Monday, April 21, 2008

Peruvian herders feeling the heat

I traveled to the Peruvian Andes in the summer of 2007, returning to a region which for decades has been the subject of my research as an anthropologist. I was eager to visit the glaciers that were shrinking as a consequence of climate change and to learn of the responses of the people who lived near them.

My trip began in Lima, the capital city on the Pacific Coast, where I heard of great concerns that water supplies—always scarce in this arid region—might dwindle further in coming decades. Several people mentioned that Lima was the second largest desert city in the world; only Cairo has more inhabitants. I was surprised by this comparison, one that I had never heard before, and took it as a sign of how dramatically climate change can alter the ways that people think of their countries. Government agencies prepared adaptation plans to respond to this threat of drought. They proposed increasing the efficiency of water use, tapping the water resources of Peru’s eastern Amazonian regions or desalinizing ocean water and sought funding from international banks and overseas development funds to support these projects.

The word “adaptation” had clearly spread widely in Peru, carried by the international agreements, particularly the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Peru signed in 1992, and the Kyoto Protocol, which it joined in 1998.Used to describe climate change, the word “adaptation” means in Lima what it means elsewhere in the world. The IPCC—the organization which sits at the center of these discussions of climate change--states “Adaptation to climate change refers to adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.” The word “adaptation” facilitated conversations in Lima. The risk of drought in Peru was not just a local problem, but rather an example of an “effect” of “actual or expected climatic stimuli.” It could be compared with other effects and summed with them. These effects, though serious, could be managed “adjustments” that could “moderate harm,” since there are rational criteria would allow the selection among different possible adjustments. It would be expensive to construct new dams to tap distant watersheds, but that solution, at present, would be cheaper than desalinizing sea water, and hence the preferred adaptation.

My trip continued with a short flight to the interior city of Cusco, once the seat of the Inca Empire and now the capital of a department, and with a ride down a highway to the small town of Sicuani at 3550 meters above sea level, located in a deep valley on the banks of the Vilcanota River. The indigenous farmers in this region speak both Spanish and Quechua, the language of the Incas that continues to the present. They mentioned many recent changes. Some villagers had experimented and discovered that maize now could be cultivated at the higher end of the valley, where the weather had formerly been too cold for this crop—perhaps one of the “beneficial opportunities” that the IPCC mentioned. But most spoke of concerns: the arrival of a previously unknown pest (a caterpillar that attacks the potatoes stored after harvest), the disappearance of a shrub whose yellow flowers were valued for their beauty and for their use in folk remedies, and, above all, the drying up of streams that used to carry water, even in the driest months. Some non-governmental organizations proposed adaptation programs to “moderate” at least one of these “harms,” bringing small-scale irrigation technology to provide additional water, but they were concerned that adaptation funds would be spent primarily in the wealthy and powerful coastal regions of Peru. For the farmers, the multiple, disparate impacts created a distressing concern of irreversible change, to which “adjustment” would be difficult, if not impossible.

From Sicuani, I headed up the side of the valley on a dirt road and continued for hours, until I reached the village of Phinaya, a cluster of adobe huts at 4600 meters above sea level, close to one of the principal crests of the Andes. A number of glacier-covered peaks rose above the dry grasslands, and a long white ridge that marked the edge of an ice-cap over 40 square kilometers in area. Narrow tracks fanned out from Phinaya; scattered along them were small clusters of stone houses and corrals, where Quechua-speaking herders keep their flocks of alpacas, animals that were domesticated over five thousand years ago in the Andes. During the rainy season that runs from November through March, many plants provide fodder for these animals, but during the dry season, the time of my visit, the herds concentrate along streams and in marshes, the only areas that remain green at this time.

The herders spoke directly of their concerns. Rit’i pisiyamun, they said again and again, in Quechua, the ice is diminishing, and they indicated wayq’o, crevasses, and t’oqo, moulins, new features that were appearing on the formerly solid surfaces of glaciers themselves. They pointed out areas, covered until recently by glaciers, that were now dry, sandy wastes, the source of dust that turned the lower reaches of glaciers dark, yana, and accelerated their melting. They took me to a stream that used to flow all year long but now, drawing only on smaller glaciers, was reduced in the dry season to a series of stagnant pools that warmed in the sun, breeding parasites that infected their herds. They showed me the remnants of former pastures, now entirely dry, and expressed their fear that their herds would grow thin, suffer and die; their life will come to an end, tukurapunqa. The mountain spirits, apus, are said to speak to one another, especially on 1 August, an important date in the local ritual calendar; now, one man told me, they weep.

Is adaptation--an adjustment in natural or human systems which moderates harm—possible in this case, as it seems to be, at least partially, for some other, more prosperous, regions of Peru and for other countries? For the herders, the adjustment of individuals and households was not difficult. The herders recognized that if one family’s pasture dried up, the family members could move to other areas, either to herd alpacas or to take up other work; they could return to Phinaya to visit relatives, especially at the time of village festivals. But their concerns lay elsewhere. I took careful notes of my conversations with the herders, and reviewed them to see the social and spatial scale at which the herders spoke of the consequences of glacier retreat. None of them spoke only of households; a couple of them spoke of Phinaya, most spoke of Phinaya and neighboring villages of herders, and one mentioned all of highland Peru. It was the end of the community that troubled them. This harm—to people, to animals, to mountain spirits—was not one that could be moderated.

A group of researchers, led by Prof. Christian Hüggel of the Geography Department at the University of Zürich, has developed models of stream flow in the glaciated mountains in Phinaya and the surrounding districts. Their research shows that water levels have now fallen to just above half of what they were in the early 1960s, and are projected to be only one-tenth of that earlier level by 2050. By that point, the dry season pastures will be just a small fraction of their already-reduced extent. In one sense, the herders will adapt. Though they may face poorer health and higher mortality, as conditions worsen, they will not simply sit, watch their animals starve, and then starve themselves; rather, they will migrate more, and have fewer relatives to visit. But in another sense—the sense in which the herders themselves speak--they will not adapt. Individuals will live, but entire communities, a valued culture, will disappear. The scattered houses clusters will remain as empty walls, a testament of a life that has indeed come to an end.

(photos by Chris Small)