to purchase a book on learning Quechua, the most spoken indigenous language in Peru and the lingua franca of the former Inca Empire. I also scored a copy of
The Little Prince in Quechua and a book on Andean linguistics. In some of the meetings we had with an NGO and activists, we also learned about the various ways indigenous communities have been impacted by Chinese mining operations in Peru. 

In my opinion, the literal and figurative highpoint of the trip was our excursion to the town of Morococha. It took us several hours of driving on a winding road going from Lima to 15,000 feet above sea level in the Andes to reach the town. We packed plenty of snacks for the ride and listened to Andes highland music on the car radio. When we arrived in Morococha, it was evident that we were not at sea level any more. Beautiful scenery was all around us, including green hills, lakes, and more. Although none of us got severe symptoms of altitude sickness, I went to switch from sandals to boots and nearly fainted when bending down to tie my boots. On the bright side, I gained new confidence that my FitBit watch actually tracks something meaningful, when it indicated a dip in blood oxygen saturation that night when we stayed at a hotel at an altitude of 10,000 feet. 

We heard a lot about the town during our various meetings. The basic facts are that a town of thousands of people was moved to a site a few miles away to make room for Chinalco’s expanding mining operations. The relocation of the town took years and involved negotiations with Morococha residents as well as a census of the population. There are several families who have refused to move to the new site, but their number is also disputed. 

When we visited Morococha and met with Chinalco employees, the woman speaking to us focused on educating the younger generation of the town and helping them to find opportunities elsewhere as a key focus of Chinalco. Chinalco does not have enough jobs for all of the townspeople, and their mining operations will eventually end in two or three decades. She claimed that Chinalco is doing a lot to help the town, but when we spoke to townsfolk at a local coffee shop, they told us that Chinalco basically does “zero” to help them.  

Even Chinalco’s reported positive actions are disputed. For example, Chinalco commented that it put an entire wastewater filtration system in place to ensure the nearby rivers and lakes would be clean and free of pollution. One activist we spoke to disputed this project’s efficacy and stated that Chinalco continues to pump heavy amounts of waste into the rivers and lakes. When we questioned the Chinalco employee in Morococha about this after seeing pollution in the waters near Morococha ourselves, she claimed that this was waste created by another mining company. As we drove away from Morococha, there did appear to be a different mining company in the direction that the waste in the river was flowing from. 

After hearing various perspectives about the relationship between Chinalco and Morococha, I think it is difficult to make a definitive judgment on who is more correct. The process of moving the town was not perfect, legal harassment of holdouts is highly questionable, and there are
a number of things Chinalco could do better in terms of labor and the environment, but Morococha is also a relatively isolated town in the mountains. Sadly, there might not be a future in the town for the children growing up there now. Although it is possible to accommodate industries such as livestock, it would still be very limited. I think the best things Chinalco can do for the people are to work towards improved educational outcomes and improve health in the community. Morococha is not a mining town, but a town that happened to be built on what would become a mining site, and even if Chinalco wanted to employ everyone, they probably could not. The experience of Morococha can also serve as a lesson for other towns that might find themselves in a similar situation in the future, although some we talked to seemed skeptical that this could happen to another town in Peru.

As the trip came to a close, I was glad that I would finally be able to get back to my regular diet, my regular exercise routine, and my regular bed, but I was sad that I would not see my classmates again that often. Although we were not allowed to go to Nanjing, I am glad at least to have this one in-person experience with them, and I am glad I finally met a Chinese student from my MAIS cohort after a year and a half of virtual classes. Overall, I give this trip a 10/10 and I hope future HNC students can go on similar trips.