Sustainable development in northern Peru – a personal experience (part 2)

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Coordinator for the Institute for Sustainability at Newcastle University travelled to Lobitos, a small town in Northern Peru, in March 2014 for five weeks to help develop the town’s infrastructure. In the second of a four-post series, Jennifer tells us about her trip.

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If you read the previous post, you will know that my husband and I were preparing for a research trip to northern Peru. Well, we made it to Lima and from there it was just a simple 90 minute flight and 2 hour drive to Lobitos. The drive was interesting – from Piura (the Capital City of the region of Piura where Lobitos is situated) out to the coast, passing through predominantly desert landscape with the scars of what are presumably wet season rivers. The road was surprisingly good for most of the way, and pretty much dead straight. As we neared the coast we were joined by gas pipelines following the route, a reminder of the influence of the petroleum industry in this region. We did also pass a brand new looking wind farm, with the sign at the entrance announcing it to be a 30MW instalment due to be operationalised in 2014. For the whole journey we were also accompanied by electricity cabling along the roadside, confirming what we had heard that the area is serviced by grid electricity connection.

Lobitos boat yard

Lobitos boat yard

As we approached Lobitos, having turned off the main road at Talara – Provincial Town covering this area – the road turned to dusty and bumpy dirt track, still following the snaking gas pipelines and electricity cables. We passed even more petroleum infrastructure as we negotiated the sprawling dunes; nodding donkey pumps littered the landscape with their rhythmical and repetitive action providing some background percussion. We arrived in the town, right on the coastline, and set about looking for our lodgings (which we had managed to arrange finally 2 days before leaving the UK!). Eventually someone pointed us in the right direction, and we drove along the beach to find the place. The manager knew nothing of our booking (!), but had space and gave us a lovely room overlooking the beach, which will be our base for the next fortnight. There are definitely worse places to be working!

That afternoon we met up with Alejandro Pizarro, an independent researcher and one of the founders of EcoSwell, who had been living in Lobitos for the past month. He welcomed us and got us up to speed with his activities, in terms of setting up meetings with the Municipal and Regional Government offices, local businesses and residents. We also talked about what we were each hoping to get out of the trip, including EcoSwell – as our projects will both feed directly into their planning process and represent the first bit of external, independent research they have facilitated. It was soon time for our first walking tour of the town, so off we went.

I will update what we found out in the next post, but just by way of background Lobitos was originally developed as a base for a British Petroleum company who began surveying the area in around 1900. They obviously found what they were looking for, and set about building up infrastructure for their workers, which included bringing in fishermen from surrounding areas to provide food. All of the building materials originally came in from ships, and they gradually built up a thriving and wealthy seaside town which had its own cinema, casino, desalination plant, schools and facilities. Around the 1960s, the British company sold the contract to American company International Petroleum, but within 10 years a change of government in Peru, which became a military State, resulted in the expulsion of foreign companies and the petroleum industry was nationalised. Lobitos became gradually run down, until conflict with Ecuador in the 1980s and 1990s led to the town being taken over by the army and used as a military base. A large proportion of the old colonial part of the town is still owned by the army and leased to tenants, although the means for securing properties does not seem to be clear, or straightforward. Many of the buildings are in disrepair, and parts of the former military barracks are no-go zones. Lobitos therefore has a relatively short and turbulent history, but those who remember the prosperous times of the British Petroleum company are hopeful that it can once again be a thriving and vibrant place.

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