The Costs of Peru's Farming Boom

Joselyn Guzmán, 21, has been trying to block a farming company from starting to use three wells that it bought among the fields of local farmers in the town of Ocucaje, Peru. In August, some townspeople set fire to the company's water pipes, and Joselyn was later punched and threatened. Image by Steve Elfers. Peru, 2015.

A sign on the Pan-American Highway south of Pisco reads: “The Drilling of New Wells is Prohibited." The signs were put up by the National Water Authority to underline a ban on new irrigation wells that has been in effect for years in this part of Peru. Many wells have been drilled despite the ban. The sign also encourages people to "Take care of the environment" and "Report clandestine drilling."” Image by Ian James. Peru, 2015.

Mamerto Cuya Villagaray rushes to direct water down his rows of cotton near Ica, Peru. His association of small farmers sold two of its wells a decade ago to an asparagus export company. He said the company has been pumping heavily and the water table has been declining. If that continues, he said he worries "it’s going to make us disappear." Image by Steve Elfers. Peru, 2015.

Juan Pablo Bentin holds up an irrigation tube, part of an ultra-efficient system that he and his brother have installed on their farm among the sand dunes near Pisco, Peru. They use water from wells to irrigate pomegranate trees, blueberries and asparagus. They say that while groundwater levels have been falling elsewhere, the levels of their wells have held steady. Image by Steve Elfers. Peru, 2015

ICA, Peru – The fight began early one morning on a sandy dirt road between fields of lima beans, where farmers discovered an excavator machine digging a trench for a water pipe. Infuriated that the pipe would carry water pumped from beneath their farms, a crowd gathered and drove away the crew of workers in a fit of shouts.

Then the protesters set fire to the plastic pipes, leaving them charred and warped on the side of the road.

As tensions rose in the days after that confrontation, threats flew between the protesters and a group of men sent by the company that was laying the pipes. Some of the men wielded wooden clubs, a machete and a baseball bat. Some of the protesters faced criminal charges.

In this feud over water, small farmers in the Peruvian town of Ocucaje are trying to challenge what they view as a water grab by a company that exports grapes and asparagus. It’s a type of conflict on the rise in parts of the world where groundwater is overexploited and in decline. And in southern Peru, disputes over water have grown especially bitter as some big farms have bought up wells and started piping water to fields miles away.

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