Life on the Edge: In the Mayor's foosteps

IN THE MAYOR'S FOOTSTEPS, Part 1

By Steve Bradshaw, Life on the Edge series editor

Mayor Amilcar In 'Life on the Edge' Mayor Amilcar - who is a surgeon - argues that both brain and behavioural science show the first few years are crucial

From many streets in Ayacucho you can see the jagged peaks of the Andes - disturbingly close by - where the Sendero Luminoso Maoists once hid out from the Peruvian army.

For 20 years both sides brought terror to poverty-stricken Huamanga province - the epicentre of a war that cost almost 70,000 lives, and whose psychotic violence has been compared to the Khmer Rouge conflict in Cambodia.

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So it's reasonable to say few Western politicians have a more personal interest in fighting for a peaceful and prosperous future than Huamanga's new Mayor, Amilcar Huancahuari.

And also that few have seized quite so vocally his favoured means: catching kids before they're even at primary school.

A couple of years ago, Amilcar was Mayor of a particularly impoverished suburb of Ayacucho, Jesus Nazareno. His platform was "Human Development", and his argument that humans develop from - even before - birth, and that the first years of life are vital.

Both brain and behavioural science, argues Amilcar - who's a surgeon - show that the first few years are a crucial window of opportunity.

Waste them, and kids can recover - but in practice rarely do. And wasting that chance is what many Andean parents do - both from ignorance, and force majeure. Too many babies, for example, spend hours strapped to the backs of their mothers or carers - staring into the blue Andean skies with no other stimulation.

Violent evironments

What's happening in the rest of Peru?

Children in a boat in Iquitos Amilcar believes young brains are sponges and a violent environment can affect the way they develop

And are there other Latin American countries from which Huamanga can learn about Early Child Development?

'Life on the Edge' invited Amilcar to journey north to the Amazon, and then across the continent to Brazil, to find out.

It's a journey that shows poverty is a predictable barrier to a brighter future for kids... but that there's another obstacle just as familiar to the Mayor from the now thankfully peaceful mountains of Peru.

At his first stop in Peru - Iquitos, the thriving jungle-bound city on the Amazon - Amilcar sees how violence still affects kids far away from the shantytowns of Lima or the Sendero battlefields. And it isn't mostly violence against kids that NGOs, parents and young people themselves complain about.

In the floating villages of Belen there are few dark alleys where people risk being mugged on summer nights. That's because the Amazon floods here and the houses are all built on stilts.

A woman in a canoe in Iquitos Villages in Belen protect against the Amazon flooding by building houses on stilts

But the river canoes, the discos, the landings, and the bridges can be violent crime scenes - the haunts of robbers, drunks and drug-dealers from adolescence onwards.

Family homes are hardly immune either - at least where there are family homes (many women complain of absconding husbands). As Amilcar knows, young brains are like sponges and a violent environment can affect the way they develop. Academics call the effects 'hidden' or 'invisible' wounds.

"Children see drunken adults, principally men, and they see how they fight each other using knives and machetes.... and then there's the aggression within households...that (all) generates huge insecurity and violent behaviour among the kids. So the kids can replicate these actions while they are growing up."

'Frightened faces'

Start Quote

Even children who weren't born can be affected by political violence that occurred in the past”

End Quote Professor Kaethe Weingarten Harvard University

In the capital Lima, Amilcar for the first time visits the City Museum's devastating exhibition of Sendero conflict photo-journalism, and sees "the faces of frightened people, sad people, especially on the kid's faces, their eyes full of anxiety."

In a Skype conversation he talks to Harvard's Professor Kaethe Weingarten who's worked for 20 years on the now widespread belief that political as well as domestic violence can lead to hidden wounds... even down generations.

"Even children who weren't born," she tells the Mayor, "can be affected by political violence that occurred in the past."

Back in Ayacucho, Amilcar drives to Huanta where Juan Rondinel recalls fleeing from the sight of bodies in the fields, the river and the prickly pears in the 1980s.

His son Christian is troubled. A local psychiatric nurse tells Amilcar that, while many factors can cause wayward behaviour, she's convinced Juan's is the kind of family where the trauma of political violence has been transmitted from innocent bystander to innocent offspring.

Amilcar with a child In 'Life on the Edge' Mayor Amilcar asks if he can learn anything from Brazil

The government has even started a special project in Huanta, concerned about the sheer number of depressed and even suicidal children and youngsters in the province.

But while Peru's last government took early child development seriously - and new President Huamala is likely to do the same - the ambition has been been hampered by the lack of budgetary resources.

What Amilcar wants to know now is what's happening the other side of the continent - in Brazil, where former President Lula da Silva had long emphasized Human Development.

How are children there coping with organized drug violence... and are there ideas he can take back home?

Life on the Edge is produced by tve for BBC World News

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