Alto Peru

In partnership with The Wave Alliance initiative, which aims to grow the use of surfing as a community health intervention along developing coastlines world wide, the Alto Peru team have delivered a surf therapy pilot project and are now increasing access to surf therapy along the South American coastline.  

Alto Peru is a hillside neighbourhood in Lima, Peru, with a long local history of fishing and connection to the ocean. The Alto Peru community faces many socio-economic challenges, and this daily exposure to stress impacts the present and future well-being of the people who live there. 

There is another Alto Peru community in Lima, disrupting this cycle and building a new, positive future: the organisation Alto Peru, formed in 2007, which aims to “motivate local people to recognise their power to change their lives and community”. Creating safe spaces in the community, with the community – through urban renewal projects, increasing youth employment, and promoting physical, mental, and emotional health through group sport – is at the heart of the Alto Peru approach. 

In recognition of both the community connections to the ocean, and the powerful therapeutic benefits of surfing, Alto Peru opened a surf programme by and for local youth. In partnership with the  Wave Alliance initiative, the Alto Peru team have delivered a surf therapy pilot project and are now increasing access to surf therapy along the South American coastline. This is another story about the power of partnership, and the transformative effect of the ocean. 

Alto Peru transforms public spaces into safe spaces for learning and transformation. How does the ocean fit into this model? Is the ocean a public space which can be used for personal and community development, and if so, how? 

We use public space to transform social dynamics and promote community cohesion. The beach is a fundamental public space because it is also a natural space. Nature, in our understanding, is a teacher. In our work with children at social risk we work with many children who do not go to school, and although we do not provide formal education, we seek to educate through the human interactions and spaces that we create using sports or games. Thus, the sea and the beach are teachers for these children. They teach about patience, about respect and about art. They are also spaces that welcome and care, and in that sense they are the classrooms.

Surfing is considered an individual sport, and yet Alto Peru uses it to build a sense of belonging and human connection. How? 

Although surfing is considered an individual sport, our approach is oriented towards the culture of sharing. We share surfboards, we share how surfing makes us feel, we share the sea and the beach. We take care of and support each other. The sessions do not solely focus on the act of surfing. The focus is on the experience of going to a natural place, connecting with oneself through the activity of surfing, but also connecting with the group. There is a lot of talk in our community about gangs. We are a gang of surfers and athletes.

Do you think easy access to the ocean is important for community and individual well-being? What do you think the ocean offers people living in coastal communities, alongside being a source of food and income?  

The ocean is first, a natural space. As human beings we need to connect with nature. Having easy access to the ocean is essential and could be much more encouraged in Lima and Peru. We are a city of more than 10 million inhabitants, a great capital, located in front of the sea. If we were more aware of all that the sea can give us, we would surely take advantage of it more. We work with communities linked to artisanal fishing, to life at sea. In the communities where we work, the sea provides food, provides work, provides pleasure and an escape from the city and its problems. 

If we use the sea and the beach as learning spaces, we are maximising their healing power and educational potential. Both children and adults have a better disposition if we are relaxed, and for that reason, learning something on the beach where we are relaxed is easier, more pleasant. Individual and collective well-being can be enhanced by using the sea as a therapeutic tool.

The Alto Peru vision is to support boys and girls to reach their maximum potential and to recognise their own power to transform their lives and community. How can surfing in general, and then more specifically the Alto Peru surf therapy programme, help people reach their maximum potential and realise their own agency? 

We say that how it is in the game it is in life. Surfing is a game, it is a space to symbolize, to learn, to challenge ourselves, to share, to fall and get up. It is a learning laboratory for life. And even more, with the methodology we use, it becomes structured, with a life path for those who want to take an active role as agents of change. The facilitators are young people from the neighbourhood who decide to be part of this great movement.

Alto Peru will be working with The Wave Alliance to train and support other organisations to introduce surf therapy to their communities. What motivates you to share your experience and model? 

We think that more people can benefit from the methodology that we are using. It also motivates us that our young people see that they can be a reference not only for children in their community but also for people from other places. For them, training other adults to be change-makers is going to be very empowering.

What excites you most about an increase in access to surf therapy in South America? 

In our region, as in the global south in general, mental health is still not a priority. We believe that as surf therapy becomes more common it will be more valued as a serious therapeutic alternative, and not just as a group of surfers giving surf lessons. We need more people to get the message out seriously and for the academic or mental health community to start seeing surf therapy as a viable community health service option. 

What would you love the world to know about Alto Peru?

We are dedicated to empowering people to recognize the power they have to change their life and their community. It is not about empowering children, it is about all of us who are part of Alto Peru: allies, sponsors, friends, funders – we all have more power than we think, and we seek to reflect that ourselves, to be better people, and to leave a legacy.

This article originally appeared on Finisterre, as part of their wonderful support of an ocean for all.

We’ve been working with Finisterre for many years now. We share the same passion for the sea and the same belief that in the ocean we find ourselves and our community. We’re excited to partner with Finisterre to tell the story of the Wave Alliance and connect more and more people to the power of the ocean over the coming months and years. The more people we can introduce to the ocean, the better. We hope you’ll join us for the ride.