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Reconstruction in Alto Mayo, Peru


Alto Mayo in north-east Peru suffered two strong earthquakes in 1990 and 1991. The subsequent reconstruction and development process was promoted by an international organization of technical co-operation. In the context of a housing reconstruction programme, a cheap earthquake-resistant technology was developed in collaboration with the local people and was rapidly replicated by those people. So far, more than 3000 dwellings have been constructed with this “improved quincha” technology. This article presents the main results of this intervention and aims to offer elements that may be used in other cases.

Local Context

Alto Mayo was the first region of the Amazon to be colonized by the Spanish after their arrival in Peru. Moyobamba, the region’s main town, was founded between 1540 and 1542. Since the arrival of the Spanish, the development of the region was always dependent on the demands and needs of various economies outside the region. All through its past, different economic cycles have characterized its development: for instance rubber exploitation at the end of the 19th century. In the middle of the 1970s a highway (the Carretera Marginal) was built which linked the region with the coast. It allowed the development of a new economic cycle, promoted by the State, which stimulated not only the large-scale production of rice and maize, but also the migration of large groups of inhabitants from the neighbouring mountainous provinces.

The intervention by the State in creating mechanisms for the commercialization of the products of the region (maize and rice) enabled the growth of producer organizations; they provided a channel for demanding better prices, and maintained a high level of negotiation and pressure on State agencies. That situation started to change in 1990, with the reduction of State presence in the region, causing the disruption of the system of subsidies to local products. The extremely critical economic situation of the State also led to the abandonment of maintenance and repairs of the Carretera Marginal, the main link with the markets of the coast; this made the situation of the local producers worse, since they saw their transport costs go up, whilst their incomes diminished.

With their traditional intermediaries gone, the producer organizations also lost presence, which created a social vacuum in the region: with the offices of State agencies closed, and the producer organizations becoming less representative.

Seismic history of the region

Since 1746, the Alto Mayo region has suffered 15 earthquakes which affected various local towns to different degrees; this is due to the region’s location in a zone of high seismicity. These earthquakes are mainly characterized by their superficial geological faults, which gives them great destructive power in small areas. Following the earthquake of 1968, which greatly affected the region, the repair of the affected dwellings used traditional construction technologies, which maintained their vulnerability.

Physical and Social

Vulnerability of Alto Mayo

Many of the inhabitants of the Alto Mayo are migrants from the Andes, who took their building customs with them. Rammed earth is the predominant material; it is estimated that 80% of the buildings used this material. Many dwellings had two storeys, with walls more than four metres high, of bad quality and defective connections between walls and roof. Poor maintenance of the buildings and the effect of rains contributed to the weakening of foundations and walls. Many buildings damaged in the previous earthquake of 1968 were inadequately repaired. The roofs covered by clay tiles on a layer of mud constituted a very heavy structure which was extremely dangerous for the inhabitants.

The effect of the earthquakes was increased by the formation and the quality of the soils: soft, clayey and saturated with water. Many areas also had soils of fine sand, saturated with water, leading to liquefication, which caused the collapse of many buildings.

The large influx of migrants to the region came with their own building customs, and built their houses in areas prone to landslides and soil settlement. Many of those families were unaware of the seismic history of the region. These migrants also occupied terrain of lower value on the slopes of the mountains, where they established small hamlets, often in areas with difficult access.

The serious economic situation of the region, caused by external and internal factors contributed to its economic vulnerability, which particularly influenced the state of the houses. People were in the first place preoccupied with their daily livelihood, and often had to move to other areas to find work, leaving the houses unmaintained for some time. Many migrants were also considering the possibility of returning to their original villages, which caused them to pay less attention to the state of their houses. Besides, people tried to invest as little as possible in house construction, and instead were living with friends or relatives, which caused overcrowding.

The Earthquakes of 1990 and 1991

The first earthquake, in May 1990, left 64 people dead and 607 wounded, and around 3000 houses damaged. The worst affected settlement was Soritor, where half of the total damage was concentrated. Soritor is a small settlement of approximately 5000 inhabitants and capital of a district with the same name. It was also the seat of one of the major grassroots organizations (the Frente de los Intereses del Pueblo). The presence of this organization enabled a rapid start of emergency actions, such as the distribution of corrugated iron roofing sheets, and to lay the basis for a reconstruction process.

A group of development agencies charged ITDG with the elaboration of a Reconstruction and Development Plan, which was elaborated in a process of dialogue and discussion with organizations and institutions present in the region.

During the first year, ITDG implemented reconstruction work in Soritor. In April 1991, a second earthquake struck, which destroyed the majority of rammed earth houses in the Alto Mayo. The first houses reconstructed with the technology proposed by ITDG withstood the tremor, leading to increased interest from the side of inhabitants and institutions, which enabled a massive dissemination of the technology.

The Reconstruction and

Redevelopment Planning Process

The Reconstruction Programme considered the region’s development with a long-term vision. That is why it developed activities related to the small-scale production of building materials, trying to contribute to local income and employment generation. It also continued to provide support to community organizations in order to stimulate them to participate in the management of the Housing Programme.

Community participation: the mobilizing role of women in reconstruction

Disasters affect social groups in different ways; disasters generally have a major impact on the poorest and more marginalized groups. Amongst these poor, it is the women who are given the biggest workload during reconstruction: they have to continue their domestic and productive activities, whilst rebuilding their house at the same time.

As in other contexts, what characterizes family units in the poorest echelons is their informality and short duration; a change of partner also happens frequently and, coupled to a lack of knowledge about family planning methods, this leads to a considerable number of households in which children are by different fathers, and where there is no continuous paternal presence. It was not by chance that the majority of households affected by the earthquakes were female-headed.

This is why the Project focused on the promotion of participation by women, not to bring in labour, but to become change agents. Also, the assumption that specialist tasks are traditionally done by men was contradicted by the experience of women completing the most complex building tasks.

In this work, contradictions and confrontations emerged within the population itself. Some groups tried to avoid active participation by women. In some cases, this prevented a woman from assuming a leadership role, due to pressure from her family and neighbours.

Making the most of local resources

The construction technique most used in the region was rammed earth; this technique was rejected by the population due to the high level of damage suffered by rammed earth houses during the earthquakes. Given the poverty of the majority of the inhabitants, an alternative was required to building with clay bricks, steel and cement; what is more, this proposal was to make optimal use of available local resources. During the first year of the project, ITDG adapted and initiated the application of a technology which, although developed for a different region of the country, does use materials available in the Alto Mayo, such as timber, cane and soil.

The adaption of the technology was guided by two main principles: the optimum use of resources and materials available to the beneficiaries - be it from their previous houses or easy to obtain nearby - and the simplification of the construction work, taking into account that it was a self-build programme geared to the poorest families.

The proposed technology, popularly named “improved quincha”, became popular with the people due to its ease of construction, the availability of materials required, and its seismic resistance demonstrated during the second earthquake of 1991.

Employment and income generation
The Reconstruction Programme aimed to create conditions for the stimulation of employment and income from the transformation of existing resources. It considered that the reconstruction of dwellings will promote local employment. In a first phase, when housing was the priority, it stimulated workshops for the production of FCR tiles and the participation of local builders in housing reconstruction. In a second phase, activities were developed to support those involved in the transformation of timber (carpenters etc.), given that the region has adequate forest resources. Reforestation was stimulated in rural villages to stimulate a conscience of care for the environment.

To support small enterprises, a credit fund was established with a local co-operative, which currently is allocating about 30 loans per month, of an approximate size of $1,000 each.

The Importance of good Communication

In as much as a reconstruction process is considered as an opportunity for generating change in a society, the establishment of an efficient flow of change messages (technologies, methodologies or new institutional roles) becomes one of the principal challenges for a change agent. And often, it becomes the key factor in converting reconstruction into a development process.

In this context, one of the priorities for ITDG was to disseminate and promote discussion at all levels of the proposals for reconstruction and development.

All opportunities for dissemination were used. Radio programmes were particularly effective at reaching the population at large. Micro-programmes focusing on a single theme were designed and transmitted during the times with the highest audience. To achieve this, radio journalists were invited to a training workshop. In addition, presentations in seminars, courses and workshops were undertaken to reach all sectors and levels of the local society.

These activities were complemented with specific actions at communty level, as follows.

House design workshops

These consisted of a series of meetings with groups of families benefitting from the Project. They were meant to generate a basic idea of the architectural design based on a review of the state of the previous dwelling and the identification of needs which the new house would have to deal with more efficiently. Special attention was paid to the discussion of technology options.

The objectives were:

- for groups to recognize their own way of life and to arrive at a conscious decision on the design of a dwellings which would express the real spatial requirements of its members,

- for the participation in the design to take place in an organized and reflective way, whereby individuals have the opportunity to plan their needs and select the best combination of spaces,

- for the “improved quincha” technology to be identified with the available natural resources and the needs to be resolved.


During the whole housing reconstruction process, families were trained in building. Local builders were used as the principal extension workers of the proposed technology. The Project recognized that, in the local society, these builders have a high standing; many people take their advice before making a decision on construction, and using these builders would have a major impact.


The construction of community buildings during the first year of the Project offered a good opportunity to disseminate the technology to inhabitants participating in this community building exercise. The construction of the first community building took about seven months and allowed many inhabitants who did not benefit from the Project to observe the various phases of construction, and subsequently to replicate the technology.

Lessons for Future Reconstruction Activities

Without wanting to pretend to provide a recipe for starting and continuing a reconstruction process, some methodological considerations for post-disaster reconstruction processes may be offered:

- A rapid evaluation of the causes and effects of the disaster; it is particularly useful to discover the relationship between the economic development processes which determine vulnerability and popular building forms and traditions.

- Community participation in the discussion of viable reconstruction options (technologies, methodologies, etc.), particularly with representative community organizations; in many cases, land or production organizations assume different roles in reconstruction.

- Flexibility in the introduction of innovative technologies, trying to adapt the proposals to the skills and resources existing at the level of the community.

- A good communication flow between the change agents and the social actors present, making intensive use of the most popular communication media in the region, and particularly by putting messages in traditional forms of communication.

- The involvement of local builders as noticeable change agents, recognizing their perception of potential technological innovations, and emphasizing their active participation in the reconstruction process.

by Duval Zambrano, ITDG Peru