Photo Friday: Andean Herders Cope with Climate Change

Allison Caine was recently living in a community of alpaca herders in the Cusco region of Peru conducting extensive fieldwork as part of her PhD program in anthropology at the University of Michigan. These photographs are an element in her research, which focuses on how alpaca herders evaluate environmental changes and adapt their daily and seasonal practices. In many herding communities in this region,  women are often the primary herders.

Glaciers form a key element of Caine’s research. Their rapid retreat in recent decades has altered streamflow and affected the wetlands the herders manage, often negatively. Streamside wetlands are a crucial resource for the herds, particularly in the dry season. The dramatic, visible loss of glaciers has a strong cultural impact as well.

The following photos have been provided to GlacierHub courtesy of Allison Caine.


A herder walks the ridge above pastures, with Mount Ausangate in the distance.


A herder looks over pastures, keeping an eye out for wandering animals.


Two llamas pause on a hilltop. Male llamas roam the hilltops on their own, while herders pasture alpaca and sheep on the hillsides and in valleys below (Photo by Nikolas Sweet).


In a corral on the shores of Sibina Qocha a herder treats her alpacas' illness with an herbal tincture.
In a corral on the shores of Sibina Qocha, a herder treats her alpacas’ illness with an herbal tincture, a type of medicine dissolved in alcohol.


A herder washes quinoa in the glacial springs emanating from the glaciated peaks of the Cordillera Vilcanota.
A herder washes quinoa in a glacier-fed stream in the Cordillera Vilcanota.


A herder washes medicinal plants in a glacier-fed pond in the Cordillera Vilcanota.


A young girl takes a flying leap over a glacial river at 16,000 feet above sea-level.

An All-Woman Climbing Team in the Andes

Ascending Chachacomani (source: Griselda Moreno)

Mujer Montaña—“Woman Mountain” in Spanish—participated in a recent project of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), in which women climbers from Latin America and Europe carried out ascents of peaks in two mountain ranges in the Bolivian Andes. They established mountaineering records, achieving first all-female ascents and opening new routes. They met another goal as well,  promoting exchanges between people of different cultures and worldviews. And, in their distinctive way, they built awareness of mountains in the context of climate change—a key goal of the UIAA’s Mountain Protection Award Platform, which supported the project.

Sunset in the Bolivian Andes (source: Griselda Morano)
Sunset in the Bolivian Andes (source: Griselda Moreno)

This project, supported by a number of government agencies and tourism firms in South America and Europe, brought together the members of Mujer Montaña, a Latin American group founded in 2013, with representatives of the Women’s High Mountain Group of the French Federation of Alpine Mountain Clubs (a UIAA member since 1932). In total, four women from South America and eight from Europe took part in the project.

Making offering to Pachamama (Earth Mother) and the apus (Mountain Lords) (Source: Griselda Moreno)
Making offering to Pachamama (Earth Mother) and the apus (Mountain Lords) (Source: Griselda Moreno)

The group started out in the Quimsa Cruz range on 28 July, staying there through 7 August. Traveling from their base camp at 4,400m, they climbed a new route up Torrini (5800 m). The second stage in the Cordillera Real, from 10 to 19 August, included ascents of Chachacomani (6100m), Janq’o Uyu (5520m) and Jisk’a Pata (5510m). The final stage, in the city of La Paz, involved a meeting on 22 August with students at the Catholic University of Bolivia, discussing issues of mountain protection, climate change and glacier retreat. On the last day, 23 August, they participated in a program with teachers and schoolgirls which linked climbing and self-esteem, and addressed issues of female empowerment. Carolina Adler, the president of the UIAA Mountain Protection Program, took part in the Janq’o Uyu ascent, as well as the last two days in La Paz.

Dawn on Chachacomani (source: Griselda Moreno)
Dawn on Chachacomani (source: Griselda Moreno)

The group is preparing a documentary film about their expedition, and preparing their next climbs, scheduled for November, which will take place in Ecuador. And they are waiting for the selection of the 2016 UIAA Mountain Protection Award winner. That will be announced October 14 in Brixen, Sudtirol, Italy during the 2016 UIAA General Assembly.

GlacierHub interviewed Lixayda Vasquez, one of the participants in the project. Vasquez comes from Cusco, Peru. In addition to Spanish, she also speaks Quechua, a major indigenous language of the Andes.

Lixayda Vasquez (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)
Lixayda Vasquez (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)

GH: What do you see as the significance of all-woman climbing expeditions?

LV: I think that what is most important is to stop seeing mountains as a place where only strong men, the ones with “big muscles,” can go. In recent times, many women in my country have wanted to explore new experiences for themselves, experiences which take them outside their comfort zone. They leave this zone, filled with myths and a whole machismo complex. And they discover that when they go outdoors, they enter a wonderful world where they never feel alone, because they are connected with nature.

It’s not necessary to go to the mountain in expeditions that are composed only of women, or only of men. The best way is for men and women to complement each other. We can remember that men and women are parts of the same world. And we can both bring our distinct contributions to make this world better.


Lixayda Vasquez, on her 21st birthday, on the summit of Cotopaxi, Ecuador (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)
Lixayda Vasquez, on her 21st birthday, on the summit of Cotopaxi, Ecuador (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)

GH: As a climber who speaks Quechua, have you ever used Quechua on an expedition?

LV: Quechua once saved my life.

I was with a group of friends from the climbing club in Cusco. We were trying to ascend Chicón, a snow peak in Cusco. It was already dark when we were returning to our camp near a village. A group of people came up towards us. Some of them were very drunk. They thought that we were the thieves, the ones who had stolen their alpacas several days earlier.

They were ready to kill us, burn our bodies and bury us there, where no one would ever find us. That is what they told us. We were terrified. We tried to explain that we were climbers, but none of them had ever heard of that.

We were in that situation until I said the magic word: chicarapuiku [We are completely lost]. As soon as I said that, they all calmed down, and finally they listened to us.


Lixayda Vasquez leading an ascent of Ausangate (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)
Lixayda Vasquez leading an ascent of Ausangate (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)

GH: You are from the mountain city of Cusco, and you have seen the snow peak of Ausangate since you were a little child.  How have your connections with mountains changed over time?

LV: I had the good fortune to spend a lot of my childhood in the town where my grandparents live, very close to the high Vilcanota Cordillera. When I looked out my window there, every day I would see imposing mountains, and Ausangate was among them. I would spend hours gazing at them and imagining myself up in them. When I was 19, I got to know a group of rock climbers, and we arranged for a mountain guide to teach us about mountain climbing. That changed my life. I’ve never stopped climbing since then. When I was 23, I fulfilled my dream of looking out from the summit of Ausangate and recognizing the towns and valleys of my childhood. Now, a more mature person, I plan to live connected to the countryside and to the mountains. I will ascend what the mountain lets me ascend.


Lixayda Vasquez will participate next month in an expedition of Mujer Montaña in Ecuador, where she will pass through other Quechua communities and ascend other Andean peaks. You can follow her on Facebook.


Understanding Glaciers through Indigenous Cultures

Climate change is viewed as an economic, political, and physical problem. But a study in WIREs Climate Change by Elizabeth A. Allison (found here) shows that there is a mental aspect to climate change that is being ignored by the major communities invested in the issue: the spiritual and religious importance of glaciers to mountain cultures.

Glaciers are bound to the culture of humans who have lived in harmony with them for centuries, the study found. According to Allison, evaluations made by bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimate the true cost of climate change by overlooking the emotional, spiritual, and psychological connections that people assign to changing conditions.

Understanding climate change without the implications it has on culture silences the voices and perceptions of minority communities, Allison found. These are the people who are the most affected by climate change. To diminish the cultural loss of these communities is an injustice not only to the communities involved directly but also to our shared cultural understanding of climate change, she wrote. As part of her research, Allison looked at communities in order to better understand their connection to the glaciers they live alongside.

On the west coast of North America such indigenous cultures as Alaska’s Tlingit people and First Nations people of the Yukon understood glaciers as snake-like beings. These creatures were thought to have particular preferences and requirements. According to an indigenous observer in 1904, “in one place Alsek River runs under a glacier. People can pass beneath in their canoes, but, if anyone speaks while they are under it, the glacier comes down on them. They say that in those times the glacier was like an animal, and could hear what was said to it.”

Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit'i festival
Dancers at the Qoyllur Rit’i festival. Courtesy of AgainErick wikipedia/commons

In the Peruvian Andes, the Quechua who live near the declining glacier on Mt. Ausangate believe that the disappearance of the glacier is associated with the mountain god’s departure. It used to be that during the annual Qoyllur Rit’i festival (meaning Snow Star), honoring an appearance of the Christ child, nearly 70,000 people traversed the Sinakara glacier. Ritual leaders would communicate with the glacial god and cut out large blocks of glacial ice thought to have magical healing properties.

Concern for the receding glacier prompted changes in local custom. In 2000 local leaders set regulations along with installing guards, disallowing ice to be removed from the glacier. Even pilgrims lighting candles at the edge of the glacier in prayer have begun to use smaller candles in an effort to preserve the glacier. Once having relied on the glacier to protect and heal them, this community now sees to the well-being of a god that to them, appears dying.

Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons
Bolivian Glacier. Courtesy of Jonathan Lewis wikipedia/commons

In Bolivia, the people depend on glaciated mountains to provide water for agriculture and day-to-day survival. They see them as life-giving deities, on whom they depend, calling them Achachilas. Within a few decades 80% of Bolivia’s life-sustaining glaciers are expected to be gone. A Bolivian charitable foundation called Fundación Solón, has stated that the loss of glaciers would be a loss for Bolivians surpassing that of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks.

In Tibetan Buddhist communities in the Himalayas, people have begun avoiding cooking or eating certain odorous foods (such as garlic and onions), burning meat, experiencing strong emotions, breaking vows, or physically fighting for fear of unleashing the wrath of mountain deities. On April 18, 2014 when 16 Sherpas climbing Mount Everest were killed by a falling block of ice, locals believed it to be the result of an angered mountain deity feeling disrespect due to the accumulated trash, fighting, helicopters, and the attitude of foreigners.

Mingyong Glacier
Mingyong Glacieris one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Courtesy of Chen Zhao/Flicker.

Mingyong Glacier is one of the most rapidly receding glaciers in the world. Located below Mount Khawa Karpo in the Meili Snow Mountain Range in northwest Yunnan at the Tibet border, it is among the most sacred mountains to Tibetan Buddhists. Local cultures do not allow foreign scientists to step out onto the ice of the Mingyong Glacier, out of concern for observed loss of glacial mass, instead allowing scientists to measure glacial recession only through repeat photography. A number of different reasons have been offered up by the locals for the glacial decline: lack of proper prayer on behalf of the local citizens, disrespectful tourists, and the incline of global material greed. Even though the scientific findings indicate an increasingly doomed outlook for the glacier, the locals believe it’s impossible for the glacier to die because their existence is intertwined with that of the glacier.

Aspects of climate change include more than an economical or physical understanding, but an understanding of the cultural importance of the effects of a changing climate such as glacier loss. Allison’s research found that people are more likely to accept and incorporate discussions of environmental and scientific issues, when issues match their own preconceptions. She suggested that scientists could be more effective in educating the public about climate change if they included local conceptualizations of glaciers in their reports, rather than relying purely on scientific data and technical language.