WAVES for Development Makes a Sustainable Impact in Peru

Aid Group Facilitates Community Development

There is a formula for the way surf tourism often develops in the third world, and Dave Aabo, founder of the surfing aid group WAVES for Development, knows it well.

"Foreigners come in and develop one facet of the community, like surfing," he says over an espresso in a caf in New York City. "Then they exploit the resources. Then they start grabbing up the land and the poor people get pushed out of town because it's too expensive, and in the end, the locals completely miss out on the development."

Although the Cold War ended long ago, old habits die hard, and intervention by wealthy foreigners is rarely good news for impoverished people trying to get their slice of the pie. As a Peace Corps officer in Peru between 2003 and 2007, Aabo saw the grim "development" formula in towns up and down the country's wave-rich western coast. The waves brought the surfers, which brought the investors, which brought the industries, and the locals stayed poor. Then one day, he stumbled into Lobitos, Peru home to one very poor fishing village and one very long left point that was still only a rumor among surfing expats.

"It was evident from the beginning that the surf industry was coming, s o s," he says, referencing a Spanish term that means "yes, or yes." "So we said: 'why not give the locals the ability to tap into what's going to happen?'"

Thus was born WAVES, a non-governmental organization that is quietly subverting old paradigms of the surf tourism industry by giving locals the knowledge, money, and skill sets required to control their own aquatic resources.

Eight staff members in Lobitos, and the neighboring town of Negritos, work with volunteers from all over the world to offer children classes in English, swimming, surfing, photography, board repair, social entrepreneurship, and environmental education. They are also experimenting with micro-credit programs to jumpstart businesses in the community as well as sell surfboards to locals that wouldn't be able to purchase them otherwise.

"We want to build the capacity of the people in Lobitos to develop their community in whatever way they decide," says Aabo.

It's a far cry from giving a t-shirt and an old surfboard to a kid playing in the surf, but Aabo says its part of the same spirit. "It's great when pro surfers come here and give kids boards, but what often happens is that the kids turns around and sell the things. In order for philanthropy to be sustainable, there has to be a larger infrastructure to support it and we can't take a purely paternalistic approach to giving."

WAVES doesn't give, it facilitates. Its workers are humanitarian fixers. Want to start a t-shirt company? They'll give you a loan. Want to become a surf photographer? They'll hook you up with a pro photographer on vacation and teach you how to sell your shots to the traveling surfers. Tired of fishing all day to put food on the table? They'll teach you how to charter your boat to foreign anglers.

"We want to build the capacity of the people in Lobitos to develop their community in whatever way they decide," says Aabo.

Aabo believes his formula of helping people help themselves can be implemented in any place with unmet educational needs and unrealized surf tourism potential. But "can" and "will" are very different things. If Aabo's model is to succeed, it will mean waging a quiet guerrilla war against the old paradigm of development run by wealthy foreign elites. Can hearts and minds really win the battle against dollars and cents? Aabo believes so. He sites growing trends in ecotourism as evidence that both travelers and developers are becoming more socially conscious.

"Being green can be profitable," he says. "Our job is to prove that ‘giving back’ can be too."