A Minority of Peruvian Mountain Farmers Benefit From Government Pandemic Programs

The Covid-19 pandemic created a great threat for rose growers in the Peruvian valley of the Callejón de Huaylas in the region of Ancash. Glacier meltwater from the Cordillera Blanca supports irrigation systems in this valley, permitting a long growing season for roses as well as a number of food crops. A rapid response of the government brought relief to some of the growers, principally the larger ones, with greater investments and stronger ties to government agencies and national banks. The smaller growers, whose economic and social ties are centered on local communities, were unable to benefit. 

In late April, the agricultural enterprises in this region and throughout Peru that grow flowers for sale for the domestic and international markets faced what they termed a “terrible crisis” and a “catastrophic” situation. The Covid-19 pandemic menaced Peru, and the numerous deaths in neighboring Ecuador made the risks evident. On 15 March, the president, Martin Vizcarra, announced a quarantine of 15 days, which has since been extended to 24 May, though with the lifting of some restrictions in the regions which are less affected.

Roses from highland Peru, prepared for market (Source: SENASA)

Sales on Mother’s Day—celebrated in Peru on the second Sunday in May, as in the United States, the country where the holiday originated—account for half of the business of Peru’s flower growers, so the prospect of losing this portion of the business created deep concern. The losses could total 20,000 tons of flowers, worth 15 million Peruvian soles, or 4.4 million US dollars. The domestic market is particularly important at present, because flower exports from Peru fell by more than two-thirds in March. María Teresa Oré, a sociologist specializing in water governance at the Catholic University of Peru, told GlacierHub that flower production in Peru has two major sectors, with large-scale export enterprises oriented towards the international market centered on the desert coast, and small- and medium-scale enterprises, largely oriented towards the national market, in the highlands. She added that the highland production is more sustainable because it draws irrigation water from surface sources rather than from  overexploited groundwater basins on which coastal growers depend/

On Friday 1 May, Jorge Montenegro, the Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation in Peru, announced a formal resolution, which lifted the restrictions on travel and commerce for the production, transport and sale of flowers and ornamental plants. The resolution declares these activities to be “essential” to the nation. It emphasized that this measure favors “small producers,” many of them “family enterprises.” He noted that flower production is an “activity which generates permanent employment in rural areas.” 

Government extension agent inspecting rose bushes in Ancash (Source: SENASA)

This announcement, presented in advance of Mother’s Day Sunday 10 May, contains a number of limits. It applies only to formal enterprises, registered with the government, and the retail sale is restricted to home delivery. It specifically excludes street vendors (ambulantes) from participation in sales, and indicates that the strict sanitary guidelines had to be followed at all stages from flower production to final delivery. 

The government stated that these steps would protect producers and consumers from the threat of infection. However, these steps also favor the larger producers (60 percent of the highland flower growers are informal enterprises), and many flower distributors are unable to provide home delivery. Montenegro estimated that this measure would allow about 3,000 of Peru’s flower growers—a bit under 30 percent of the country’s growers, over 10,000 in number—to sell their products.

Roses have been the most popular flower for Mother’s Day in Peru since the expansion of the holiday in Peru in the 1920s, though others, including gladioli, are also widely appreciated. The cultivation of roses has been expanding in areas irrigated by glacier meltwater, including the provinces of Huaraz and Carhuaz in Ancash, where a number of the high peaks of the Cordillera Blanca are located. This loss of Mother’s Day sales impacted them severely. 

The flower sector in Peru anticipated a quick recovery following the government declaration. The wholesale market in Lima showed increased levels of activity on Tuesday 5 May, Wednesday 6 May and Thursday 7 May, with purchasers from regional towns throughout Peru coming to purchase supplies, which they brought back for sale in advance of Mother’s Day Sunday 10 May. There were some reports of sales of roses throughout the country, including in Juliaca, a major town in the altiplano near the Bolivian border, and Tacna, a coastal town near Chile, on 9 May. Oré told GlacierHub that sales were much reduced in Lima. She added that she had spoken with Juan Guarniz, a lawyer for the National League of Irrigation Districts, He told her that “despite the resolution which permitted the sale of flowers,”  the small rose growers in Ancash “faced large losses” because “the demand in cities was minimal.” This limited demand could reflect the economic downturn in Peru because of the pandemic, and the high cost of home-delivered flowers.

A rose farmer in Ancash explains the rose cultivation process (Source: MIDIS Foncodes)

Roses were scarce, though not entirely absent, in Huaraz. Jesůs Gómez López, the director of glacier research at INAIGEM, an environmental institute in Huaraz, told GlacierHub that he saw no roses or other flowers being sold, or given as gifts, in Huaraz for Mother’s Day. He explained, “The movement of goods between provinces is restricted in the whole country. Only the transport of foodstuffs is allowed.” Ana Marlene Rosario, an environmental engineer in Huaraz, told GlacierHub that she and her family missed having roses on Mother’s Day. She added that her sister saw some roses at the main market, though in much smaller quantity than in previous years; they were only available for home delivery, at higher prices than usual. 

An account in the Peruvian press explained how the government-authorized sale of flowers played out for rose growers in the Callejón de Huaylas. The ones who took part, located in the communities of Wiñac, Copa Grande y Wiash in the district of Marcará, were all participants in a government program, Haku Wiñay, which in turn is sponsored by a government agency, FONCODES, the Cooperative Fund for Social Development. Though this project was designed to lift rural families from poverty and extreme poverty by instilling a spirit of entrepreneurship, the program for rose growers has a number of barriers to entry, which fall heavily on the poorest households. The application process for acceptance, for example, requires the presentation of a competitive business plan that required significant skills in Spanish and budgeting. The benefits of the program are distributed unevenly as well, giving the participating farmers, though not their workers, access to loans for greenhouse construction and to technical training. Though the successful farms expand local wage employment, they retain a large share of the profits, exacerbating inequality within the communities. 

The town of Marcará (Source: Angel Camor/Flickr)

When the resolution on 1 May created opportunities to market roses from Ancash in Lima, these larger growers possessed a number of advantages over smaller growers, beyond simple economies of scale, or higher-quality roses, which allowed them to take advantage of this opening. They could more readily document the status as a formal enterprise. They had capital reserves to supply their workers with the masks, gloves and hand sanitizer that were required to meet the stringent sanitary standards. Their contacts with FONCODES staff, including an agronomist in Marcará and an economist in Huaraz, could provide them with advice and support as well. Though their sales to Lima for Mother’s Day  increased revenue to Ancash, and expanded wages for many in early May, this windfall for the largest entrepreneurial farmers in these communities does not match with FONCODES’ stated orientation towards creating employment for the poor and the extremely poor employment, or with the declared emphasis on “small producers.” 

Oré explained to GlacierHub that this inequality builds on a long history of government policies in Peru which favor large-scale capitalized agricultural enterprises, despite the important contributions of small farms to food security and livelihoods. She noted the efforts in recent years of the National League of Irrigation Districts and the Peruvian National Agricultural Convention to achieve greater access to credit for small farms, as well as changes in trade and water policies that would distribute benefits more evenly. 

Barbara Fraser, a Lima-based journalist with long experience in Peru, described similar effects of government policies during the pandemic in Matucana, a small highland district close to Lima, where glacial meltwater, from Pariacaca, also contributes to streamflow and irrigation supplies. She writes:

“I’ve been watching how my organic farming friends up near Matucana have been dealing with it [the pandemic]. They are small producers – they were basically subsistence farmers when I met them about 20 years ago – and they seem to be successfully shifting to home delivery. It wasn’t easy, though – they can only bring products to the edge of the city in their truck, so they needed to team up with someone who had a car and a permit to drive in Metropolitan Lima during the lockdown. They managed – they found a relative, or a relative of a friend, or a friend of a relative, I can’t remember which – and are now taking orders by WhatsApp, making home deliveries and taking payments by bank transfer to the daughter’s account.” 

In both this case and the rose growers in Ancash, these products reach households of middle to high incomes in Lima, whether those who are willing to pay a premium for local organic produce, or those who can afford home delivery of roses from established flower shops, more expensive than the local open-air markets. In this way, the regulations favor wealthier consumers, much as they support larger, more capitalized producers.  

Fraser offered more general thoughts as well.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a harsh light on the disadvantages faced by small agricultural producers, especially in transporting their products to market. It has been easier for large vehicles to get permits to travel to Lima, and small farmers, who rely on smaller vehicles, have had trouble getting their products from the fields to urban markets. Home delivery adds another hurdle, because trucks generally can only travel as far as wholesale markets, so growers must link up with drivers who have smaller vehicles and permits to drive in Lima during the lockdown.”

Martin Scurrah, a sociologist based in Lima, with extensive NGO experience, addressed these issues from a policy perspective. In an email exchange, he told GlacierHub, “the rules governing the procedures to be followed by companies as they resume operating are heavily weighted towards protecting the workers and consumers from possible contagion and for promoting permanent employment with formal contracts, rather than the gig economy.” The rules governing flowers parallel those for foodstuffs, he noted, and added that these new rules build on earlier restrictions on the informal economy, citing the management of public markets as an example. 

Scurrah offered a look forward:

“This is clearly positive from the perspective of defending workers’ and consumers’ rights. However, [the rules] will probably involve increased costs and more complex work procedures, which the larger, more formal enterprises will be in a better condition to undertake, possibly squeezing out the smaller, informal operators. There is clearly a trade-off here between promoting a formal economy with greater protection for rights versus an informal economy generating more employment and less concentrated wealth and income.” 

Ancash farmers prepare a bouquet of freshly harvested roses (Source: MIDIS Foncodes)

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to take a heavy toll in Peru, particularly in the coast and the eastern lowlands, though Ancash has the highest number of cases of the highland regions. The number of infections is increasing; on 6 May, Jorge Montenegro, the Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, tested positive for the coronavirus, and began a program of social isolation. The government extended the strict quarantine to 24 May, with a gradual reopening of some economic sectors, such as mining and fishing. 

The long-term outcome remains unclear. As Scurrah stated, “The way this plays out will decide whether Peru returns to the previous situation of a largely informal economy with few guarantees or protection of rights or a ‘new normal’ of greater government regulation, more protections and more open unemployment.” The case of the rose growers, where a small group of wealthy and privileged farmers garner a large share of the benefits of public programs at a time of emergency that affects all Peruvians, points toward the latter.

Read More on GlacierHub:

No Change in Black Carbon Levels on Peruvian Glaciers, Despite Pandemic Quarantine

Video of the Week: Quechua Artist Raps in Mountain Landscape

A Catastrophic Glacier Collapse and Mudflow in Salkantay, Peru

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Video of the week: Quechua Musicians Urge Coronavirus Precaution Through Traditional Song

This week’s Video of the Week is filmed in the Callejon de Huaylas, located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca in the north central highlands of Peru, and features a song about coronavirus that is performed in the region’s native Quechua language. 

The Cordillera Blanca is the world’s highest tropical mountain range and aside from Patagonia at the southern tip of South America, it is the most glacier-rich region in the Andes. Because it encompasses the largest area of glaciers in the Central Andes, glacier meltwater is a critical resource for agriculture, livestock and human consumption in this region. During this time of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the region is fortunate to be relatively well-supplied with water for handwashing. The song emphasizes instructions for people to wash their hands and not to ignore advice with “the ears of a pig.”

Note minute 3:45 where an older villager washes her hands as the song tells us to use water and soap to kill the dirty disease.

Quechua predates the Incan Empire, but once the Inca made it the official language of the domain, its use spread across the Andean highlands. When the Spanish arrived, they used the Latin alphabet to create the written version of Quechua. Today, many regional variations — approximately 45 distinct dialects — are still spoken by the indigenous Quechua peoples living throughout the highlands of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. It is the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas, and the second most spoken language in Peru (where it originated) after Spanish. 

The video was produced by Heraldos Producciones, an audio and video recording studio of Andean music based in the city of Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash Department.

Huaraz sits in the Callejon de Huaylas valley, approximately 3,000 meters above sea level and to the west of the snow-capped mountains of the Cordillera Blanca (in the background). Credit: G. D. Vicente Torres/Flickr

Joshua Shapero, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who conducts research with Quechua speakers in this area, noted a number of specific elements about the video. As for the pigs ears, he noted “’kuchi rinriqa ama kashunnatsu’ translates as ‘let’s not be pig’s ears now;’ in parallel with ‘wiyakushunna yarpakushunna,’ ‘let’s listen up now, let’s remember well now;’ and ‘callekunachaw puriyaashunnatsu,’ ‘Let’s not go about in the streets now.’ So, I think it’s safe to assume that the relevant idea here is that a pig’s ear doesn’t obey human language!” he wrote.

Wiyakushunna yarpakushunna 

Let’s listen now, let’s remember now

Callekunachaw puriyaashunnatsu 

Let’s not go about in the streets now

Shapero emphasized the song’s use of paired elements, found in both the lines and verses, that complement each other and form a whole. The song tells “chuulukuna chiinakuna” (young men, young women) to take care. In the scene showing a woman purchasing fish at a market (starting at 3:25), it tells people to cover “sinqantsikta simintsikta” (our noses, our mouths). Then, some verses contain two lines that offer two words which are similar, but are not full synonyms, with the second being slightly stronger than the first. In this way, the musicians suggest a range of meaning. The singer, starting at 2:00, tells people to stay at home if they care for (kuya) their families, if they love (muna) their families. 

We do not forget to cover our nose and our mouth.” Credit: Prevención contra el coronavirus/YouTube

“If there is one relevant thing to emphasize here, it’s that the song repeatedly employs a parallel verse structure that creates an analogy between Coronavirus and raqcha qishya (the dirty sickness),” Shapero said. “I am not sure if ‘raqcha qishya’ is a phrase that’s been commonly used for other diseases in the past. If so, this seems like just a means of getting the listener to put Coronavirus in this disgusting category of illnesses. If it has not been used for other things in the past, then it might be an attempt to establish a Quechua neologism for the disease,” he wrote to GlacierHub.

The final verses, starting at 5:18, combine these elements. The final message is ominous: “Watch out, disobedient young woman, or coronavirus will pursue you (qatishunkimá), watch out, disobedient young man, or the dirty sickness will take you away (apashunkimá).” This stern warning reinforces the importance of handwashing and social distancing.

In a comment about the video, artist Michel Trejo wrote: “This audiovisual work is a contribution in this difficult conjuncture, for the dissemination of information and prevention against coronavirus, especially for my Andean brothers, Quechua speakers.” As Shapero’s comments show, Trejo not only speaks fluent Quechua, but has made use of traditional Quechua forms to communicate powerfully the need to protect communities from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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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.

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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.

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