Saturday, October 22, 2022

Education can save a life: School or coca fields and murder rates

What does our organization, Amazon Pueblo, do?  Why do we support students and education?  While our reasons include education enabling the students to have improved work opportunities, more sustainable living conditions, and resistance to corruption, one of the largest parts is to give them the option to stay out of the illicit narcotics industry.

Last week one of our sponsors in the scholarship program sent us an article he read from the October 14, 2022 edition of The Economist, Demand for drugs caused a surge in child labour in Peru.

The article talks about a Princeton University paper that "shows that demand for coca leaves, from which cocaine is produced, pushed a generation of children in Peru out of school and into lives of crime."  The article stated that up to 45% of the labor was being done by children.

During the pandemic, the amount of cocaine produced in our region of the Amazon more than doubled.  Many of the children in the village of La Libertad, from age 10 to around 60, worked in the coca fields to help feed and provide care for their families.

Before the pandemic, more than three-quarters of the villagers' income was tourism related.  All of that stopped with the global health emergency.  

When we delivered food aid to our community from the city of Leticia in 2020, the only boats we saw on the river were transporting people to work in the coca fields across the river in Peru. Each 12-meter wooden boat was overloaded with children and adults.

After arriving in the community we found that one of the brightest students in the scholarship program had been working in the Peruvian coca fields for the past five months.  His school had been physically closed for over a year.  His teacher said he was expected to receive assignments from the internet or text messaging apps.  This was impossible, as the communication system in the area of the village had been nonfunctional for two years.  His in-person classes were scheduled to start again in two months.

We tried to contact him to get him to come back and start school, or at least to live at home and study independently before live classes started.  Other villagers passed messages to him when they returned to our village and then left to work in Peru.  At last, his father went to the fields to tell him that if he did not start school when classes were offered, his scholarship would be given to a different student.  He also said that his sponsors hoped that he would stay in school, and would be disappointed if he dropped out.  He returned home.

His sponsors and the scholarship program were the main reasons he left the coca industry.

The letter Juan wrote to his sponsors after doing his school shopping.

Once in his village, he told me stories about his work picking coca leaves.  While part of what he told me was about mistreatment, he also mentioned the long days of work, being able to eat three meals a day, the friends he made, and how he was happy to be earning the money which his family needed.  Mild chemical burns from fertilizers or pesticides were common.

One of the things which had bothered him the most was when he cut his hand (which he described in graphic detail) with a machete while working.  He treated it himself and hid the wound so the supervisors would not see it.  If they did see it they might have fired him for being careless and sent him home.

While it is a victory that he returned to school, the value of leaving the coca industry is equally or more important.  It can keep the children away from crime and worse criminal behavior as they become adults.  The paper stated that when working in the drug trade, "kids who grew up in coca-growing areas were unusually likely to be imprisoned for murder as adults".  This was noted to be up to a 30% increase!

Juan saying thank you to his sponsors.

The name of the chart used to write the Economist article is one that we hope to stop happening with our students in the scholarship program: “Making a narco: childhood exposure to illegal labour markets and criminal life paths,” by M.M. Sviatschi, July 2022, Econometrica; UN

From Amazon Pueblo, thank you to all of our sponsors and to everyone who has helped us in La Libertad with support for our programs.  Mil Gracias!

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