Traces of tourism at the Peru glacier are more than footprints

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It’s not a landfill, but Peru’s Huascarán National Park. (photo: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca has gone through many different cycles. In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, in was a prime spot for tourism. Easily accessible in spite of its altitude above 5,000 meters, groups of skiers, backpackers, and high school spring breakers flocked to the icefields. In 2001, the glacier at Pastoruri gained nationwide attention when the peasant community, claiming ownership of the surrounding territories, seized control over the national park entrance. And this year, as it has been explained elsewhere on GlacierHub, whatever’s left of the dwindling glacier became central to the Huascarán National Park’s Route of Climate Change initiative. Anyone traveling here can see the newest cycle, one not dominated by people but of their trash.

We leave early from the community headquarters. Our vehicle is the community truck, which on other occasions may be used as transportation for people, animals, heavy gear, tools, and construction materials. But on this day its wooden truck body is destined to carry the leftovers from tourists: plastic bottles, napkins, candy-bar wrappings, banana peels, and all sorts of unimaginable stuff that was only of temporary use to the visitors.

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Collection of garbage near the Pastoruri glacier and roads occurs about once a week. (photo: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

The presence of garbage, the plastic bags used by people to slide down the glacier, and the general wear and tear of the ice by the visitors combined with the global warming trends to produce heavy retreat of the Pastoruri glacier. It is no longer permitted to step onto the glacier as it once was. Even though tourism has been mostly reduced since its heydays some thirty years ago, tourists still bring items of plastic and other non-recyclable materials to the altitudes. Part of the compromise that followed the legal settlement between the Catac peasant community and the Huascarán National Park is the maintenance of the touristic services at Pastoruri. Central to this is the collection of garbage at the site and along the road. Ideally, this happens once every week.

After a short stop at the community petrol station we follow the paved road for a few miles before reaching the junction, where the dirt road will gradually ascend towards Pastoruri. The old truck struggles a bit, but moves steady as we climb. We pick up another man who will help us on the way. He makes his living here in the altitudes herding animals, making cheese, and combining these activities with salaried labor in the main town.

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Peru’s Cordillera Blanca has been a popular tourist spot since the 1980s. (photo: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

After a two hour drive we reach the desolate parking lot at Pastoruri. We have come before the tourists will arrive. Outside the main tourism days round Easter and on Peru’s July 28 national holiday, only two or three minibuses with tourists will come here each day. After a brief talk with the locals staying here who make a living by providing services and food for the visitors, we begin our task. One by one, the old oil barrels now serving as garbage bins are emptied onto the truck. Some of the barrels seem to have been here for as long as tourists have come, leaking questionable juices from the rusty bottoms.

We then descend, making stops by tourist sites along the way: the ancient cave paintings, Pumapashimin lake, Pumapampa mountain, and the park entrance at Carpa. On our way we pick up a few people, filling up the last spots in our vehicle. One last passenger jumps into the truck body, but this is preferable to the long walk to the town.

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Peasant communities and the government of Peru have been in a legal dispute over who owns the area. (photo: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

Back in Catac we have ascend once more, as the winding dirt road leads us past the old headquarters of the large estate whose owners, before the agrarian reforms, used to claim ownership over land and people. The truck drives past cultivated fields of cereals and potatoes before we reach our final destination. And thus, with a view to some of the most iconic peaks in the Andes ends the journey of touristic trash, tying the vanishing glaciers to flows of goods and people.

This guest post was written by Danish anthropologist Mattias Borg Rasmussen.  If you’d like to write a guest post for GlacierHub, contact us at glacierhub@gmail.com or @glacierhub on Twitter. 

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