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.

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