By Mike Safley | February 15, 2005


By Mike Safley

The indigenous Indians of Peru are unique in the modern world. They are uniformly spiritual, uninterested in politics, and loyal to their families; they are not greedy or materialistic; they express themselves in shy smiles and rarely complain. Their pride is intact despite the almost inhuman solitude of the Altiplano and dismal treatment by the last 500 years of history. They have become a forgotten people, often abandoned by their government, exploited by the machinery of commerce and left behind by the advances of medicine and the march of modernity. It is Quechua Benefit‘s goal to deliver a modest measure of relief and hope to the everyday challenge of their lives.

The recent history of the Inca, the Quechua speaking Indians, who once made up a mighty nation, is the story of greed triumphing over human decency. In 1532, the conquistador’s first gifts to the Inca were small pox and malaria, which killed a quarter of the native population. Then, Pizzaro and his 168 horseman kidnapped, under the guise of friendship, the mighty Inca Atahuallpa, who in turn offered them a room full of gold that measured 22 feet by 17 feet by 8 feet for his freedom. The deal was struck and the Inca Sun God delivered on his side of the bargain, gathering gold from the four corners of the Incan universe. Once the room was filled and, upon being baptized by his self-righteous captors, the grand Incan was garroted.

The death of Atahuallpa completed the first act in a modern tragedy that saw an immense nation that was characterized by benevolent leadership, warehouses full of supplies, abundant food, fine arts, and a rich spiritual life, run to ground by a conquering class whose greed and avarice knew no limit. The Spanish treatment of the Peruvian Indians is one of history’s unrestrained, longest running, crimes. Men were conscripted to work the silver and mercury mines under conditions that are hard for you and I to imagine. John Hemming offered the following description of the Quechua miner’s life in his seminal work, “The Conquest of the Incas.”

“There was no attempt to provide ventilation shafts for the deeper workings or to observe elementary safety precautions in cutting new galleries. The roofs were propped by weak green timbers that broke easily. There was no lighting, only a tallow candle held by each minor that emitted thick black smoke.

“But the Huancavelica mercury mine threatened its miners more directly than through discomfort or the risk of collapse. When the Indians broke the hard, dry ore with their crowbars they were struck by a thick, toxic dust that contained no fewer than four poisons: cinnabar (sulphide of mercury), arsenic, arsenic anhydride, and mercury vapors. These caused severe damage to the throats and lungs of Indians already debilitated by heat, exhaustion and bad diet. The miners worked underground all day in the heat, wearing only thin shirts and trousers. They emerged suddenly, in the evening into the cold of the 12,000-foot elevation and their wives gave them cold drinks. This easily led to pneumonia. Miguel Agia, who visited Huancavelica, said, “Experience has shown that sending them to such work is sending then to die…,”

During Peru’s Pre-Columbian rule by the Inca, coca was a crop reserved for the ruling class and forbidden to the general population. Coca is grown on the eastern side of the Andes and when its leaves are mixed with a bit of lime and chewed, a small quantity of cocaine is produced. The Spanish saw coca as a “wonderful crop” whose benefits were twofold: It was lucrative and its use tended to increase the stamina and dull the pain of their conscripted laborers.

The coca plantations were located on the edge of the hot humid jungle. The laborers forced to work the plantations regularly died of a condition characterized by a massive outbreak of cancerous skin warts that was transported by mosquitoes, and debilitation from the heat and humidity. This suffering was noted by King Phillip of Spain who forbade coca’s cultivation saying, “coca was an illusion of the devil” but the trade was too lucrative to abandon and Hernando De Santilla observed that “down there [in the coca plantations] there is one disease worse than the rest: the unrestrained greed of the Spaniards.”

The mines and coca plantations aside, the conquering Spaniards succeeded in killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Quechua men and women by commanding their services as beasts of burden. There was silver ore to be hauled from the mountains to the coast, tribute to be collected from the length and breadth of Peru, and military expeditions that required an endless number of human porters. These laborers were often chained together, at the neck, so they could not escape and if one were to die, they were beheaded and left on the trail, never slowing the party’s progress. None of the chronicles written, mostly by Spaniards, that document the hundreds of years of subjugation of the Quechua people reports any instances of redeeming or enlightened treatment of the modern-day Quechua’s ancestors.


The abuses of colonial Spain have given way to benign neglect. Forced labor, small pox, cholera and malaria no longer kill the Quechua population. They subsist outside the modern cities in much the same fashion that their ancestors might have done without their colonial masters of the past 500 years.

The modern day Indian has adopted a measure of European dress, the children attend school and the main towns have electricity, roads, churches and political order. Agriculture sustains life mostly in the form of alpacas and potatoes. But the poverty that exists is hard to comprehend. Their homes have sod walls, dirt floors and thatched or tin roofs and little else. People live within feet of their alpaca, among guinea pigs, cooking pots, and the ever-present cold. Yet the shy smiles persist; the Quechua mother is ever attentive to her child; the families persevere, sustained in part by the love and concern of their blood ties and in part by their husbandry of alpacas.


In the United States, Canada, England, Europe, New Zealand and Australia people have hope for the future. I am not sure that’s true for the Quechua. The mortality rate for children is shockingly high; four out of ten children die before they reach 10 years of age. Death from pneumonia, dysentery and infection are an everyday occurrence.

The most basic health delivery systems do not exist. Dental care is a luxury that is out of reach for many Quechua in the highlands. Low birth weight babies, cardiovascular disease, pneumonia, and diabetes are caused by oral infection, which studies suggest contribute to a wide variety of systemic diseases. The simple act of having an abscessed tooth removed is something a mind-numbing number of Quechua families cannot afford. These untreated teeth turn deadly.

I was in Peru with the Quechua Benefit last year (November 2004) when a mother told me that her daughter had complained in June that her tooth hurt. The mother told the child, “Don’t worry. The gringo dentists will be here in November.” Can you imagine a circumstance where you would ask your child to wait five months to have their infected tooth pulled?

Dr. Mario Pedroza, Dr. Wayne Jarvis and the other dentists who travel with Quechua Benefit are often faced with a dilemma: which teeth to pull. The Quechua dental team tries to limit each patient to two extractions. This limit is forced on them because the lines of people waiting for care are so long that there would be no hope of getting through even a part of those in need if they stopped to take every infected tooth. They have to practice a form of triage.

I have painted this dark picture from the everyday reality of the Peruvian people, who raise their alpacas in the harsh highlands of Peru. The images of colorfully dressed Indians peacefully blending into the panoramic Peruvian landscape, that we often see in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel, belies the harsh reality of their lives. I once asked Lenora, a Quechua lady in the Colca, what she thought of the foreign tourists coming into her valley. She replied, “They come, they take pictures and they leave no money.” I have often thought about what Lenora said.


Quechua Benefit has been going to Peru since 1996. In the beginning our only thought was to take teeth, relieve the immediate pain and pass out some warm clothes. But you cannot continue to make the annual trip without wondering how to effect, in some small fashion, a permanent change.

One night on one of our trips, Mario Pedroza lay in the cot next to me, and before we nodded off to sleep he said, “We can’t extract enough teeth to make a dent in the problem.” He wanted the hope of a long-term solution no matter how small. The next year we brought fluoride tablets, but it was clear that the infrastructure was not in place to support the project. We added more dentists to our annual trips and they took more teeth. The generous supporters of Quechua contributed more money and we gave more blankets, jackets and shoes. By the end of 2004, Quechua Benefit had provided dental care for more than 10,000 patients in the highlands.

In 2002 Dr. Wilfredo Uscamayta (Dr. Willie), a Quechua dentist from the Colca Valley, joined our annual trip as a volunteer. Dr. Willie is a man of uncommon energy; his passion to help his fellow human beings is evident in everything he does. He is the first one up in the morning and is always lobbying to see a few more patients at the close of the day.

At the end of our second trip with Willie, he proposed expanding his work with Quechua Benefit. He wanted permission and funding to take the mobile dental lab we maintain in Peru into additional towns during the year.

As Mario, Willie and I talked, a plan developed. We expanded the dental mission from one to ten months a year, with ten days each month spent at ten different locations. In 2004 alone, Dr. Willie provided dental care for 3000. In addition, Mario and Willie worked out a plan to include the local schools in a program to distribute fluoride tablets to the children.

The fluoride distribution program is being paired with a system of incentives to encourage the children’s participation at each of the schools. The classes that receive the best scores on their annual dental exams might receive soccer uniforms and balls for the boys, and volleyballs and uniforms for the girls. Individual alpaca breeders will be asked to contribute uniforms, branded with their ranch logos, to the winning classrooms. Every child loves to put on an athletic uniform just as you and I loved playing in the little leagues.

Fluoride is the key to a long-term solution. It is the reason that systemic infection from tooth decay is almost nonexistent in the developed countries. Implementing such a program, even on a small scale, in Peru will take time. However, it is a hopeful path that may eventually save lives and deliver compounding benefits that will help avoid low birth weight babies, pneumonia, and lung disease and give some comfort to parents who want their children to grow up strong and pain free.

Charity is not the rule in Peru. There is little to give. The people we see often display a puzzled look as they observe the dental team. It is as if they can’t quite understand why someone would want to help them. When you give a child a small ball or a warm jacket, they often look from the gift back to you as if they are trying to understand if they are free to keep what is in their hands. They leave quickly.

The Mayor of Illara, a new town we visited in 2004, told me, “The mothers here don’t want their children’s teeth to hurt; they will go home happy tonight! Thank You.” The gratitude expressed by the Quechua people is hard to explain. They are not loud or persistently grateful, but when a child’s eyes meet with yours as they glance up from the ground and whisper gracias, you know.


The Quechua Benefit effort is becoming better organized. We have registered as a charity in Peru, which allows us to buy medicines and supplies at half price. We have adopted a strategy of working with religious organizations that are already on the ground in Peru operating successful programs. We work through Sister Antonia of the Maryknoll Sisters in Yanque and Sister Jessie of the Sisters of the Cross at the Mosque Runa orphanage in Macusani, where they feed hot meals, daily, to the poorest children.

Dr. Willie has expanded our relationships with local mayors and school officials in the towns we visit. They all lend their facilities and communication systems to support the effort. In 2005, we will be funding Dr. Willie to work 15 days each month, instead of 10. This has been made possible by your generosity and two extraordinary donations: 1) $20,000 from Ben and Lynda Fisco of Ohio, and 2) $30,000 from the Flora Family Foundation of Menlo Park, California. The generosity that the Flora Family Foundation and the Fiscos have demonstrated is overwhelming. We have also broadened our volunteer base by adding Lindy Huber and Cathryn Whitman to our advisory board, and together we pledge to use your donations wisely.

The people at Grupo Inca and Michell Company in Peru are central to our ability to operate in the highlands. They move supplies, provide housing and feed us as we move about from town to town. We could not operate without help from Derrick Michell, Alonso Burgos, Juan Pepper, Mosie and Juanita from Mallkini, Francis and Francois Patthey, and Sandra Carbahol of the International Alpaca Association.

Last year we supplied blankets and antibiotics during the record-breaking freezes to a group of towns on the eastern slope of the Andes, about five hours from Macusani. The central town of Quicho serves 180 families and is surrounded by eight additional communities that are accessible only by foot. The people there have been abandoned by the authorities. They lack everything; girls have babies at twelve years of age, and 800 families in this local area live solely on potatoes and alpacas. We are going back again in July, and Dr. Willie will be pulling teeth. In 2005 we will be supplying antibiotics to fight dysentery and pneumonia in a few additional communities, and we are attempting to establish more relationships on the ground with people already successfully delivering care directly to people in need.


It is the hope of the volunteers at Quechua Benefit that one thing will lead to another. That the contributions and support of alpaca breeders in North America will shine a warm light on solutions for the gentle Quechua people in one of the world’s most significant alpaca growing regions.

Just as we did not conceive of the path we would follow after our first visit to Macusani in 1996, we cannot be sure of our destination. We learn more with each initiative and each visit. We now have a website and our second annual calendar has been published. We even have a logo. All of this made possible by donations of breeders like Susan Muther and Hazen Reed, who contributed their talent to create our new identity and internet presence. Visit us at our new address,; we need your help.

The Quechua people need your help. Our pledge is that every dollar that you donate will be efficiently translated into aid and hope for the people whom we owe for our alpacas. We do not use donated dollars to fund a bloated overhead, in fact, we have no overhead, and your donations directly deliver basics to those who need it most. All of the Quechua Benefit participants volunteer their time and talent. Our goal is to provide a small measure of hope and to let our friends in Peru know that you care for them.

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