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Residents of Amazonas fled for their lives as sinkholes opened up in November and swallowed their towns. Now, Peruvians are planning ahead for other catastrophes and the refugee surges they might create

Daniel Mejia stood on a precipice in Jamalca, a 161-year-old town tucked into the rugged mountainside of Peru’s Amazonas region. He had walked from the small main square dotted with palm trees and a teal gazebo, down a rocky road that skirts a plot of corn stalks. The ground beneath him was soggy and not to be trusted.

“Watch out for the small sinkhole,” said Mr. Mejia, Jamalca’s deputy mayor. “He’s going to have to help us if we fall in,” he said, motioning to a person up ahead.

His comment was brutally real. Jamalca residents had a front-row seat to a horrifying scene in March, as fissures in the earth and landslides destroyed the neighbouring hamlet of Guayacan before their eyes. They are now staring off a figurative precipice, with the fear and real possibility that what happened to their neighbours will happen to them.

“This has shown us how vulnerable we are,” said Mr. Mejia.

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Daniel Mejia is the deputy mayor of the area affected by the overflow of the Utcubamba river in El Salao, Bagua, Peru.

The disaster in Guayacan is part of a chain of events that stretches back to Nov. 28 of last year, when an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 rocked the Amazonas region in northern Peru. Storms, floods, giant fissures in the earth and landslides cut a path of destruction in the weeks that followed.

In Guayacan, the ground began to buckle and crack at night, catching people off guard as they walked in the dark and stumbled into gaping holes. Some had to be pulled out by the hair on their head.

As Guayacan evacuees streamed into Jamalca, the town’s inhabitants packed their own bags and began to flee, worried that the cracks were headed for them. Thankfully, the earth stopped moving and nobody perished in Guayacan.

But all told, thousands of people have been on the move since November. According to the national government, more than 10,000 people have been affected and more than 2,000 families have lost their homes.

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Refugees affected by the earthquake were relocated to temporary tent shelters. San Luis - La Caldera in Utcubamba, Bagua Grande, is one of them.

Families were relocated to temporary tent camps, and the government flew in water, food and other humanitarian aid. Peruvian President Pedro Castillo surveyed the damage, vowing not to rest “until everyone who has been affected regains the quality of life that all Peruvians deserve.” But interest soon waned in a country gripped by political and economic crises, and left reeling by one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the world.

More than six months later, families are still displaced in Amazonas, clamouring for help and a plan that will safeguard their futures.

Health workers Shirley Carrasco and Jackeline Quinintu visit the health post destroyed by the landslide in the town of San Isidro in Bagua, Peru.
Shirley Carrasco surveys the remains.

“These are the types of emergencies that we’re not looking at,” said Luis Romero, the head of disaster management response in Peru for Save the Children, the main international NGO to provide humanitarian assistance to Amazonas.

The fallout from natural disasters is amplified by extreme weather events, in parts of the world where survival is already a struggle, government capacity is limited and human activity is weakening the ecosystem’s ability to withstand the pressure.

“My experience after 10 years of working in the management of disasters and risk in Peru and other parts of Latin America is that we’re going to have more and more complex emergencies,” in which one danger triggers another, Mr. Romero said. “It is happening little by little, in small communities, in small areas, but when you add it all up, the losses are even greater than the earthquake.”

International organizations have been sounding the alarm about climate-related migration for years. The World Bank has warned that, by 2050, climate change could force 216 million people to migrate in their own countries – 17 million in Latin America.

Peru specifically is at added risk. A joint report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency, assessed that half of its territory is exposed to recurring natural hazards, with more than nine million people exposed to heavy rains, floods, flash floods and landslides; seven million to low and very low temperatures; and nearly 3.5 million to droughts.

Just last week, a large landslide in northern Peru descended on Chavin de Huantar district, burying at least 150 buildings and displacing at least 200 people. Video footage captured by eyewitnesses showed villagers fleeing for their lives when the debris of rocks and soil destroyed their homes.

“Many internal migrants have no choice but to settle in areas exposed to multiple risk hazards, such as riverbeds, floodplains and water-stressed hills in the outskirts of cities,” the report noted.

The November earthquake forced the evacuation of two communities, Pueblo Nuevo and Santa Rosa de Pacpa, located around 700 kilometres northeast of Lima. Days later, the Utcubamba River overflowed and flooded two other towns. On Dec. 9, intense rainstorms deepened cracks in the earth in the town of San Isidro, snapping a school, health centre and homes like twigs.

On March 2, there was another earthquake, this time of a magnitude of 6.8, followed by the disaster in Guayacan. Heavy seasonal rainfall is common in this part of Peru, but locals say storms have turned more intense and include bouts of hail, which used to be unheard of. In April, Save the Children invited a group of journalists to tour the devastation in Amazonas.

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Senayda, who was affected by the earthquake in Utcubamba, now lives in a tent in the temporary shelter in Bagua Grande, Peru.

For Senayda, 33, it was the third migration in seven years. The first was for prosperity. She and her husband and four children moved to a new community, where for the first time they were able to find a sustainable way of life through agriculture. They tended to their small plot of land, growing corn and other vegetables, and selling it in the nearby city of Bagua Grande.

“Everything was fine until Nov. 28, the day of the earthquake,” said Senayda. The Globe and Mail is identifying her and other recipients of Save the Children humanitarian aid only by their first names to protect their safety and prevent stigmatization.

The November earthquake sent Senayda and her neighbours on the run. They were relocated to a shelter in another community. But authorities didn’t realize that landslides had blocked a natural runoff for water, and when it rained hard, the nearby ravine filled up and swept that shelter away, forcing everyone to flee again.

“That was even more horrible for us, because there were two people who died, two neighbours,” said Senayda, her voice cracking. “We got out of there basically naked. It was around 9 at night, we got out of there scaling a mountain, with the elderly, children, pregnant women. We were in the mountains until about 2:30 or 3 a.m., under these intense storms and the fear that the world was about to end.”

She’s grateful to be alive, but also devastated. Her children are now studying in another city. “It’s not easy to be left with nothing. Without any hope to be able to go back to your land,” she said.

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With no income coming into his family after the earthquake in Utcubamba, 16-year-old Marco decided to go on his own to Bagua Grande, where he now lives in a temporary shelter.

Marco, her neighbour, felt something similar, only it was about a soccer field. The 16-year-old and his friends had a deal every time they played on that pitch in the middle of their small community. They bet three soles (Peru’s currency) – two soles for the winner, one sol for the field so they could buy gas to mow the lawn. The pitch was their prized possession: It belonged to no one and everyone at once. “I felt this emptiness, to see the little field where we played soccer completely wiped out,” he said of a recent visit home.

The displacement accelerated his process of independence. With no income coming into his family, he decided to go on his own to Bagua Grande, to work at his aunt’s chicken shop. “I was a little bit nervous because I have always been with my mom, but I had to support her.”

Corina Zuñiga, a member of the community disaster risk management committee, instructs children on safety precautions in a Lima, Peru neighbourhood. Peru is bracing for a massive earthquake to hit Lima at some point.
Students from the La Arboleda school practice extinguishing fires. Peru is at added risk of climate-related migration, as half of its territory is exposed to “recurring natural hazards.”

Peru’s lawmakers have developed policies to deal with climate migration, including a road map to relocate communities before disaster strikes. But these efforts have faced issues in the past, and, in Amazonas, prevention plans are just being drafted now.

Oftentimes, there are underlying difficulties, such as people living in remote or rural areas, with poor access to basic services and subsistence livelihoods, said Pablo Pena of the UN’s International Organization for Migration. It is working with Peru’s environment ministry on a plan to deal with migration forced by climate change.

“The extreme event is not necessarily because it rains more, or because the earthquake is stronger, but the conditions people are now living in make them more vulnerable and that results in a greater impact,” he said.

As far as impact goes, Peru is bracing for a massive earthquake to hit Lima at some point. The disaster in Amazonas was on a much smaller scale, noted Carlos Hurtado Cespedes, deputy director at INDECI, the country’s emergency response agency.

But Mr. Romero of Save the Children says Amazonas has exposed the country’s lack of preparedness and co-ordination. People should not be living in tents more than six months later, he stressed.

“While it is true that Peru has a risk response system that is very well-developed and the law says who does what, the problem is often that there are still deficiencies in response on the local and regional level,” he said. “Many local rural governments, like ones in Amazonas, get the least amount of budget because they have the least amount of political impact. An emergency sells more; its prevention sells less.”

Mr. Cespedes said insufficient funding is partly to blame for the delay in relocation, which is headed up by another department, the ministry of housing. But there are other complications. Sometimes communities do not heed warnings of impending risk, he said. Other times it’s a question of finding somewhere suitable to move to, in a region full of unstable ground.

“In the areas prone to earthquakes, we can’t allow people to live there,” he said. “They say that they aren’t being supported, and that the government isn’t building homes, but they don’t want to leave that area – and the ministry of housing will not build in those risk zones.”

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A student attends a temporary school in the town of San Isidro for people affected by the landslide.

At the newly constructed school in San Isidro, the teacher had just finished a lesson on water – its benefits but also its potential risks. It’s one way to raise awareness among his students of the dangers that are among them, although the little ones already know.

Like Samantha, 8, who recounted the night “everyone started to scream and scream” and her family had to flee. Or Ariana, 6, whose house is next to rubble from the mountain. “We used to live down below, now we live up high,” she said.

Further down the incline, health care workers stepped gingerly into the completely uninhabitable former town clinic. It was sunk into the earth, with patient records strewn across the ground.

For Karol, a nurse and a recipient of humanitarian aid, this disaster has been looming, like a storm on the horizon. “There are much more intense rains, more landslides,” she said.

Jaime, a school director and a displaced resident, pointed to other factors that increased their vulnerability, such as deforestation in the area. “These are hills, and the roots of the trees are part of the support that holds everything in place. If they’re not there, the earth loosens with any kind of movement. It’s inevitable,” he said.

All they want is to get back to something that feels normal even though that seems out of reach.

As they wait for permanent housing, basic health care needs are not being properly addressed, said Karol. “We feel impotent because we don’t know what to do.”

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