Inequality, Climate Change and Vulnerability in Peru

Agriculture is the most affected activity by hydrological changes (Source: Musuq/Flickr).

Local communities in the Andes are dependent on water resources from glaciers and precipitation for their agricultural activities. Unfortunately, climate change has made these mountain populations highly vulnerable to alterations in the hydrological cycle. A recent study by Anna Heikkinen of the vulnerability of small-scale farmers in Ancash, Peru, suggests that climate change is just one of several factors placing pressure on farmers; rather, a collection of socio-political and economic factors are the main cause of vulnerability.

The research, published in the Iberoamericana – Nordic Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, measured the vulnerability to climate and hydrological changes of local communities along the Quillcay River basin, situated in the city of Huaraz in northern Peru. The river originates in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range, which preserves the largest reserve of tropical glaciers in the world. Meltwater from glaciers is a major source of water for the communities located throughout the region. Additionally, as indicated in the study, rain contributes to the river watershed during the rainy season, which starts in October and ends in March.

The author investigated the relationship between glacier retreat, changes in rainfall patterns, and socio-economic elements on vulnerability in the region. For the research, she used mixed methods: a qualitative and a quantitative assessment. For the qualitative aspect, the researcher interviewed local authorities and 16 small-scale farmers about their perceptions of climate change and external supports. For the quantitative part, she analyzed statistical data of harvested areas, the value of agricultural products, and the growth rate of local population. The results of the quantitative method were then compared to the qualitative findings to endorse the results from the qualitative evaluation.

According to the research, water in the river has diminished as a result of a shorter rainy period and reduced glacier melt. Moreover, during the wet season, there are heavy and less continuous rains than what was observed decades ago. These findings were further supported by Junior Gil Rios, a water resource management specialist at the Peruvian National Superintendence of Sanitation Services, who told GlacierHub that it has been estimated that the rainy season has been reduced from six to three months, running from December to February.

“This does not indicate that it rains less,” he said. “The precipitation intensity has increased.”

The Valley of Quebrada Cojup in Huaraz. Several of the mountains that surround the valley have already lost their snowpack (Source: Anna Heikkinen).

Rural populations are highly vulnerable to these alterations in rainfall patterns and changes in the water level of the Quillcay river due to glacier melting because the main economic activities of these communities are small-scale agriculture and cattle production. As access to potable and irrigation water is limited, crops are impacted and income levels have fallen.

Javier Antiporta, a researcher at the regional NGO CONDESAN, told GlacierHub that local residents in the Quillcay river basin rely on glaciers as a main source of water. The accelerated glacier retreat and water scarcity represents a danger for the communities. In addition, variations in precipitation patterns have changed the crop seasons and reduced the agricultural area.

However, Heikkinen, the author of the study, told GlacierHub that climate change itself does not make these populations vulnerable, as it is often claimed.

“The vulnerability of population in the Quillcay River Basin has existed long before,” she said, noting other factors such as historical marginalization, transformations in political-economic structures, and globalized market forces.

The research points out that government officials, who were interviewed for the study, consider major socio-economic issues like education, technical agricultural knowledge, lack of political entitlement, and other problems as leading contributors to vulnerability and development.

“In the rural highland regions access to education, health care or social services is often limited, and therefore, rates of school attendance are low and illiteracy, malnutrition or infant and maternal mortality high,” Heikkinen explained. “Poverty levels in the rural highland regions are also relatively higher than elsewhere in Peru. People who already live in deprivation, not having the economic assets or other capacities to adapt, are the ones who are the most vulnerable to climatic changes.”

The majority of the population in the Quillcay River Basin are native Quechua speakers. Their main economic activity is small-scale agriculture (Source: Anna Heikkinen).

She further indicated that for smallholders in the rural highlands, it has become difficult to compete with the large-scale farming industry. Smallholders produce fewer crops and have higher production prices, higher transportation costs, more challenging climate circumstances, less access to modern irrigation technologies, and less knowledge in modern seeding techniques, for example.

“The challenges posed by climatic changes only make their situation worse,” Heikkinen said. “The options for other sources of income for highland farmers are very limited considering the long traditions of small-scale farming and limited access to education to be trained for other professions.”

The study revealed that in order to adapt to these changes, locals are seeking alternative livelihoods, constructing canals and irrigation systems, and diversifying their crops. Educated populations have the strongest adaptation capacities to climate changes, but the majority of the locals do not have access to education. To sustainably eliminate vulnerability, policies should aim for structural changes to reduce the inequalities between rural highland residents and other sectors. For example, policies should provide equal opportunities for political representation, promote greater autonomy in decision-making, improve infrastructure, and give fuller access to agricultural markets.

“These kinds of policies would create more possibilities for local people to be able to influence development, such as building roads, bridges, water management systems and schools of the region, and most importantly to have more equal opportunity to receive income and accumulate assets in order to to build capacities themselves to mitigate vulnerabilities as glaciers retreat,” Heikkinen said. The most important adaptation measure would be to transform the current social, political and economic structures to promote sustainable development to reduce the vulnerability of Andean local communities to climate change.

Earthquake in Peru Creates Fear of Glacier Floods

An earthquake in Peru earlier this year produced significant ground shaking in highland regions of the country. It set off a wave of panic that glacial lakes in the Andes might burst their banks and create devastating floods.

Residents of Chimbote in the street immediately after the earthquake (source: Bolognesi Noticias/Twitter)
Residents of Chimbote in the street immediately after the earthquake (source: Bolognesi Noticias/Twitter).

The quake, of magnitude 5.3 on the Richter scale, took place at 1:42am local time on January 28. As reported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, its epicenter was located under the Pacific Ocean, about 55 kilometers from the port of Chimbote in the region of Ancash, where the shaking was most instance. It was felt up and down the coast, as far north as Trujillo and as far south as Lima. The tremors also extended inland.

This earthquake was the first of a cluster. The second occurred five hours later in the town of Ica to the south of Chimbote. The third took place two hours after that, near Arequipa, still further to the south. These were smaller—4.7 and 4.4, respectively—but close enough in time to create a stir in the media, with extensive coverage all day long in national media. Moreover, Peru had experienced mudslides and debris flows in the months before the earthquake, adding to the sense of concern.

The first earthquake was a source of great concern in the highland areas closest to Chimbote, particularly in the Callejón de Huaylas—the long valley along the Santa River, just below the Cordillera Blanca, the mountain chain which contains the largest area of glaciers in Peru. The regional capital of Huaraz and several other sizable towns are located in this valley, which has experienced a number of destructive glacier lake outburst floods. Christian Huggel, a Swiss glaciologist who was working in the area at the time, wrote, “We felt the earthquake here in Huaraz during the night.” He added, “I did not see any damage in the morning, so everything seems to be okay around here.”

Map of the Chimbote earthquake (source: USGS)
Map of the Chimbote earthquake (source: USGS).

Benjamin Morales, the director of Peru’s National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, told GlacierHub that “the heavy rainfall and landslides in central and southern regions [of Peru]” added to the concern following the earthquakes, sensitizing the whole country to the risk of natural hazards even though risks were not as severe in Ancash and north of the country, where, he said, “rainfall is lower.”

Tony Oliver-Smith, an anthropologist at the University of Florida with extensive experience in the region, indicated to GlacierHub that the timing of the events, in the middle of the rainy season, was significant. He wrote, “Those of us who have worked in the Callejon de Huaylas are always alert to the effects of earthquakes and landslides, particularly in the rainy season,” when soils are moist, and more likely to erode.

The greatest fear was in Carhuaz, a provincial capital to the north of Huaraz. It lies near Huascaran, the tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, and the site of one of the world’s largest glacier lake outburst floods in 1970. This event, triggered by an earthquake, led to a debris flow which covered the town of Yungay, with about 6,000 fatalities.

Street in Carhuaz (source: Punki/Flickr)
Street in Carhuaz (source: Punki/Flickr)

A series of smaller aftershocks which followed the main earthquake kept the tensions high in Carhuaz. A Peruvian newspaper, Primera Página, reported that people were concerned that “blocks of ice would detach from glaciers and fall into the lake.” The resulting waves could overtop the rock walls that rim the lake and create a flood.

The residents of Carhuaz were also aware that the town had become more vulnerable to floods. A few months earlier, villagers had vandalized equipment that had been installed at a high mountain lake, called Laguna 513, directly above the town. The instruments, brought to the region at significant expense, were designed to provide warnings if the lake destabilized and threatened to flood the settlements below. As Morales, Huggel and other sources told GlacierHub, the reasons for this destruction are still not clear; they could have involved distrust of foreigners involved in the project, or beliefs that local spirits were offended by the equipment, or simply rivalry between different political factions.

A recent video offers testimony to the damage at the site:

Whatever the precise motivation of the people who attacked the warning system, the timing of the earthquake, coming soon after it was disabled, added to the concern. Primera Página reported that people felt “unprotected.” Cesar Portocarrero, a Peruvian glaciologist who lives and works in the region, wrote to GlacierHub, “In Carhuaz they felt the shaking and of course they immediately thought about the lake where the early warning system had been completely destroyed. It is very sad that the instruments were taken away.”

In the weeks after the earthquake, the aftershocks abated and concerns diminished. Patricia Hammer, an anthropologist who lives outside Carhuaz, wrote to GlacierHub in February of the “tremor,” saying that it left “little impact here in the highlands.” Nonetheless, the region remains vulnerable to earthquakes and floods. The challenges in establishing locally acceptable warning systems make these risks even greater.

An Interview with Mattias Borg, Author of Andean Waterways

The Danish anthropologist Mattias Borg Rasmussen has recently published a book, Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in Highland Peru (University of Washington Press, 2015), which addresses the economic, political, social and culture dynamics of a community that is facing glacier retreat and water scarcity.

The book shows how environmental change and institutional politics are intertwined in struggles over water. It presents vivid descriptions of daily life in the provincial municipality of Recuay  in the highlands of Ancash in northern Peru. It links these descriptions with a richly textured account of the village’s history and shows how water is always the site of intense political, economic and social struggles.

In this context of climate change, the book explores how the inhabitants of an Andean town manage fickle waterways, lobby an unresponsive central government, and adjust to receding glaciers and capricious rains. The villagers create, maintain and defend the flows of water that are essential to their livelihoods. And through these efforts, the villagers confront both climate change and rural abandonment, and navigate the possibilities and restraints that influence life in the high mountains. A short video presents additional information about the book. 

Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)
Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: What led you to select Recuay as the site of your research?

MBR: Late in 2008, I began thinking about doing field work, and in the summer of 2009 I joined  the Waterworlds project, headed by Kirsten Hastrup, at the University of Copenhagen, where I found a supportive group of colleagues. I was looking for a place with glaciers and due to my background working in Peru I wanted it to take place there. I was more familiar with the eastern lowlands of Peru, and I was curious to learn more about the highlands. I began searching the internet and came across a document which intrigued me. It was a signed declaration by peasant organizations and other groups. It included a statement which directly linked climate change to ‘irresponsible’ government policies. They were talking about an imminent future of water scarcity, about the uneven distribution of causes and effects, and about their own moral obligation to act against this knowledge that they have due to their prolonged settlement in the area. That document led me to Recuay.

 

GH: What was one of the biggest surprises that occurred to you during your fieldwork?

MBR: Initially, the document which had drawn me to the area turned out to be of no relevance as I followed the peasants in their everyday efforts to obtain water. Before I left for the field, I had spent a great deal of time thinking about cosmologies and worldviews. In other parts of the world, peasant farmers think of sentient beings—you could call them spirits, or local deities—who play a critical role in assuring flows of water. I was expecting characters or agents pertaining to the non-human world to be central to the question of water. But I found that concepts belonging to the bureaucratic ordering of water to be of much larger importance. This became central in my work, and the book has a lot to say about the ways in which the peasants try to engage in different kinds of state bureaucracies in order to secure their water. In these encounters, climate change may be used to frame or contextualize the claim to water, but the sites of struggles are always between different kinds of institutions who may secure water rights by defining proper uses and users. In the final chapter I describe how the document I had found on the internet suddenly became of relevance, as peasant communities in this region mobilized against a proposed mining installation in the headwaters of the Río Santa, the main river in the valley. Suddenly, the links between an uneven global political economy of minerals and pollution became entangled with local livelihoods and water in a very specific way.

 

Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: Your fieldwork took place where the world’s largest area of tropical glaciers is found, and where these glaciers are melting rapidly. Do you think that the concept of “climate change” has relevance to the communities that you lived in?

MBR: The short answer to that is yes. Climate change is unquestionably  visible through the receding glaciers, and it is something which is felt on directly on the human bodies as temperatures become more intense, rains fall differently and winds shift direction. The local farmers talk about their children getting bronchitis, their animals dying, species such as particular amphibians and insects disappearing and the glaciers vanishing. But climate change is not the lens through which you can understand all things going on there. While it has relevance, it is not all encompassing. That is why I am a little bit cautious about using notions such as adaptation, which seem to establish a direct relationship between an ‘action’ and a ‘phenomenon’. By a play of words, I write that rather than adaptation to climate change I am more interested in how climate change is adopted to human lives – that is, how the changes that I describe above are made meaningful, talked about and acted upon. That shifts the center of the analysis. But yes, climate change is definitely part of the local vocabulary and shaping local realities in ways that are astonishing.

 

Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Did your experience in Recuay give you optimism for the future, pessimism, or a bit of both? In what ways?

MBR: I must admit that I feel mostly pessimism. First of all, the people whose lives and struggles I describe here lead hard and troubled lives. Many of them feel somewhat caught in a limbo between the rural and the urban, a want for progress but a sense of haven been left behind. This is not a very attracting place for international donors and, as I describe in the book, the communities do not exactly feel well catered by state institutions. On top of this comes the sense of urgency introduced by climate change in a material sense of places with less water. But more importantly, it brings forward images of a brutal future and possibly – especially in Christian interpretations – the end of the World. This is the Apocalypse and people fear for their children and grandchildren. The Ancash regional government  has had a relatively large budget (it receives payments from local mines), but in spite of some investment in the irrigation sector, the needs far exceed the payments that come to support irrigation. In the last year or two, the revenues are shrinking, since prices for minerals have been falling, so the public coffers are emptying. The Ancash region and Peru as a whole are facing the challenge of creating institutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on water availability in an effective, fair manner. So far, the experience in Recuay and the region shows that there is a long way to go.

 

Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Having completed your research, and having written this book, you are now moving forward with other projects. How has your experience in Recuay shaped your current focus?

MBR: I have continued working in the area, but have shifted my site a little bit towards the south where there is a much larger peasant community (comunidad campesina). I have become increasingly interested in the role of these social organizations in conflicts over the use of resources – and actually, the very definition of what constitutes an element of the environment as a resource. The work in Recuay showed how water is subject to struggles between different kinds of institutions which claim authority over its use. By moving to a larger and historically more consolidated comunidad campesina I have been able to examine further the importance of these collectively owned productive enterprises – which number around 6000 across the Peruvian highland – in the struggle for the control over resources in relation to state agencies, in this case particularly a national park as well as local municipalities.

To order Andean Waterways at a 30% discount, call Hopkins Fulfillment Service at 1-800-537-5487.

When placing your order, have ready the book title and author, credit card and the address to which you want the book shipped, along with the discount code WST30.

 

Photo Friday: Highland communities in Ancash, Peru

Anthropologist Kate Dunbar wrote her dissertation on highland communities in Peru’s Ancash region. The glaciers in this area are important sources of drinking and irrigation water for these villages as well as myriad downstream users.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

[slideshow_deploy id=’857′]