Monday, April 11, 2011

Scientists uncover Inca Children´s countdown to sacrifice

Craig Brierley

Hair samples from naturally preserved child mummies discovered at the world's highest archaeological site in the Andes have provided a startling insight into the lives of the children chosen for sacrifice. Researchers funded by the Wellcome Trust used DNA and stable isotope analysis to show how children as young as 6-years old were "fattened up" and taken on a pilgrimage to their death.

A team of scientists led by Dr Andrew Wilson at the University of Bradford analysed hair samples taken from the heads and from small accompanying bags of four mummies found in the Andes. These included the 15-year old "Llullaillaco Maiden" and the 7-year old "Llullaillaco Boy" whose frozen remains were found in 1999 at a shrine 25m from the summit of Mount Llullaillaco, a 6,739m volcano on the border of Argentina and Chile. The Maiden, described as a "perfect mummy" went on display for the first time last month in Salta, northwest Argentina.

Dr Wilson and colleagues studied DNA and stable light isotopes from the hair samples to offer insight into the lives of these children. Unlike samples of bone collagen and dental enamel, which give an average reading over time, hair growth allows scientists to capture a unique snapshot at different intervals over time, helping build up a picture of how the children were prepared for sacrifice over a period of months. The results are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

"By examining hair samples from these unfortunate children, a chilling story has started to emerge of how the children were 'fattened up' for sacrifice," says Dr Wilson, a Wellcome Trust Bioarchaeology Fellow.

It is believed that sons and daughters of local rulers and local communities were chosen for sacrifice, possibly as a way for the ruling Incas to use fear to govern their people. Some girls, know as acllas, were selected from around the age of four and placed under the guardianship of priestesses; some would later be offered as wives to local nobles, others consecrated as priestesses and others offered as human sacrifices.

By analysing stable isotopes found in the hair samples, Dr Wilson and colleagues were able to see that for much of the time prior to sacrifice, the children were fed a diet of vegetables such as potato, suggesting that they came from a peasant background. Stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen from an individual's diet are deposited in their hair where they can remain unchanged over thousands of years.

However, in the twelve months prior to sacrifice, the isotopic evidence shows that the Maiden’s diet changed markedly to one that was enriched with plants such as maize, considered an "elite" food, and protein, likely to have come from charki (dried llama meat).

"Given the surprising change in their diets and the symbolic cutting of their hair, it appears that various events were staged in which the status of the children was raised" says Dr Wilson. "In effect, their countdown to sacrifice had begun some considerable time prior to death."

Changes in the isotopes in the hair sample in the final 3-4 months suggest that the children then began their pilgrimage to the mountains, likely from Cuzco, the Inca capital. Whilst scientists cannot be certain how the children died, it is believed that they were first given maize beer (chicha) and coca leaves, possibly to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness and also to inure them to their fate. This theory is supported by evidence of coca metabolites that the researchers found in the victims' hair, and in particularly high concentrations in the Maiden's.

"It looks to us as though the children were led up to the summit shrine in the culmination of a year-long rite, drugged and then left to succumb to exposure," says co-author Dr Timothy Taylor, also of the University of Bradford. "Although some may wish to view these grim deaths within the context of indigenous belief systems, we should not forget that the Inca were imperialists too, and the treatment of such peasant children may have served to instil fear and facilitate social control over remote mountain areas.”

Previous research has shown that Llullaillaco Boy appears to have met a particularly horrific end. His clothes were covered in vomit and diarrhoea, features indicative of a state of terror. The vomit was stained red by the hallucinogenic drug achiote, traces of which were also found in his stomach and faeces. However, his death was likely caused by suffocation, his body apparently having been crushed by his textile wrapping having been drawn so tight that his ribs were crushed and his pelvis dislocated.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Maca: the andean viagra

Maca, a plant grown in the Andean highlands, is believed to boost male potency. The Quechua Indians cultivate it; a New Jersey company owns the patent on it. The Americans call the work that led to the patent bioprospecting. Others say it's stealing. By Brendan I. Koerner

THE FLAVOR OF MACA, A RADISH-LIKE TUBER OF THE ANDEAN HIGHLANDS, is often described as similar to that of butterscotch. My first taste of maca came at a cafe in Lima, Peru, where the barista microwaved me a cup of gritty porridge that tasted like sweetened sandpaper. I gave the plant a second chance in Cuzco, the capital of the Andes.

There, I bought a cup of maca-infused dulce de leche from a street vendor stationed near the ruins of an Incan solar temple. Camped beneath a giant mural depicting a human sacrifice, I took a tentative bite of the off-white concoction.

I've rarely encountered a taste so odious—like a combination of spoiled buttermilk and chalkboard dust. Almost no one, however, eats maca because they enjoy the taste. Also known as Peruvian ginseng, the plant is believed to deliver a jolt of energy to the male loins, increasing sperm count and enhancing the libido.

The earliest Andean civilizations discovered that altitude diminished the sex drive of livestock, and that a nibble of maca could revive an alpaca's urge to procreate. What worked for beasts worked for humans, too, and dried maca root was a favorite pre-liaison supplement for Incan noblemen—and, later, for the Spanish conquistadors, who demanded tons of maca as part of their tribute.

Viagra natural is the plant's contemporary nickname among Peru's young and randy, who mix crushed maca root into their morning jugos, or snack on enriched cereal bars such as Kiwi-Maca or Energía Inka. "It makes you feel like you have power all over your body," said José Manuel, a 24-year-old university student, who claimed to start each day with a maca con leche shake.

"Sexual power!" He illustrated this point by miming convulsions, topping off the show with a knowing pat of his genitals. I FLEW MORE THAN 3,600 MILES to sample this reputed aphrodisiac and endured several white-knuckle minivan rides through the Andes and a meal of roast guinea pig along the way. (I say reputed because, in my nonscientific studies, the aphrodisiac effect amounted to nothing.)

I could much more easily have strolled to my local retail strip in New York City. Displayed next to herbal libido enhancers such as yohimbe and Horny Goat Weed, maca pills and powders have been available in American health food stores for over a decade.

The main ingredient in several of these products is MacaPure, a trademarked "sex-enhancing standardized extract" manufactured by Pure World Botanicals of South Hackensack, N.J. "Animals fed MacaPure extract greatly increased their sexual activity," the company's marketing literature states, "engaging in sex far more frequently than usual."

In 2001, Pure World was awarded United States patent number 6,267,995 for its method of using an alcoholic solvent to isolate maca's active compounds. Rather than greet the patent as likely to increase maca exports, the Peruvians were outraged.

The Quechua Indians, the longtime guardians of maca's secrets, united with government officials of Peru to condemn Pure World's actions as biopiracy, a type of thievery in which plants or organisms from one country are patented in another, without permission or compensation.

It was not the first time the Peruvians felt that one of their crops had been purloined with the aid of the American patent system. In 1994, for example, two agronomists from Colorado State University patented a variety of quinoa, a high-protein Andean grain that the Quechuas often eat in lieu of meat. Six years later, a California food processing company was awarded a patent for a bean that pops when toasted, creating a tasty snack.

The Peruvians claimed that the company had simply patented the nuña popping bean, a longtime favorite treat of Quechua children. Many Peruvians want companies like Pure World to give them a cut of the profits, in recognition of the intellectual capital that their farmers have poured into developing maca and other crops.

"We have preserved this knowledge and these genetic resources for thousands of years," said Sylvia Bazan, an official with Peru's National Institute for the Defense of Competition and Intellectual Property (INDECOPI). "We can share it with mankind—we want to share it with mankind. But we want some benefits."

The most frequently cited example of an ideal benefit-sharing arrangement is a 1991 agreement between the pharmaceutical company Merck and INBio, Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute. INBio agreed to supply Merck with samples of plants and organisms from the Costa Rican rainforest; in exchange, Merck vowed to pay INBio up to 10 percent of all future royalties on medicines derived from those samples.

The money would be earmarked for the preservation of Costa Rica's environment. The Merck-INBio pact was much admired by the delegates at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a United Nations confab where a landmark Convention on Biological Diversity was adopted. The CBD codified the idea that nations should be able to determine who can conduct research on their biological resources.

The CBD also states that contracting parties, usually companies from developed nations, should share "the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources with the Contracting Party providing such resources. Such sharing shall be upon mutually agreed terms."

Despite the convention, however, there is no consensus about whether drug companies are legally obligated to treat developing nations as partners rather than mere links in the supply chain. The CBD's populist sentiment is contradicted by a World Trade Organization agreement on intellectual property, and a thicket of conflicting national laws muddy the waters even further.

The Peruvian government is short on funds and manpower, but it intends to overturn the maca patent on the grounds that Pure World's method apes an extraction technique that the Quechuas have used for centuries. But the Quechuas have little faith in the bureaucrats of Lima, and even less in multinational trade pacts. They prefer to protect their knowledge and their crops with their own measures.

THE CINCHONA TREE GRACES PERU'S NATIONAL FLAG, where it serves as a constant reminder of why the country's biodiversity is so coveted. The tree's bark was the original source of the antimalarial drug quinine, which the indigenous people of the northern Andes called quinaquina—"bark of barks."

Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century brought this white powder back to Europe, where it earned a reputation as a miracle cure after being used to treat King Charles II of England for malaria. But Peru never grew wealthy from its landmark contribution to medical science. Using seeds smuggled out of Peru, the Dutch government planted Cinchona trees in Java in the 19th century, and Indonesia became the world's primary quinine supplier.

No drug of quinine's importance has since emerged from Peru's jungles or mountains, but the country is a prime destination for bioprospectors—researchers dispatched by American and European pharmaceutical companies to find medicinal plants or organisms.

Like quinine, many of their discoveries are remedies that have been used in indigenous communities since time immemorial. One celebrated example is ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic vine. A variety of the plant familiar to residents of the Amazonian rainforest for generations was patented in the U.S. in 1986.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office annulled the patent in 1999 in response to a protest from a coalition of Amazonian NGOs, ruling that publications about the vine were "known and available" at the time the patent application was filed. But the patent was reinstated when the PTO concluded that the size and shape of the vine's leaves were, in fact, different from those previously described; the patent stood until its expiration in 2003.

Pure World's maca patent is more nuanced than the one that covered ayahuasca. It is not for the plant itself, but rather for a method of extracting maca's essence; the patent states that the resulting "composition can be used for treating cancer and sexual dysfunction."

The patent does not preclude Peruvian farmers from growing any variety of maca they wish, nor does it prevent them from selling their output. "What [Pure World] has done is they've taken common knowledge and improved it," said Dennis Karjala, a professor at Arizona State University College of Law.

To deny Pure World the patent, he added, would be akin to denying a car company a patent on an improved wheel design—it would slow down the pace of innovation, and the world would be worse off. The Peruvians see nothing innovative in Pure World's patent, however.

They argue that the patented extraction method is just a fancy version of a Quechua trick: soaking the dried root in a moonshine called aguardiente. The resulting shake, which is typically sweetened with a blend of fruit and milk, is a popular beverage on the streets of Junín, a town in the heart of Peru's maca-growing region.

The drink's alcoholic component releases the maca root's essences, much in the same manner as Pure World's solvent technique. The only real difference, the Peruvians claim, is that Pure World's scientists use expensive laboratory equipment instead of cheap blenders. The Peruvian government could overturn the patent by proving that Pure World's techniques does not substantively improve on the Quechua method.

But the science behind the Junín beverage has probably not been formally recorded because the recipe was passed along via word of mouth. As Title 35 of the U.S. Code has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, oral testimony alone is not sufficient to prove the existence of what lawyers call prior art—pre-existing knowledge that may invalidate a patent.

In the ayahuasca case, for example, a Peruvian shaman testified that the patented vine had long been used in religious rites, but the patent examiners refused to consider his statement. Still, Peru's INDECOPI, which is responsible for protecting the nation's intellectual property, believes that written prior art may exist somewhere, perhaps in the archives of a rural university.

It has enlisted the pro bono aid of Jorge Goldstein, an Argentinean-born partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Sterne Kessler Goldstein & Fox, to find such evidence. He has been sifting through Spanish-language documents that might describe the alcohol-and-maca technique; as of this writing,

Goldstein said that "the timing of a challenge is being evaluated." The more substantive of Peru's objections to the maca patent is that Pure World did not obtain official permission before launching its research, nor did it agree to share revenues with either the Quechuas or the government.

Neglecting to do both violates the Convention on Biological Diversity. (In July, Pure World was sold to the French nutriceuticals company Naturex for $36.8 million. A Naturex spokeswoman did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment regarding the MacaPure patent. However, in a 2004 interview with The Bergen County Record, Pure World's then-president, Qun Yi Zheng, stated, "We really enhanced the equity of maca itself. . . . We shouldn't be blamed, we should be thanked.")

Before the CBD, "everything in nature was considered the common heritage of mankind," said Cynthia M. Ho, a professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. "It was a big change the CBD put forth. What it says is that not only does a nation have sovereignty rights, but it also suggests that [bioprospectors] get informed consent and do benefit sharing."

In other words, American or European researchers could no longer tramp into the central Andes in search of medicinal plants without getting clearance from the Peruvian government. And that clearance needn't be given, the CBD implies, unless the company in question agreed to share a cut of the royalties with Peru.

Peru believes that it deserves an equitable portion of MacaPure's sales, in recognition of the intellectual contributions of the Quechua. Their ancestors were the first to discover the plant's libido-raising properties, and they spent centuries perfecting the complicated methods necessary to raise and prepare the crop.

For example, a maca plant must be relocated to a manure-rich field after the first frost, or no seed-bearing shoots will emerge. After the July harvest, the roots are left to dry for up to three months and must be protected against any precipitation; if a farmer fails to cover his maca before it rains, the entire crop could be ruined. CULTIVATED MACA MIGHT HAVE DISAPPEARED ALTOGETHER were it not for the efforts of a handful of Quechua, whose ancestors first started growing and refining the plant around 1600 B.C.

Many farmers abandoned the crop during the 20th century, when they learned new techniques that increased the yields of other vegetables. "Maca takes a lot out of the earth," said Hugo Granados, a Spanish-speaking Quechua, as we drove in his red Toyota pickup through the town of Pisac.

"The farmers don't like to grow it, because they can't use their fields after for several years." Some fields must be left fallow for as long as a decade before they can be reused. So many farmers abandoned the plant that a 1989 report by the National Research Council termed maca one of "the lost crops of the Incas," and noted that its cultivation was "in danger of extinction."

Only a tiny number of poor Quechuas located near Junín continued to raise maca, primarily for subsistence purposes. They would roast the roots and eat them whole, or mix them into porridges of the sort that I sampled in Lima.

These recipes are now celebrated each July at the Maca Harvest Festival in Huancayo, a modern city 186 miles due west of Lima, where visitors can—at their own risk—try everything from mashed maca to maca ice cream.

Peru's maca-growing belt now stretches from Huancayo to Cuzco, 240 miles to the southeast—an expansion that has come about because of the developed world's demand. Yet maca remains a tiny industry: In 2004, exports barely topped $1.5 million, whereas retail sales in the U.S. alone are estimated to be worth $20 million annually.

Farmers complain that a glut of new maca producers has depressed prices, so that they've derived little real benefit from the plant's popularity among America's aspiring Don Juans. Manuel Ruiz, director of the program on international affairs and biodiversity for the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, believes that Pure World should split the profits from maca with his country.

"We have the resource, and we have the related knowledge, and we have conserved the resource over the centuries," he said. "[Americans] have the technology to add value and commercialize the resource through their distribution channels. I think half-and-half is a very simple way to envision a fair sharing of benefits."

Ruiz points out that there is precedent for a payout more generous than the Merck-INBio agreement: a 1996 five-party agreement among the Aguaruna people of northern Peru, the American drug company G.D. Searle, two Peruvian universities, and Washington University in St. Louis.

The agreement allowed researchers from Searle and the universities to prospect for plants in the Aguarunas' native territory, in return for annual payments to the Aguaruna people. If and when a commercial product was ever manufactured as a result of the research, the agreement guaranteed that no less than 75 percent of the royalty income would be returned to Peru.

This sort of munificent promise plays well in the public relations arena. But it would be a mistake to think that the CBD compels an American company like Searle to be so bighearted. For starters, the U.S. is not one of the 188 countries that have so far ratified the CBD. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty in 1993, but a Senate coalition led by Jesse Helms, then a Republican senator from North Carolina, blocked ratification.

Heavily lobbied by the biotechnology industry, the opponents argued that the CBD would stifle innovation. Furthermore, like many United Nations treaties, the CBD is long on cordial rhetoric but short on enforcement mechanisms. "It's along the lines of a U.N. human rights agreement," said Ho.

"You want people to aspire to these kinds of things." But violators face no specific sanctions. A far more efficacious treaty is the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which was finalized by the World Trade Organization in 1994 and which mentions nothing about sovereignty over natural resources or sharing benefits equally between companies and indigenous peoples.

It allows patents on biological and genetic resources as long as the new product is a significant, nonobvious improvement over what existed, a requirement in line with the regulations of the American patent system. Unlike the CBD, TRIPS is enforceable; countries that run afoul of the agreement risk severe trade sanctions from the WTO.

Developing nations have tried repeatedly to have the CBD's language added to TRIPS but they have faced opposition from the U.S. With TRIPS unlikely to be amended soon, Peru and its neighbors have taken it upon themselves to add teeth to the CBD's tenets.

In 1996, the five-nation Andean Community issued Decision 391, a pact designed to "recognize the historic contribution made by the native, Afro-American, and local communities to the biological diversity" of the region. Decision 391 reiterates the sections of the CBD dealing with sovereignty and benefit-sharing and adds articles empowering Peru and the other members—Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia—to punish transgressors.

According to Ruiz, these punishments could include stamping "persona non grata" in the passports of noncompliant researchers. To date, however, no alleged biopirate has been punished in Peru. One part of the solution, Peru hopes, is its domestic Law 27811.

Rather than outline penalties for biopiracy, the 2002 law mandates the creation of a national database of plants and their medicinal applications. This was partly done in order to preserve knowledge that might otherwise vanish as more and more Quechuas move to Peru's cities in search of work, and as swaths of jungle are clearcut for settlement.

Law 27811 was also put on the books to stave off foreign patents. But researchers of the institute known as INDECOPI rely almost solely on the few published documents that there are, because, due to the country's legacy of racial animosity, the Quechuas and other indigenous peoples are reluctant to share their secrets with the government.

"We haven't gone to the communities to collect the knowledge there—we do not know if it would be possible," said Bazan. "We are the government, and they are indigenous peoples. And they have a reaction against people from the government."

As a result, the database will likely not contain knowledge that would be specific enough to challenge any of the 200-plus foreign patents that INDECOPI has identified as at least partially based on Peruvian genetic resources or traditional knowledge. ANYONE WHO WISHES TO AVOID A FIERY DEATH is advised to use a four-wheel-drive vehicle when traveling to the Parque de la Papa, or Potato Park, located 30 miles northeast of Cuzco.

The dirt road that leads to the park's main building twists along a steep mountainside, hundreds of feet above the valley below. The Potato Park is best described as an agricultural collective, bringing together six Quechua settlements. It was founded in 2002 with the guidance of a Cuzco-based organization headed by Alejandro Argumedo, a Quechua activist.

Argumedo had been troubled by the patenting of Peruvian crops, a concept that is alien to the Quechua; they freely exchange knowledge between villages, rather than guarding their secrets from fellow Quechuas. The idea behind the park was to create a preserve where indigenous Quechua crops could be protected from commercialization by outsiders.

The maca case upsets the park's inhabitants; though maca is not cultivated within the park's boundaries, the elders of the communities refer to patents like Pure World's as a grave concern. On the walls of the main building, alongside photographs of farmers conducting religious rites in honor of the deity Pachamama, is a poster that depicts an eye-patched cartoon pirate, dreaming of an American dollar sign. He stands above a slogan inveighing against biopiratería.

"There are pirates who come in and rob us, not only of resources, but also knowledge," said Justino Yukra, one of the park's experts on agricultural techniques, speaking in the complex Quechua language, which I could only understand with the aid of two interpreters—one Quechua-to-Spanish, the other Spanish-to-English.

"We've organized to protect ourselves against people who are pirates, who come from other countries, who took yacon, ayahuasca, and maca. They pirated these resources, and they became the owners." (Yacon, a relative of the sunflower, intrigues food researchers because its sugars aren't metabolized by the human body.

Several yacon derivatives have been patented in Japan, and international critics have alleged that some of the Japanese research was conducted on seeds smuggled out of Peru.) The park has been planted with tubers whose germplasm, or core genetic materials, was formerly stored in Lima at an institution known as the International Potato Center, or CIP. The CIP was holding this material "in trust" for the human race, with the stipulation that it could never be patented.

But anti-biopiracy activists like Argumedo worry that the CIP's information is not detailed enough to preempt foreign patents. And they don't totally trust that the CIP's gene banks are secure: The smuggled seeds in the yacon case, for example, were allegedly stolen from the CIP.

The Quechua also harbor some ill will toward the CIP, stemming from the maca dispute. When a coalition of maca producers met in Lima in 2002, they pleaded with the CIP, whose gene banks include 31 varieties of maca, to challenge the American patent.

That challenge never materialized, and the Quechuas viewed that disappointment as yet more evidence that the mandarins of Lima care little for them. To create the Potato Park, Argumedo's group struck a deal with the CIP: Close to 450 varieties of tubers indigenous to the central Andes were removed from the CIP's gene bank, and the seeds were sent to the park.

The Quechua thus became the sole guardians of these genetic resources, able to decide who can have access to them. If a researcher wants to examine one of these tubers, he must obtain permission directly from the park's council.

Samples of these potatoes, many of which hadn't been cultivated in the region for years, now line the walls of the park's main building, and the Quechuas are eager to educate visitors as to each potato's unique properties.

There is the "daughter-in-law" potato, the bitter flesh of which is used to test whether a soon-to-be-bride is prone to crying; the "thief of hearts" potato, a purplish tuber renowned for its outward beauty; and a potato so sweet that it's only served at weddings and birthdays.

There is also a plot of land within the park where the Quechuas raise medicinal plants to produce traditional remedies, which are kept under lock and key at the park's pharmacy. The Quechuas have homemade concoctions that promise to cure everything from facial blotches to stomachaches to baldness.

There is even a medicine called macharisja that is prescribed to people suffering from too much fear—a Quechua version of Xanax. As we drank coca tea one afternoon, I asked Justino Yukra whether the park's residents foresee themselves selling their homemade drugs outside the park. He seemed puzzled by the question.

They will share them with other Quechua communities that can't afford Western medicines, he responded. But he did not seem to have considered the concept of sharing the formulas with a drug company, either Peruvian or American. The Quechuas realize, however, that their genetic resources are coveted by outsiders.

To protect themselves from biopirates, they purchased video cameras and put them in the hands of a trusted group of young women. The so-called Video Girl Collective is responsible for taping every aspect of the park's agricultural production in order to create a visual record of the Quechuas' knowledge.

If a foreign company were to claim that it had invented a particular variety of tuber or a certain medicine akin to macharisja, the park's leadership could offer the video footage as prior art. It is a similar strategy to that proposed by Law 27811, except much more detailed.

Since they control the cameras and the computers upon which the video is digitally stored, the Quechuas have no qualms about logging every little detail of their knowledge. There is no anxiety that a non-Quechuan government official in Lima will release the information, or that it will end up in a public database monitored by pharmaceutical researchers.

But if a patent dispute did arise, would an American patent examiner consider a Quechua video prior art? The park's leadership doesn't seem to have given this much thought. Nor can they do much to prevent a bioprospector from purchasing one of the park's tubers at a local market, then taking it back to the U.S. or Europe for analysis.

But for the 6,500 Quechuas who live within the confines of the park, defending themselves is preferable to putting their faith in the feeble laws of outsiders.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

When Apus are losing their White Ponchos

Environmental Dilemmas and Restoration Efforts in Peru

Inge Bolin

Global warming has reached the high Peruvian Andes. The glaciers are melting, putting the farmers at risk who are dependent on the flow of the rivers from the mountains. These are not the only environmental problems facing the people in the mountains, as the following report shows.

The inhabitants of the High Peruvian Andes look at their mountain peaks with concern. Within the last two decades, their Apus (mountain deities) have undergone an alarming change; a change of such dimension as they have never witnessed in their lifetimes. One elder expressed his fear by telling me “Our Apus have always had sparkling white ponchos. Now some of their ponchos have brown stripes; others have shed their ponchos altogether”. His fellow villagers nod in silence.

As early as 1985, the Peruvian geologist Dr. Carlos Kalofatovich was worried as he explained to me that the glacier Chicon above the Sacred Valley of the Incas had receded 60 meters in 50 years. Now melting proceeds at a faster rate.

The research of Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson, a senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University, shows that in the case of the glacier Qori Kalis in the Southern Andes Mountains the retreat has reached 155 meters per year within the last three years, which is three times faster than the rate measured between 1995 and 1998. (

Serious glacial retreat is happening in other parts of the world as well, but according to Dr. Thompson, the rate of retreat of glaciers is far faster along the spine of the Andes and the consequences are more significant than elsewhere. Glaciers in the tropics are very sensitive to small rises in temperature since they are very close to their melting points. Melting glaciers threaten the livelihood of many communities in the Andes because people depend to a large degree on the mountain glaciers for their water supply.

In 1984/85 during my research on the Organisation of Irrigation in the Vilcanota Valley of Peru, villages along the slopes above the Sacred Valley of the Incas, suffered from severe water shortage during the dry season. Following restoration of canals and reservoirs by Plan Meris II (cooperation between Peru and Germany’s Technical Cooperation - GTZ) in the province of Urubamba, the local people were happy to have plenty of water for several years. But within the last five years the peasant farmers again experience water shortage especially during the months from July to December when the land is prepared and crops are planted and start to grow.

The fact that water becomes increasingly scarcer also became evident during a recent excursion in June of 2001 to the snowy fields atop the Pumahuanca watershed, close to the Chicon glacier. Mariano, a school teacher who grew up in this relatively untouched wilderness, expressed deep concern about the receding and thinning glaciers, about the decreasing water level and the drying of high mountain lakes. Pointing to several brown peaks he explained that they were covered with perpetual snow when he was a child (about 30 years ago). At that time, he explained, “the vegetation at the foot of the peaks was high; now it is stunted and looks unhealthy”. The melting of glaciers is often accompanied by torrential rains, inundations and landslides.

River pollution

But the melting glaciers and disappearing snow fields throughout the Vilcanota Mountain Range that lead to increasing water scarcity and affect people, animals and plants, are not the only environmental problems along the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The Vilcanota River, which changes its name to the Urubamba River downstream from Yucay, carries less water than in previous years and the water it carries is so polluted that its animal and plant life has been greatly reduced and will disappear in the near future unless prompt action is taken. The polluted water also gives rise to parasitic and gastro-intestinal diseases that plague the poor people who depend on the river’s water for consumption and washing.

The Vilcanota/Urubamba river, called Wilkamayu or Sacred River by the Incas, takes its source in La Raya at a height of 5,362 meters. It is joined by many tributaries before it merges with the Ucayali River that brings its waters to the Amazon. The Incas made sure that this river, which was considered a reflection or counterpart of the Milky Way, was kept clean. This strictly enforced law pertained to other waterways or bodies of water as well. But today sewage and chemical residues from towns and villages along its course mix with the once so sacred waters and garbage accumulates along its shores. Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola disfigure the landscape as these products are advertised on any available space. Their empty plastic bottles are a disgrace to the once so sacred land and water.

But not everyone recognizes the present dilemma which points to an unsustainable future for this fragile mountain environment. There are plans to build an International Airport in Chincheros, situated within a high altitude rural region between Cusco and Urubamba. Much traffic would be seen between the airport and the Sacred Valley should this plan become reality. The plan further includes a train station in the small town of Urubamba to connect with Machu Picchu. Investors have already started to buy land along the Sacred Valley to build hotels. Some have plans for 5 star luxury hotels.

Can a fragile mountain environment cope with the additional stress of large-scale tourism? With mountain glaciers receding, the perpetual snow melting, and high mountain lakes running dry, peasants have enough problems trying to maintain their households and to irrigate their crops. Should luxury hotels use the scarce water, and contribute to the sewage and solid waste? Some decision makers lend a deaf ear and blind eye to the monumental problems that can arise when development is not well planned, and put a pristine environment and its people at risk.

Efforts towards solutions

Environmental protection, although not yet a reality in the Andes of Peru, is starting to become a deep concern for many Peruvians. Individuals, groups of concerned citizens, schools, etc. make efforts to instruct the population about environmental issues and sustainable development. Several of the efforts that were taken in the area between Cusco and Machu Picchu from the end of April until the beginning of June, 2001, are an indication of this growing concern

The International Workshop on Mountain Ecosystems held in Cusco from April 25 to 27, 2001, was a success. This conference, with the participation of experts from around the world, served to disseminate knowledge about environmental problems in mountain regions of the world and to prepare for the year 2002, declared by the General Assembly of the United Nations to be the “International Year of the Mountains”.

From May 15 to 18, 2001, university professors and students went on the “March of Sacrifice” walking for 1/2 days from the train station “Kilometro 88” to Machu Picchu to protest excessive development in this pristine region. From the train station of Aguas Calientes, some of us then walked up to the sanctuary on a steep but comfortable path. After the meeting in the center of Machu Picchu, we again walked down to Aguas Calientes to show that people of all ages can avoid the noisy buses that cause dangerous vibrations to the mountain slopes and pollute not only the mountain itself, harming the flora and chasing away the wildlife but also cause the Urubamba river to become extremely polluted as oil changes go straight into the river.

Brochures about a great variety of activities relating to environmental conservation, held in May and June, were distributed a month ahead of the central International Day of the Environment. This event was advertised on the radio in Cusco and other towns, stressing its importance. On June 5 the International Day of the Environment was celebrated with city authorities and environmental groups presiding. Preschools, schools with their ecological clubs, government agencies, etc. participated in the parades that lasted much of the day. Participants of all ages and from all walks of life expressed their thoughts in speeches and on posters about issues such as the conservation of land and water, of forests, indigenous plants, biodiversity, animals, health and indigenous cultures whose knowledge is indispensable to the restoration of the environment.Many groups expressed their concern about the high concentration of carbon monoxide in the city of Cusco, which stems primarily from the old cars brought to Peru from wealthier countries and is also due to the cheap fuel used. City residents suffer from health problems such as respiratory diseases, mainly asthma, and eye problems. The exquisite Inca stones of Cusco are also affected and are starting to disintegrate .

June 6 was dedicated to the cleaning of the Vilcanota/Urubamba River. School children were hard at work in the hope that eventually this river will again become Wilkamayo - the Sacred River of the Incas.The municipal councils have passed laws that prohibit contamination of the river and are busy finding solutions to the problems at hand. Other incentives to convey the importance of environmental protection come from theatre and music groups that focus on the honor that is due to Pachamama, the Earth Mother; the Apus, and all features of nature.

The spirit of environmental conservation is awakening in the Peruvian Andes. But to put ideas into action is difficult in a poverty-stricken country where budgets often do not allow for the purchase of garbage cans and the development of efficient recycling programs. Most of the money earned from Tourism goes to Lima and abroad and is thus not available for the protection of the environment and the restoration of the damage done.

Tourism is important for Peru but must be culturally and environmentally sustainable. The municipal council of Urubamba and neighboring municipalities know that the unfortunate process of global warming must not be aggravated by further careless human actions. Thus, to preserve the Vilcanota Range along the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which is one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world, a plan has been developed to declare this pristine region a Reserve. This would make the conservation of the precious water and land, of the great diversity of plants and animals and of the culture and knowledge of the mountain people much more likely than a plan that allows big-time investors to build luxury hotels and use the water and other resources the herders and farmers need so desperately for their subsistence and survival. But the costs involved in creating a Reserve are too high for the local population to assume, since most of the money tourists spend between Cusco and Machu Picchu is not available for development.

Ecotourism is a better alternative, since it leaves more money in the region and causes only soft footprints. Tourists are encouraged to live in the homes of local people where they can experience their unique culture and life style. Arrangements of this type have long been in place, e.g. on the island of Taquile, and recently began on the island of Amantani in Lake Titicaca, where my students had experiences they will always treasure. But most importantly, this kind of living arrangement gives much needed income to the poor local population.

Let us hope that the “developed” world will spare the sacred Apus from shedding more of their white ponchos endangering the livelihood of many Andean people and instead will assist in putting local incentives for conservation and restoration to work.

Dr. Inge Bolin teaches anthropology at Malaspina University College in Namaimo, Canada. She has done research and applied work in the jungles and highlands of Peru for the last 19 years.