Should you be in Cajamarca and find yourself in Jirón Lima, opposite Dylon’s chicken rotisserie, you will find one of Peru’s most innovative and long-lasting development projects, and one with which the Peru Support Group has a rather special link.

The rural libraries project (bibliotecas rurales) was set up in Cajamarca in the late 1970s by Fr. John Medcalf, the PSG’s first president until his untimely death in 2002. Forty years on, it is still up and running, supplying books and other reading materials to rural communities across the Cajamarca region from the jungles of the northern province of San Ignacio southwards to the northern fringes of La Libertad around Huamachuco.

The project has extended its range significantly since John’s day, currently serving some 500 communities with a team of four volunteers and more than 600 community members. The project is led by Alfredo Mires Ortiz, who worked alongside John and who visited London (and the recently established PSG) in 1985. It runs on a shoestring but is no less effectual for that.

The project works with rural schools, providing them with reading material for community members. About half the material that is lent to communities consists of what Mires calls ‘classic’ texts brought in from outside, of which items like laws and legal codes are particularly in demand. “These provide communities with the material they need to defend their land” he explains. The other half consists of books published by the project itself in response to community interests.

“The idea is to combine knowledge from outside the community and from within”, Mires says, so people develop their own sabiduría (wisdom). The project has published its own enciclopedia campesina, as well as texts on water, climate change, children’s rights and the impact of extractive projects. “You have to adapt the language to the needs and reading skills of campesinos”, he notes.

The project has had an impact well beyond Peru. When Fr. John went to Nicaragua in the late 1980s, he took the project with him, along with a number of the people he trained up in Cajamarca. The project has also been replicated as far away as Ethiopia. Mires recently visited rural communities in Colombia from which guerrillas have retreated, claiming that this sort of project is highly relevant to situations in which peace has (to some extent) been re-established.

John Medcalf is held in high esteem in Cajamarca. Following his death, his ashes were brought to Cajamarca where they remain in the rural libraries project he set up. For an obituary of Medcalf, go to the Guardian. He was a close friend of Graham Greene who he invited to became a founding sponsor of the PSG when it was established at the end of 1983.