Olas Peruanas

Peruvian Surf Cultures and the Dangers of Development

By Clara Mokri


[dropcap]“T[/dropcap]he swell looks good today—a decent 7-9 feet,” Vania Torres Oliveri told me casually as we pulled up to Punta Hermosa and parked the car in front of Caballeros, one of the most famous surf spots in Peru. “Cool,” I responded, as normally as possible. The surfer in me was about to explode with excitement, but my rational conscience played devil’s advocate—I’d never surfed waves that big, especially on a board like the paper-thin high-performance one that Vania had provided me.

“Oh, and I forgot to tell you,” she said. “It’s nearly a quarter-mile paddle out from the beach. That’s okay with you, right?” Coming from one of the best female professional surfers in South America who regularly surfs some of the most fickle and unforgiving waves with the Peruvian national team, her nonchalance was to be expected.

I would characterize myself as an above average surfer. I’ve been around the sport nearly my entire life—I procrastinate my schoolwork by watching surf videos and checking Los Angeles’ wave forecasts, and whenever I’m anywhere remotely close to an ocean all I can think about is paddling out. However, this was a new and unsettling experience, even for me.

Peruvian surfers are hardcore.

“Surfing is really unique. It’s more than a sport; it becomes a way of life. I’ve been surfing for over 40 years, and I’ve acquired a really deep connection with the ocean,”  says Eduardo Arnillas, a businessman in the textile industry and father of two. Such connection is not unusual in Peru. Each surfer that I spoke to described their experience as spiritual and empowering. “Surfing is part of our entire family’s lifestyle; and I don’t even surf,” Eduardo’s daughter Paula explains.

“On Paula’s 7th birthday, we started a surf competition for the kids called La Copa Paula,” recounts Eduardo. Her friends, nicknamed ‘The Kids of Copa Paula,’ would spend the year training for the event throughout the year. “Surfing is really a family connection that brings the community together.”

However, this community is not living in a blissful blue ocean dream. The Peruvian economy is growing at a faster rate than infrastructure can manage, and sustainable development has not been a priority with new projects.  As a result, the integrity of the coastlines have been jeopardized. While surfing is the most popular sport in the country, many Peruvians do not realize how privileged they are to have some of the world’s best waves.

“The government and the Peruvians do not understand that we are home to nearly two-dozen world class waves”, professional surf photographer Pepe Romo explains. “Our coast is taken for granted, and I’ve witnessed the degradation of our coastline my whole life. It’s a shame.”

The most controversial developmental plans occurred along the Costa Verde in the heart of the capital. The first was a project to extend the highway right onto the beachfront in order to add more lanes, a bike path, and a walkway. The second project aimed to further develop the commercial fishing industry by building multiple piers that cut directly through some local surf spots. These jetties were built to make the sea calmer for incoming boats, so erecting them changed the topography of the ocean floor and the waves disappeared. One of the best waves in Lima City, called La Herradura was completely destroyed after the mayor decided to develop the area by flattening part of the cliff. “Now the beach is just rocks—there’s no more sand at all. In just a few months he destroyed what nature had spent millions of years to create. It’s a lack of knowledge and infrastructure that allows things like this to happen,” explains Eduardo. It’s not just the surf spots that are at risk; these developments can also endanger entire ecosystems. This raises a handful of environmental speculation.

A number of protests were held in light of these events. Thousands of surfers participated, and ultimately lobbied the government to pass a law allowing surf spots to be registered for protection. However, registration costs a lot of money, and there is no designated person to pay the sum because beaches are public goods. Surfers have used online forums to raise money, but there are so many spots that need protection.

Although Peru’s GDP has nearly tripled in the past decade due to its economic growth and rapid expansion, the country remains a part of the developing world. The uneven distribution of wealth between Peruvians living in cities versus rural areas is vast, causing growth and investment in many regions to remain stagnant. As a result, there have been countless political disputes and protests against foreign investors, which makes it seem that there are far more pressing economic issues that face the country right now than the integrity of the coastline.

“It seems as if the best solution to this problem is to elect someone into the municipality who surfs,” jokes Pepe. But he might just be right.


Clara Mokri is a junior in Timothy Dwight College and a Political Science major. Contact her at clara.mokri@yale.edu.