Adapting to Glacier Retreat in Peru’s Huascarán National Park

The quickly receding Pastoruri glacier may not have too many years left at the rate it’s melting (Source: Joao Diniz/Flickr).

Environmental anthropologist Jessica O’Reilly stated in her 2017 book on science and policy, “While scientists usually act as spokespeople for ‘data,’ some materials may speak for themselves.” Melting glaciers, including the ones in the high Andes, are examples of materials that speak for themselves, acting as compelling visualizations of the concept of climate change.

A recent article in Regional Environmental Change by Mattias Borg Rasmussen explores the nexus of climate change, retreating glaciers, and conservation landscapes in the context of Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Huascarán National Park. As one of the most threatened tropical glaciers in the high Andes, Pastoruri has generated significant media coverage for its rapid retreat, which has involved the glacier losing over half of its size over a period of twenty years, according to reports from The Guardian and Reuters. As Pastoruri Glacier has been reduced to two quickly vanishing patches of ice, tourism in Huascarán National Park has also dwindled from over 100,000 visitors a year in its heyday of the 1990s to only 34,000 reported in 2012.

In response to both the deterioration of the physical landscape and paying visitors, park administrators developed a tourist and educational facility in 2013 known as the Route of Climate Change. The initiative, which includes a “Climate Change Trail,” highlights the dangers of climate change in an effort to boost declining tourist numbers. By presenting the glacier as an endangered species of the growing market of last-chance tourism, the park showcases Pastoruri’s decline as a public spectacle to generate conservation outcomes in other parts of the park. However, like similar conservation initiatives, the project in Huascarán National Park was launched without intensive community engagement.

To explore this issue, Rasmussen collected 48 interviews in Peru during ethnographic fieldwork that began in 2014. These interviews add an anthropological framework to his research in order to understand the unique, often tense relationship between the local communities and protected areas. One community Rasmussen visited extensively during his fieldwork was Catac, located just inside the park boundaries. Rasmussen shared with GlacierHub how his article “contributes to enhancing our understanding of these rather unstable arrangements of consent and contestation in conservation encounters.” In the article, he highlights three issues as complicating conservation efforts in the national park: livestock, infrastructure, and tourism revenues. Because park officials considered the refurbishing project to be purely infrastructural, it did not require community engagement.

Environmental historian Mark Carey told GlacierHub that Rasmussen’s article shows “the economic aspects of glacier loss, when tourists stop visiting a place once the ice is gone or where locals and park administrators subsequently develop incentives for tourists to come back and see the marked impacts of glacier retreat.” He added that “glacier retreat generates challenging policy problems that confound conservation objectives and force changes in tourist experiences and local livelihoods that depend on that tourism.”

Regarding the role of conservation in the Anthropocene, Rasmussen said, “I think conservation is good to think about when we want to try to understand the ways in which climate change acts both as a force which changes the physical appearance of landscapes and as an idea which challenges our understanding of the future.”

Image of Pastoruri Glacier with tourists (Source: Guillaume Weill/Flickr).

The concept of protected area management, and conservation initiatives in general, is heavily imbued with power dynamics and colonialism. Rasmussen states in the article, “Because they are the outcomes of Westernized visions of the relationship between nature and culture, protected areas are important sites for understanding how notions of the Anthropocene come to reshape ideas about the future of glaciated landscapes.”

The historical production of protected areas came from the constructed sharp distinction between human and nature as well as civilization and wilderness, also a product of Western conception that often forgets or ignores voices of the local.

In the Anthropocene, protected areas, particularly those with glaciers, can no longer represent a fixed time and space created by scientists for conservation purposes. Glaciers, like Pastoruri, disrupt the social imagination of an unchanging locale untainted by human intervention. In this modern era signaling progression, climate change presents a destructive alternative, filled with irreversible changes and a future of uncertainty.

The initiative in Huascarán National Park represents a new global consciousness that is forming around the role that humans will play in shaping the future of the planet and around the importance that protected areas will take on in new arrangements in a new era. “Rasmussen demonstrates how glacier loss is more than just about ice, or even water.  Managing a dynamic glacierized landscape rapidly changing under climate change — and ensuring water supplies for irrigation and livestock pastures in downstream communities — all involve politics, social relations, economics and livelihoods, and cultural values,” Carey told GlacierHub. “We must turn our attention beyond the ice, in other words, to study and understand the challenges that communities, conservationists, policy makers, and tourists all face.”

Conservation is still linked to modern social imaginations, but the creation of the Climate Change Route on the Pastoruri Glacier in Peru’s Huascarán National Park implies a shift in the social imagination that reconsiders the presentation and construction of protected areas. With glaciers visually symbolizing the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of the environment, this step forward may better include the often neglected voices of the local communities in shaping their lives.

Peru Conference Calls for More Work on Climate Change, Disaster Risk

A major international forum this month in Peru has resulted in calls for strengthening research capabilities and for programs in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. It also had demonstrated the need for greater public participation and the development of new financial mechanisms to support these activities. It showed the importance of flexible governance systems that can draw on emerging research and on growing citizen engagement with environmental issues.

The scientific forum’s focus on climate change in the mountains took on particular meaning, as it was held in Huaraz, a  a small Peruvian city located at the foot of the Cordillera Blanca, a major glacier-covered range. The forum, held Aug. 10-12, specifically centered on climate change impacts in mountains, with particular emphasis on glacier retreat, water sustainability and biodiversity.

A new Peruvian organization, the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, organized the forum, with support from a number of other organizations.

The forum’s more than 1,400 participants came largely from Peru, but also included a substantial number of scientists, policy experts and agency staff from 18 other countries.  They met in Huaraz, attending plenary lectures in the morning and breaking into smaller groups in the afternoon for topical sessions and discussion groups, which considered specific recommendations for action. These recommendations led to two final documents. The forum produced a set of eight conclusions and a final declaration, both presented to the participants, a number of public officials and the media by Benjamin Morales, the president of INAIGEM.

A participant at the climate change conference assembles materials for a break-out meeting
A participant at the climate change conference assembles materials for a break-out meeting. (Photo courtesy of Ben Orlove).

Researchers from the natural and social sciences reported  on water availability and natural hazards in the Cordillera Blanca and other mountain ranges. Jeff Kargel of the University of Arizona reported on the connections between earthquakes and glacier lake outburst floods in the Himalayas and the Andes. Bryan Mark of the Ohio State University discussed research methodologies to measure “peak water”—the point at which the contribution of glacier meltwater causes a river’s flow to reach its highest levels, after which the glaciers, smaller in size, contribute less water to the streams.

 

Audience and participants gather at the international climate change conference in Peru, which ran Aug. 10-12
Audience and participants gather at the international climate change conference in Peru, which ran Aug. 10-12. (Photo courtesy of Walter Hupiu).

 

 

Several talks traced links between ecosystems and water resources. They showed the importance of wetlands in promoting the recharge of groundwater and in maintaining water quality. The latter role is particularly important, because as glaciers retreat, new areas of rock become exposed to the atmosphere. As these rocks weather, minerals leach into streams. Since these wetlands are important grazing areas for peasant communities, they raise challenging issues of coordination between communities and agencies charged with environmental management.   

Many speakers focused specifically on this management, stressing the importance of the coordination of scientists and other experts, policy-makers, and wider society. Carlos Fernandez, of UNESCO, stressed the importance of water governance systems that integrated social, economic and environmental sectors, rather than relying on market-driven approaches.

Others examined financial mechanisms, such as the payment for ecosystem services and the expansion of user fees for water and other resources. GlacierHub’s editor Ben Orlove spoke of the cultural importance of glaciers, and of the role of glaciers as symbols of social identity.

The forum was sponsored by over two dozen institutions, including Peruvian agencies (Ministry of the Environment, the National Service for Protected Natural Areas, the National Civil Defense Institute, and the National Water Authority), NGOs  (CARE, The Mountain Institute, CONDESAN) and the international aid programs from Switzerland, US and Canada, as well as several mining firms in Peru.

The critical role of mountain societies was signaled by a speech from Juan German Espíritu, the president of the peasant community of Catac, located in the Cordillera Blanca. Speaking first in the local indigenous language, Quechua, and then in Spanish, he emphasized the importance of full  participation, environmental justice, and a vision of human well-being that is broader than measures of economic development.

He and Morales then signed an agreement that gave INAIGEM the right to conduct research within the territory of Catac. This agreement is a departure from earlier practices in Peru, in which communities would often be bypassed.

The president of a local community in the Cordillera Blanca and the president of INAIGEM sign an agreement to allow research in the area of Catac, Peru.
The president of a local community in the Cordillera Blanca and the president of INAIGEM sign an agreement to allow research in the area of Catac, Peru. (Photo courtesy of Walter Hupiu).

The comments of German Espíritu were echoed in a speech by María Foronda, a congressional delegate from the region where Ancash is located. Drawing on her personal and professional experiences, she argued for the incorporation of indigenous knowledge in environmental management and for the Quechua concept of allin kawsay, emphasizing sustainability and community over unchecked economic growth.   The importance of the forum was emphasized by the presence of the Minister of the Environment, Elsa Galarza, who gave the closing speech of the forum. She affirmed her commitment to sustainable development and to addressing the basic needs of the full citizenry of Peru. Both of these points are major issues in Peru, where mining companies often clash with rural communities and environmental groups over issues of water and air pollution.

Galarza also spoke of the importance of scientific research in shaping environmental policy. Her speech, along with coverage of the forum in national newspapers, shows the growing recognition for INAIGEM, founded only last year as a branch of the Ministry of Environment.  This attention, along with the support for the forum evident in its broad sponsorship, suggests that INAIGEM may take an increasingly prominent role in addressing glacier retreat and other climate change impacts in Peru and in other mountain regions.

 

 

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.