Alejandro Tejeda of Quechua Benefit on “Deep Perú” and the Future of Andean Communities
In January, two PASS team members were driving through a town in highland Peru. “Stop!” said the passenger in the front seat, pointing to a dog at the side of the road. “That’s Bobby! He lives at Casa Chapi.” The passenger jumped out of the car, retrieved a friendly-looking spaniel from the side of the road, and we drove on. This is just one moment in a day of Alejandro Tejeda. In Mr. Tejeda’s role as Country Director for Quechua Benefit, he directs every aspect of the organization’s in-country programming: from overseeing construction projects and wrangling the Peruvian government’s formidable bureaucracy, to the smallest details—like retrieving lost pets.
In February, PASS’s Executive Director for Public Health, Dr. José Mosquera, sat down with Mr. Tejeda in Arequipa, Peru to discuss Quechua Benefit and the future of Peru’s Andean communities.
How did you come to Quechua Benefit? How has the organization and your work with it changed since you began working with the organization 8 years ago?
I am from Arequipa, a region to the south of Peru. I am an economist by training. Since I graduated from college, I have always been more in touch with the rural and with topics regarding rural projects. I believe that may be innate in me, as I come from a rural area in a rural province—so I like the countryside and the people who are in the country.
I have a lot of experience in rural projects, working with other associations in the very difficult areas of Peru. I worked for a year or two, which is usually how long such projects in Peru last. At the time, I didn’t know Quechua Benefit very well. I knew it was run by some Americans who were working and supporting alpaca communities, so I came to help in implementing and building [Casa Chapi], a refuge for children. I came with the idea of working 6 or 7 months, nothing more; to do the project, to implement it, and move on. I did not think I would commit so much time of my life.
But through those first months, I saw a very interested effort from the people of the United States—I couldn’t believe the people of the U.S. would do something for our children without having a family relation to them! They are outsiders who came to work for our children, for our alpaca communities that live in a most extreme poverty. And since then, I have been with Quechua Benefit, working with communities of the highlands of the southern Perú.
Perú was very different 8 years ago than it is now, so Quechua Benefit has grown. We started with a refuge for children begun by people from the U.S. Now we are an institution that works with municipalities and regional governments in educational issues and health campaigns. I think Quechua Benefit is growing and is consolidating as a major organization of support to the Peruvian families of the highlands.
What are Quechua Benefit’s communities like? What have you learned from working directly with these communities?
I’m 50-something years old, and in this part of my life, I have seen work that is close to the community that needs it. Perú has two worlds: the world of the urban city, and the world of the Andes, where Quechua Benefit’s communities are. In the Andes, aid rarely reaches, technological advancements haven’t arrived, and the consequences of a nation’s development haven’t been felt. And Quechua Benefit is in that zone with that people. It is very important for me to contribute with my experience and also to be able to learn from that relationship between the communities and Quechua Benefit as an institution.
We are working in that pith of Peru, the “deep Peru,” as we call it. I am very proud of working with these people. They are very rich communities, they have their philosophy, their way of life that comes from the Incas and even before. It is just that there has not been a chance to express and capture that unique way of life.
I have learned, first and foremost, to valorize them more. They are humble people, but hold a great wisdom; I learn from them too. There is a thing about them, that they have their own experience and their own traditions that express a great cultural richness, so I learn from them too. In this working relationship that we establish you get to learn a lot: how are the community leaders, how they have humble ways of being and that can be used to work and achieve plenty of things.
Peru may be the only economy in Latin America that has grown steadily the past 10 years. Yet, Peru’s economy has not been inclusive. What groups in Peru are still the most excluded from that growth, and what do you think can be done to reach these groups?
Exactly. Peru in the last years has a clear goal, going in the right direction, and the effects can be easily seen in cities like Lima and Arequipa. Those effects of development, of comfort, are not arriving to the countryside with the speed we would like. Rural communities are the last link in the chain. So I do think it is coming, but too slowly. Quechua Benefit is trying to bring it in more direct way with different kinds of activities. I think there is some really interesting work to be done in the highland communities of Peru and, working in coordination, we can bring them into the effects of the development of the market.
Quechua Benefit implements a range of programs in education, health and economic development. How do you choose and prioritize the kind of intervention for a community?
We have been prioritizing health issues for a while now. Health is a service that is not yet available appropriately and with quality for these communities. Quechua Benefit has been working for a while with health campaigns and, lately in a more active way, with preventive campaigns. In terms of education, it is the basis for development. In education, we are working on projects to increase attendance and raise educational opportunities for children from these areas.
Simultaneously, when conditions allow, we work in the economic development issue—the alpaca issue—since all our target communities are alpaca communities. Alpaca breeding is the only, or the foremost, economic activity. Quechua Benefit is trying to support these communities to allow access to knowledge and technology. Tools that are used in the U.S. or in other countries are being brought within the reach of the communities.
I believe that, in general, we are working on these 3 areas in the right way. Now, we have to emphasize some areas, depending on how willing the communities are. Communities have to be listened to—what they need, what they want—and based on that we can work.
You have told us a lot about the achievements and the work of Quechua Benefit, but this question is more personal. For you, Alejandro Tejeda, while working with Quechua Benefit, what has been your major success?
I think our flagship project is Casa Chapi. It is a project that began as a philanthropic work… It is a project that is not only philanthropic, it is an educational project that gives an opportunity for a quality education to children who never would have had it. That means not just education, it’s changing their lives. In this current group of children, we are now working with 60 or 70 children. They are children that if Quechua Benefit had not intervened, they and their families would have had no hope for positive change.
For me, Casa Chapi is a valuable flagship project, a personal project that I like to be a part of. And I’m also very emotionally and sentimentally committed to this project, because it has given me the opportunity, personally—as an economist, as a project manager—to implement a project that is now going in the right direction.
What is your vision for Quechua Benefit in 5 or 10 years?
On the issue of education, I believe that we can replicate Casa Chapi in other areas we work, Puno, Cuzco; it can work in other places. We already have a plan, and in the country, there are people who want to collaborate.
For health, we are changing, taking a leap that is qualitative and quantitative. We are no longer working on the perspective of assistance for health campaigns, but prevention, which is very important. We are working with children, with women, so that we cover more people, we serve more people. But most importantly, we prevent. We work together with the Peruvian state to prevent health deficiencies. In Peru, there are people with whom to ally and work, not all of them in the public sector. There are people who also want to collaborate and that would be very good, because it would benefit a lot more people, more schools, more children and, in the end, I think it is all about that.
I think that the changes in recent years have overall been positive for our country and for the whole of society in general. We are going in the right direction.
What are some of the main challenges that Quechua Benefit’s communities will face in the future?
I believe that the effects of the development of the country will reach the communities a bit slowly, but they are coming. There are remote communities in Peru now almost already entirely interconnected by road. The issue of communications is already reaching the farthest communities—there is communication and this is rapidly changing the mindset of the communities. Nowadays, a child of the highlands is similar to a child of the city because they have access to Facebook, to the Internet, to cell phones.
The problem is that sometimes, Andean families and communities are not prepared to process this information well. The Internet arrives, but in a very disorderly way. It brings problems because the community is not prepared to handle the information adequately. There is good information, bad information, information of all kinds—so if the community is not properly prepared then it picks up the negative and bad, rather than the positive.
On the economic side, Peru is growing mainly because of mining. But mining is creating major problems. In order to make mining a very profitable activity, a lot of labor is required. The common family is immediately attracted by this activity and abandons traditional activities, such as agriculture and raising alpacas. Then the population is living hand-to-mouth each the day, each week or each month or season. This is a problem of market forces where the state lacks planned participation. They are leaving their traditional activities and also their cultural activities, so their values are changing very fast.
I am afraid that with this economic model that in the highlands, in about 10 years, the average person will quickly forget his roots, his values, his customs. This also affects the family, as it is absorbed by this market dynamics of the economic activities that proliferate in the Andean zones.
How do you see the future? Not only about Quechua Benefit, about your personal project, your project as a community, as a family.
I think that the changes in recent years have overall been positive for our country and for the whole of society in general. We are going in the right direction. We have problems, like all countries, typical of our societies that are a little fluctuating. We can expect that, due to political reasons, this will sometimes stop, go back, or stall—but we hope not, that Peru will continue on a path of development, integration, and social inclusion as it is has been.
I hope we will continue this way because if there were dramatic changes, the most affected would be the communities that are still marginal, that are not included—there we would see the effects. But I am optimistic in that sense. We have been in this path for about 20 years, and I do not think we will step back. I am quite optimistic for the future, for me, for the people with whom we work, and also for institutions like Quechua Benefit.
I plan to continue giving my best in an organization that is really working in a successful way—which, for me, is very beautiful. I tell that to my family and daughters. They say “Dad, you’ve stayed on this project for a long time!” I’ll stay here as long as I can contribute.
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and conciseness.