Ica, in southern Peru, is known as a city of zero unemployment.
Work is so plentiful that men with megaphones ply the city’s neighborhoods offering jobs. Thousands of mostly indigenous Peruvians from the central Andes have flooded the coastal community, attracted by radio ads and word of mouth, successfully joining the ranks of the employed.
Deep-green asparagus fields among gray sand dunes ring the city, the key to its success. Ica sits at the heart of Peru’s gigantic agro-industrial business, one of the main motors driving Latin America’s fastest-growing economy.
The developers of Ica hit the jackpot by making the desert bloom. Today the biggest producers have edged out many of the smaller farmers, and they export enough asparagus, grapes, avocados and other crops to feed much of the hemisphere.
“We are an icon of successful agriculture,” said a clearly proud Jose Chlimper Ackerman, who is sometimes called the “king of asparagus” and is head of Agrokasa, one of the most prosperous agribusinesses based primarily in Ica.
Peru is the world’s largest exporter of fresh asparagus, primarily to the United States, and most of it comes from Ica.
Once a sleepy town known mostly for its pisco brandy, Ica is today a bustling city choked by traffic and drowned in an endless cacophony of car horns. Billboards speak to consumerism: Nextel cellphones (“as productive as the people of Ica”), resort vacations and fashions by Kate Moss. As service industries, discotheques and shopping malls explode in numbers, hundreds of three-wheel “moto-taxis” that look like motorized rickshaws have turned the city into, as one local put it, a mini-Bombay.
Vast expanses of farmland give way to blocks of housing — some of it solid single-family homes with jutting rebar suggesting more stories to come — followed by new prefab construction, apartment complexes and then, where the desert encroaches, rows of nothing more than tents and plywood shanties.
Yet for all the growth, real wealth has spread only so far and “zero unemployment” does not solve all a community’s ills. In fact, there has paradoxically been an increase in disease and decline in education going hand in hand with the proliferation of jobs. Professionals end up in packing plants, and many high-school-age youths opt to “go to the asparagus” (work the fields) instead of studying.
More predictable side effects of zero unemployment include inflation (prices of some basic food products such as cooking oil and rice have more than doubled in the last five years) and the social divisions that come with a large migrant influx.
Authorities’ efforts to provide electricity have not kept up with the expanding grid of formal and less-so neighborhoods, and the dwindling water supply goes more to the cash-cow farms than to the people.
The phenomenon around Ica is a microcosm of Peru’s broader so-called economic miracle. Enormous growth in the last decade has been based largely on extracting lucrative commodities, whether it’s asparagus or silver and copper, and exporting them to markets, including the United States and China.
Though the gains have helped build a middle class, they have not trickled too deeply or widely, and a vast underclass has seen little benefit. These endemic inequities, the persistent disparities between rich and poor even as the overall economy has grown, proved a determining factor in the victory of leftist Ollanta Humala in Peru’s presidential election June 5.
Still, in a nation with an unemployment rate hovering around 8%, work in Ica there is.
Some of it is the back-wrenching, stooped-over picking of fruits and vegetables, or the rote cleaning and wrapping in packaging plants. Conditions vary depending on the farm.
“It is true there is what you would call full employment,” said Gustavo Echegaray, head of the Ica Human Rights Commission. “What’s in question is the quality of that employment.”
At Chlimper’s Ica farms, about 4,500 employees help grow and export 1.4 million 11-pound crates of asparagus and more than 8,000 tons of table grapes annually. Chlimper pays bonuses for extra production, and over the years his company has improved meals and transportation for employees. At his 470-acre Santa Rita farm in Ica, Agrokasa has built a chapel and holds annual baptisms and group weddings. Although there are no day-care centers, grounds are well tended and the mess halls clean.
It’s all designed to keep workers happy and to attract more, Chlimper says.
“We believe in it, but it’s also good business,” Chlimper said. “We sell at obscene prices and make lots of money. The quality is in the hands of the people.... We always need more labor.”
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.