Deserts and Asparagus in Peru

It's raining in the desert.Images

The jungle is becoming a dry forest, a "bosque seca."

Mountains white with snowcaps melt into brown dust.

This isn't the magical realism of a Mario Vargas Llosa novel. This is the reality of Peru. A country declared by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change as the third "riskiest" country to climate hazards.

Logodown I moved to Lima less than two weeks ago to serve as a mission co-worker with the Joining Hands Network of Peru (the international program of the Presbyterian Hunger Program). Everyone told me this place never sees rain. It's a desert. It's summertime here. And yes, coming from three feet of snow and negative degrees in Wisconsin, I agree it is hot. But yesterday, it rained. Like, actual drops of water on the ground settling the dusty grit of Lima's streets.

Water is a serious issue here. Not just remembering not to drink from the tap. But systemically, most of all. The Joining Hands Network of Peru held this January an international conference for young environmentalists on this theme. Huancavelica, Yarnwhere the conference was held, is one of the poorest provinces of all of Peru. Access to clean, safe, potable water is a daily challenge for a majority of the population.

And yet. Here, water is run down a pipeline to irrigate agricultural fields. Fields of asparagus. Peru is a leading exporter of this popular spring vegetable. The United States a lead importer.

Asparagus is that vegetable I remember from my childhood that we never actually planted. It just popped up, reminding us it was springtime. We would harvest some of it, and my parents would try to convince my brother and me to eat it even when my mom overcooked it. We took it for granted.

Asparagus Or, asparagus is that bit of green garnish on the plate of meat and potatoes in the dead of winter. Not too expensive, rather easy to find in the supermarket.

But asparagus doesn't grow in February in most places. It is the result of piles of April showers, a seasonal vegetable if there was one (read Barbara Kingsolver's ode to asparagus in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.)

Asparagus requires more water to grow than most vegetables. So, why grow it in the middle of the desert, in Peru? Because people in the US want to see it in their supermarket in February. And it is fairly cheap to US consumers because of the facility of importing vegetables through the newly implemented bilateral Free Trade Agreement.

But it is not free. Growing asparagus for export has long lasting impact on the economy and environment of Peru. Water, averted from poor desert communities, streams onto fields of asparagus in the Peruvian summertime, when the ground in much of the US is covered in snow.

Next time you see a package of asparagus at the grocery store, check the date, check the origin, and check whether the price is really worth the cost.

Alexandra Buck is acclimating to the dusty heat of Lima, Peru, where she will serve as a mission co-worker with Red Uniendo Manos Peru (Joining Hands Network of Peru) for the next three years. Her specific focus is comercio justo (trade justice), with a program of Peruvian artisans who sell their products through a Fair Trade corridor. Partners for Just Trade is the US non-profit where their goods can be found (and bought, and sold at church retreats and fairs and Christmas events and … ). She, too, loves asparagus.