First Came the Floods

– Jessica Leving Siegel

Faced with fleeing or fighting climate change, the people of this Peruvian town are not giving up.

Thirteen years ago, Luis Chávez Rodriguez was an international student at Boston University, working toward a doctorate degree in Spanish literature. But it was the work he undertook between classes that has become a key element in his own narrative: rallying university engineering students to help rebuild his devastated hometown miles away in the rainforest of Chirimoto, Peru.

An aerial view of Chirimoto. Photo courtesy Luis Chávez Rodriguez and Caitlin Rolston.

After a series of floods ravaged the adobe homes and dirt roads of Chávez Rodriguez’s youth in Chirimoto in the 1980s, most of the residents had fled. The once-lively community of some 1,500 locals was now a ghost town that had sat festering for decades, having dwindled to less than 300 scrappy, determined residents. Even Chávez Rodriguez’s own parents eventually gave up on the place, moving to Lima in search of better opportunities—as well as the modern comforts of plumbing and electricity. 

The once-lively community of some 1,500 locals was now a ghost town that had sat festering for decades, having dwindled to less than 300 scrappy, determined residents.

But even as he rose through the school system in Lima, and later in the U.S., earning accolades and building a name for himself as a poet and an academic, Chávez Rodriguez’s dreams—and his poetry—were full of Chirimoto, and all that it had once been. 

“When I was in the States for my master’s degree, I started to feel nostalgic,” the now-Dr. Chávez Rodriguez said. “Not just about Peru, but I was missing my hometown, my people. The memories I have from childhood…. It’s of a happy, free place, with no violence, in the middle of the rainforest. It’s all very pleasant in my memories.” 

More than just reminiscing about the green panoramas and smiling faces that dotted the Chirimoto of his childhood, he also dreamed of what it still could be. 

“I approach reality with my imagination,” he said in a 2010 interview with Bostonia Magazine, after successfully convincing the BU chapter of Engineers Without Borders to visit Chirimoto over a school break. “I imagine and I dream that this town can be organized and can work well. My plan is very ambitious. It is to create a new village, like the towns in Latin American novels, novels by Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti.”

The emerging engineers ate it up. Under Chávez Rodriguez’s leadership, they traveled to Chirimoto  that summer. It was a productive visit: In six weeks, they installed a new water filtration system, built a library and a bookmobile, and designed safer wood-burning stoves to meet those few tenacious lingering residents’ cooking needs.

Former site of Hummingbird House. Photo courtesy Luis Chávez Rodriguez and Caitlin Rolston.

Inspired by their progress, before they’d even left, the club made plans with the local mayor to come back the following winter break to expand upon their efforts. 

“The local governments were trying to raise awareness of the problems of waterborne illness,” said Jeremy Schein, then-president of the BU Engineers Without Borders Chapter, in the same Bostonia article. “But they seemed to have no desire to correct anything. We thought we could help out, because this was a project with a manageable size. All of the contamination was biological, and it was serving a small population.”

Though none of them could know it at the time, it was the first step in a tangled, epic journey that would see the village through a glittering renaissance, down to the lowest pits of despair, and then back again—a few times.

Though none of them could know it at the time, it was the first step in a tangled, epic journey that would see the village through a glittering renaissance, down to the lowest pits of despair, and then back again—a few times. Indeed, the quest to free Chirimoto from the relentless grip of climate change would soon have as many peaks and valleys as the moss-covered mountains that loomed in its distance.  

Brick by Brick Rebirth

True to their word, the BU students did come back the following year—and the year after that. With Chávez Rodriguez as head cheerleader and project manager, other colleges soon joined in the work. Before long, volunteers and skilled professionals from around the world were flocking to Chirimoto to have a hand in revitalizing the community.

In time, an architecture student designed a beautiful, multilevel community center that the ragtag group of core movers and shakers claimed as their central operations headquarters: Hummingbird House.  

Built on the site of a previously ramshackle central building, the newly renovated Hummingbird House had whitewashed walls and a red tile roof. It was within these walls that newly-buoyed community members—some of whom had now even moved back or discovered Chirimoto as an attractive destination for the first time—rallied together to have a hand in creating the city where they wanted to live.

With a skilled, invested global community behind them, change and progress in the town soon became a constant motif. 

The completed Hummingbird House. Photo courtesy Luis Chávez Rodriguez and Caitlin Rolston.

An MIT student designed a new drainage system for the community to help with ongoing flooding issues. There were book drives for the new library, and laptop drives for students in the new school. A spectacular rotunda was erected in the center of the town, and volunteers worked side by side with residents to build sparkling, thoughtfully planned new houses to grow the community sustainably.

Slowly, the population began to see an uptick, too. Between the 2007 and 2017 census, the city grew by 44%, according to census reports.

“There’s nowhere else that I feel as good as I feel here,” said Soideli Bustamente, a native Chirimoto resident who has spent most of her life in the village. She had moved away from Chirimoto to pursue other opportunities, but eventually made her way back. 

“When I left to work in other places as a teacher,” she continued, “I missed my land so much. Now, with my husband, we have rebuilt our house in the same spot where I was born. Living here is one of the things that makes me most happy.”  

“The town looks very pretty now,”Chávez Rodriguez added. “It’s growing neatly, with countryside houses, which is not common in this region because of all the poverty and lack of planning. The towns tend to grow poorly, becoming villas miseria [shanty towns] in spite of being in the middle of this paradise of majestic green nature. They deteriorate and create chaos and pollution. Chirimoto is safe from all that.” 

Just as he had hoped, his hometown was becoming an incredible example of an urban renaissance amidst an idyllic natural habitat, one he was certain Gabriel García Márquez would write verses about.

For Chávez Rodriguez, it was a dream come true. Brick by brick, pipe by pipe, his efforts had slowly driven a transformation in Chirimoto. Just as he had hoped, his hometown was becoming an incredible example of an urban renaissance amidst an idyllic natural habitat, one he was certain Gabriel García Márquez would write verses about.

Flames and Fortitude 

Situated at the apex of global climate change and a fragile rainforest ecosystem, Chirimoto was finally beginning to find sustainable ways to grapple with persistent flooding issues. Then, an onslaught of forest fires in the Amazonas region in 2016 changed everything. Chávez Rodriguez’s accomplishments were swiftly consumed in the inferno.

Luis Chávez Rodriguez in his beloved Chirimoto, Peru. Photo courtesy Luis Chávez Rodriguez and Caitlin Rolston.

Assisted by scientists and agricultural experts from around the world, Chávez Rodriguez had realized that one of the core factors contributing to Chirimoto’s changing ecological landscape—including the floods that continued to wreak havoc from time to time—was rampant deforestation. A singular focus on the lucrative coffee trade came at the expense of other permaculture systems that worked more systemically with the local landscape.

“Deforestation on the slopes of the Andes is a huge problem,” Marc Dourojeanni, professor emeritus at the National Agrarian University in Lima, Peru, observed in a 2014 report. “When water does not run into barriers as it flows downhill, what happens is a ‘tsunami on land’.” 

To remedy the issue, Chávez Rodriguez, and the rest of the Hummingbird House team worked with local officials to reclaim more than a thousand acres of land in the larger region for sustainable reforesting. They devoted months upon months of backbreaking labor to grow those areas into thriving green jungles boasting thickly tangled native vegetation. Their work was, quite literally, just beginning to come to fruition. 

But when the fires started, disaster visited the region once more. 

Given the constantly rising temperatures that had begun to plague the region, on top of outdated agricultural practices that had failed to adapt to a shifting local reality, it was probably only a matter of time before something like this happened. Even the ever-optimistic Chávez Rodriguez admitted as much in retrospect.

“The effects of climate change are very real here,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s much hotter now. The seasons have changed. In summer it rains, in winter it’s sunny. And higher in the hills, people are accustomed to starting small fires to clear the brush. These are old, traditional agricultural methods that are very dangerous now. Any little spark can easily turn into a big fire.”  

Indeed, once the fires started that dry, fateful 2016 summer, they kept coming—each one worse than the one before. A few months into the global coronavirus pandemic came the most hellish blaze yet: a roaring inferno that spanned four local districts and undid years of reforestation work and planning. Some 500 acres—about 400 football fields worth—of homes, farms, and those precious, only just recently reforested nature preservation areas, were destroyed. 

Fortunately, the fire did not descend into the center of the village—but several cabins perched on the mountaintops were burned down. Entire hills full of pineapple, bean, sugar cane, yucca and corn fields disappeared into the smoke. The flames once again left the slopes open to flooding, and financially devastated the farmers there. 

Children enjoying the book mobile. Photo courtesy Luis Chávez Rodriguez and Caitlin Rolston.

“They have to re-sow again and again, like Sisyphus carrying his stone up the hill, just for it to fall again every year,” Chávez Rodriguez lamented. 

As the fires roared last summer, Chirimoto residents scrambled to find enough masks to double up in order to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus, and the smoke that singed their throats and nostrils. With no reliable systems in place to fight a fire of this magnitude, and unable to access helicopter assistance from the closest military base in time to make any difference, the local people did their best to douse the flames themselves. 

Eventually, some 20 members of the Peruvian Army came to help—but even they, lacking any other tools, could only suggest using tree branches to smother the smaller sparks. Finally, after nearly a full week of burning, a steady rain began to fall—and, blessedly, the last of the blazes subsided. 

Few lives were lost, but many dreams were destroyed. 

Few lives were lost, but many dreams were destroyed. 

With such a devastating series of blows in the face of nearly a decade of efforts to help Chirimoto thrive, others in Chávez Rodriguez’s position might have simply given up. Certainly, some of Chirimoto’s less hardy residents might have been excused for—whether for the first time, or second—declining to be the beta testers of an uncertain climate future. 

Far from quitting, Chávez Rodriguez is leading the charge to bring area citizens and government officials together to work in tandem to form a multifaceted prevention, conservation, and harm mitigation plan in the ferocious face of climate-related disaster. 

“Rainforests are one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet, and are at greater risk due to the effects of global warming. [This area] contains abundant flora and fauna, as well as micro-basins that form the tributaries of the largest rivers in the country,” he wrote in Spanish in a September 2020 community report, where he railed against an apathetic regional bureaucracy and greedy corporate interests that he argues prevented the development of a regional conservation area with a more robust fire safety plan. 

“My organization, Hummingbird House, has been trying to contribute one grain of sand to the sustainable development of this land for years,” he went on. “We must situate the problems of our region in a larger global warming context. Work should focus on education or re-education adapted to times of climate emergency, rather than on repression.” 

The local government appears to be responding to the pressure now—however slowly, or ineffectively. This past summer, the larger province’s municipal office for the Rodriguez de Mendoza region, where Chirimoto is situated, created a series of flyers and launched an online social media campaign urging residents to come together to combat forest fires, under the hashtag #ContigoUnaSolaFuerza💪 (“Together, One Force”).  

The flyers explain some of the causes of the fires, and implore locals to be more careful and adjust their agricultural practices. “Most forest fires can be avoided,” the flyers proclaim. “It’s up to you to prevent them.” 

Despite the profoundly systemic nature of the challenges, exhortations to citizens to shoulder significant responsibility for the situation are central to provincial communications efforts.

Despite the profoundly systemic nature of the challenges, exhortations to citizens to shoulder significant responsibility for the situation are central to provincial communications efforts.

“Let us remember that there is no change without commitment, so let us build our province into the city we dream of together, the place we want for our children,” said provincial mayor Dr. Helder Rodríguez Zelada on the official Rodriguez de Mendoza website. “It is of extreme importance that you, our residents, do your bit, complying punctually with your tax obligations and thus, contributing to the development of our community.” 

Such sentiments have dissatisfied local residents, who are choosing more and more now—with support from nearby cities with similar issues—to organize on their own. With limited financial resources and few options to change their situation, they have taken to social media to amplify their message. 

“The government isn’t coming—but you can!” pleads a Facebook post from GoctaLab Nature Lodge & Art Residency, a tourist destination center in neighboring Valera, Peru, urging followers to donate to a campaign to support Amazonian communities. 

“Red tape and all of our country’s limitations make it impossible to aspire to any change in the short term,” complained another post from Amazilia Bioreserva, a birding lodge and coffee farm in Leymebamba.  

At a virtual conference last fall celebrating the history and culture of the region, it was difficult to tell what to make of local officials’ exuberantly professed optimism. Perhaps part of their speeches were geared toward a new crop of fledgling devotees who have moved to Chirimoto and other parts of the region over the past 18 months: urban refugees from nearby Lima and other big cities, drawn in by the fresh air and relative safety of a seemingly idyllic oasis that boasts a zero percent COVID-19 infection rate. 

“Rodriguez de Mendoza is a hidden paradise, with the aroma of coffee and orchids, great ecological diversity, rich in natural resources, and a cultural heritage that has been passed from generation to generation. We are a population that is different from all the rest. We are so happy to be here and able to belong to this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful province,” exclaimed Lieutenant Mayor Anderson Meléndez Puerta.

Puerta did acknowledge the region’s struggles. He focused on roads as a solution. “How do we solve the problems of this population? It’s mostly in road interconnection. We need proper management of access roads, so that we can definitely get [rural farmers’] production not only to our provincial market, but to the national market—and so that our flagship product, coffee, can be exported to other parts of the world.” 

Fragile, Small and Beautiful 

When I asked Chávez Rodriguez how he stays motivated, and why he keeps fighting, even after so many setbacks—he remained soft-spoken, humble, and even a bit shy, as always.

"Do Not Pollute the Environment" reads the sign. Photo courtesy Luis Chavez Rodriguez and Caitlin Rolston.

“This is my home,” he said simply. “It’s my life here.” 

Though we spoke by phone—Chávez Rodriguez couldn’t get reliable enough internet for a video call from his permaculture ranch on Chirimoto’s outskirts—I could practically see the shrug and the smile at what he seemed to find a silly question. 

Of course, it wasn’t long until he waxed poetic—explaining the reason his organization is named Hummingbird House. 

“Chirimoto is like a hummingbird,” he said finally. “An animal that is very small, and fragile, but very beautiful. We are just one small part of the rainforest, trying to survive. And we’re up against a lot.” 

“Chirimoto is like a hummingbird. An animal that is very small, and fragile, but very beautiful. We are just one small part of the rainforest, trying to survive.” 

‘A lot’ is probably an understatement. But Chávez Rodriguez’s faith in himself, his community, and Mother Nature’s incredible ability to heal and start over, time and time again, is unshakeable. 

“The fire was last year, and now the hill is already green again,” he said cheerfully. “I was walking in these lands yesterday, and yes, some of the big, old trees are dried and burned, but there are also new trees that have started growing. Nature is very fast to recycle and build itself again.”

Chávez Rodriguez notes that he himself is not a full-time Chirimoto resident. He has continued to teach in the U.S. and now splits his time between Chirimoto and California, where he has a second home with his wife, Caitlin Rolston. 

Yet the call of Chirimoto is strong for him and others attached to the place.  

“For a time, I left Chirimoto for the capital in Lima—but I was born and raised here, and my parents never left,” said José Emilio Rodriguez, Luis’ cousin. “I returned, and started my family here. And I don’t regret that decision.”

“This love for our land of origin comes from our ancestors,” Bustamente said. “It’s from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, who taught us to love the place [where] we were born.” 

It’s a sentiment that was echoed time and again in the virtual conference.

“We, as adults, have the responsibility to help young people know and value what they have in Rodriguez de Mendoza,” said local author and educator Alexander Arauco Rodríguez, during a presentation. “That knowledge is what can allow us to take care of it, to preserve it.”

In a recent photo that Luis sent me, he is smiling in front of a scenic mountain vista. His smile is not the broad, overconfident smile of a man without cares. His face is withered with significantly more lines than I remember from our first interview ten years back when we were both students at BU. But he is smiling nonetheless—a smile that is proud, deep, and certain. 

Despite all the perils that the town, and Chávez Rodriguez personally, have faced over and over—and will surely face again in the future—our many conversations indicate that he has never lost one single shred of hope that Chirimoto will rise again—this time, literally, from the ashes. 

Yet. 

Jessica Leving Siegel is a freelance writer and communications consultant whose work has been featured in USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Jerusalem Post and more. She is also the author of three children's books and host of The Special Siblings Podcast. Siegel holds a degree in journalism from Boston University, and an MBA in nonprofit management from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.  She would like to thank Caitlin Rolston for translation work for this article. 

Cover photo by Franksmet - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34905350