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In Ica, Peru, zero unemployment doesn't solve the bustling city's problems

Wealth in the agricultural powerhouse doesn't trickle down far, and a jump in jobs has come with a rise in disease and decline in education.

June 29, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

The hardest jobs to fill on the farms involve the tedious harvesting of the precious asparagus, said Edward Villalobos, a manager at Santa Rita. After machines move through the furrows lopping off the bushy tops of the asparagus plants, workers follow through, snipping each green-and-white stalk individually with a long metal clipper. The bonuses have attracted more applicants, Villalobos said, and more and more women are doing the job these days to fill in for a deficit of men.

Lupe Guerra, 36 but looking 50, has worked on the farm for a decade, recently moving into the asparagus fields. She wraps her head in a scarf against the sun and carries a box for harvested asparagus on one hip and a large transistor radio on the other.

"The work is hard, but they treat us well here," she said.

Asparagus pluckers can earn about $10 a day, or more if they surpass quotas. Packers earn a little more.

Some workers say the pay is not enough. At Agrokasa and other farms, several small unions organized a couple of years ago, something members say the companies discouraged and now penalize by denying perks.

Agribusiness really took off in the Ica Valley after a law was enacted in 2000 encouraging outside investment and limiting workers' rights. That, along with a steady and remarkable increase in the market's year-round appetite for expensive asparagus and the juxtaposition of the Southern Hemisphere's summer to the north's winter.

Yet there is also an ugly side to Ica's full employment. Although the city now has two huge shopping malls and a third is under construction, poverty remains a nagging problem, especially among those who have traveled from the Andean highland regions of Ayacucho, Huancavelica and others, areas devastated by political violence in the 1990s.

Entire families have migrated to Ica, and they tend to live in more precarious conditions, distanced from basic utilities, medical services and their traditional hometown networks that made surviving easier. In these communities, an especially resistant form of tuberculosis is common, and anemia is increasing, with an estimated 54% of children afflicted, said researchers at Ica's church-based Casa de la Salud.

"It is a contradiction, isn't it, to have such huge economic power and employment on one side, and such high incidences of disease on the other?" said the center's Lourdes Ninapayta Inca, whose parents came to Ica a few years ago from Ayacucho.

On Ica's northern edge — along the Pan-American Highway, which connects to Lima, the capital, 200 miles away — rutted dirt roads lead to a sprawling desert shantytown called New Hope. Small children run about, their parents working in the fields. Dogs so scrawny they wobble as they hunt for shade. Flies hover.

Lush asparagus fields in the background are irrigated with some of the latest technology, drinking all day long; the neighborhood of about 3,000 gets water delivered from trucks two or three times a week.

Nelida Mendoza, 20, joined her father in the fields picking onions after the family fled the desperation of Ayacucho. She lives under tarps and a bit of corrugated tin with her parents, a couple of siblings and her two small children, whom she must leave behind during the long days digging in the soil.

The alternative would be worse, she says. "I wouldn't have money for anything," she said.

She'd be back in Ayacucho, an itinerant vendor, peddling pieces of chewing gum or potato chips on street corners.

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