Airport Construction Threatens Andean Environments and Cultural Monuments

Construction of a mountain airport has landed the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru—a world heritage site—on the World Monument Fund’s “Watch List.” In January of this year, the Peruvian government dispatched a fleet of bulldozers into the village of Chincheros in the valley to clear earth for the construction of a major international airport.

Archaeologists, environmentalists, and social activists worry that greater access to the region will lead to unrestrained tourism, putting ancient sites, traditional ways of living, and fragile environments at risk. Among the threatened is a pyramidal glacier that caps the top of Mt. Veronica, the highest mountain of the Urubamba range within the Andes.

The new airport will require large aircraft to fly low over the old town of Ollantaytambo in their descent, rattling buildings and spewing exhaust over the old Incan fort that the town is built around. Black carbon from the exhaust will not only eat away at the fragile stone architecture (and degrade air quality for the people living there), but also speed up melting of Mt Veronica’s glacier nearby. Black carbon has intense light absorbing properties and is known to accelerate the melting of glaciers it settles upon.

Mount Veronica is the highest peak of the Urubama mountain range in the Andes of Peru. (Credit: roli_b)

World Monuments Fund is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1965. Their annual monuments watch list—that the Sacred Valley has the unfortunate distinction of being listed on in 2020—flags imperiled cultural structures and traditional communities in danger of decay or disappearance.  

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is perhaps more famous for what bookends it than what is in it: Machu Picchu on one end, and the old imperial capital of Cusco on the other. But the mountain valley was once the agricultural center of the Incan Empire, and contained many sites of great religious importance to them. To this day, it is full of old Incan structures and Quechua-speaking peoples.

Small towns built amongst ruins and terraces sprinkle the 70-mile long river valley that sits between 7,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level. Mount Veronica and its glacier watch over Ollantaytambo. The mountain, and many other Urubamba peaks embracing the Sacred Valley, are also deities, or apus, to some of the communities living there.

The move to construct an airport in the valley realizes a developmental dream of the State’s, dating back to the 1970s. Currently, tourists wanting to set eyes on Machu Picchu have to hop on a jumper plane to Cusco from Lima; then hike or travel by train or bus from there. The government hopes that with this new airport, they won’t have to, and that affluent foreigners can funnel directly in from the US and other parts of Latin America.

To reach the airport, large commercial planes will fly low over the town of Ollantaytambo, which contains many Incan ruins. (Credit: Esmée Winnubst)

Not everyone is against the airport’s construction. Life can be hard in rural Peru and there are promises of 2,500 or more jobs coming with the planes. The Yanacuna, one of the three landholding communities within Chincheros sold most of their land away at a $35 million price tag for runway construction. 

Development promises upheaval of normalcy in the valley, and the economic benefits of tourism are not felt by all. “Tourism benefits, basically, big corporations, tour agencies and airlines, and very little of the money stays local,” anthropologist Deborah Poole of Johns Hopkins University, told GlacierHub. Poole has worked in, and studied, the Cusco region. 

“It does bring some money into the area, but that money is unequally distributed,” she said. 

How the state plans on regulating a torrent of new tourists into the valley when Machu Picchu already exceeds the sustainable limit of 2,500 visitors a day set by UNESCO remains to be seen.

But for Poole, the problem is more than that. “The way [tourism] is organized now it doesn’t do much for Cusco. Certainly not for peasants.” She said. In the municipality of Urubamba, for example, she noted that “there are these big hotels that cost $100 to $150 a night and they wouldn’t even let local people go in.”

Members of the community sell brightly colored traditional wares at the central market in Chincheros. (Credit: Bernard Gagnon)

In addition to the inequitable distribution of wealth, the erosion of the natural landscape, like Veronica glacier, can also lead to emotional distress among local communities. The snow and ice capped peaks surrounding the valley are sacred and their breakdown also symbolizes the deterioration of a deity.  

“The indigenous communities there have a particular relationship with the landscape, with the water,” said Poole, “and they’re not equal shareholders in this project.”

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New Research Center Advances Glacier Agenda In Peru 

On August 7th, in light of the rapid retreat of glaciers in the Andes, two Peruvian national organizations subscribed to an inter-institutional cooperation agreement to implement a glacier research center in the Peruvian city of Cusco. The agreement between the National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (INAIGEM by its acronym in Spanish), the leading glacier research institution in the country, and Cusco’s San Antonio Abad National University (UNSAAC in Spanish) aims to strengthen the scientific agenda for glaciology-applied research in the southern Andean region of the country.

INAIGEM’s Macro Regional Office of the South will be located in Kayra Estate, a meteorological agricultural experiment station founded in 1956 and managed since then by UNSACC. This office will coordinate research projects all over the southern region of Peru. Thus, INAIGEM will provide technical assistance to regional governments to develop appropriate policies in biodiversity, water resources, food security and glaciers, within the context of climate change.

Andenes in the local community of Vilcabamba in Cusco (Source: Musuq Allpa/Flickr).

Benjamin Morales, executive director of INAIGEM, stated during an interview for UNSAAC that for students from the university, the glacier research center will be a learning space where they will be able to investigate with expert researchers. Students from different faculties including geology, geography, biology and other social and environmental sciences will be able to participate in the research projects that the INAIGEM will develop in Cusco in the following months.

During an interview with Glacierhub, Morales highlighted the community approach to conducting research, as the institute is coordinating with regional and local governments, the private sector, and universities in each city of the Southern Andes. As the Peruvian online information portal Inforegion indicates, scientists are currently monitoring two important mountains near Cusco: Mount Ausangate, the fifth-highest mountain in Peru, and Chicón, relevant for its water supply to the Cusco region. Scientists are also monitoring neighboring areas between Cusco and Puno, part of the southern region of Peru on the border of Bolivia. INAIGEM will start a study at the Coropuna glacier in the region of Arequipa, for example. Coropuna, one of the highest mountains in Peru, is facing rapid glacier retreat due to climate change.

Mark Carey, a professor at the University of Oregon, told Glacierhub in an interview that partnerships between different types of institutions can effectively enhance glacier-related work in the Andes and beyond by combining the study of ice and society. They are an effective means of drawing together the natural and social sciences, as well as researchers and local communities, in an equal partnership of exchange and interaction.

Due to the direct relationship between glaciers and society, the partnerships with local communities in the southern Andes allow researchers to understand how glacier retreat is affecting cultural values, agricultural practices and the economy. Moreover, in several regions, local populations understand the changes that are produced by the natural Andean climate variability and have implemented their ancestral knowledge to adapt to those changes. An example of this is the local community of Vilcabamba, located in Cusco, has implemented an agricultural system similar to a terrace that was used by the Incas to increase the amount of cultivatable land available to farmers due to the reduction of water supply from Salkantay glacier, located on the twelfth highest mountain in the country.

The map shows the Cordillera Blanca in the north and the Cusco region in the South (Source: Google Maps).

It is important to have continuing research on glaciers in the Andes to contribute to the understanding of the future natural changes. In a country that traditionally encouraged the centralization of resources and areas of study in the capital city of Lima, institutes like INAIGEM are now supporting a decentralization process. Unlike most Peruvian national institutions, for example, INAIGEM is headquartered in Huaraz, a mountain city located at the base of the Cordillera Blanca. Furthermore, it has as an objective to promote and strengthen the environmental agenda and technological development in the Peruvian Andes, an area sometimes forgotten by Peruvians.

As Carey told Glacierhub, while the Cordillera Blanca is the most glacierized range in Peru (and in fact the most glacierized range in all of the world’s tropical regions), glaciers in the south of the country have been understudied in the last decades. In Carey’s opinion, the Macro Regional Research Office of the South will widen the glacier research that Peruvians have been conducting in the Cordillera Blanca for more than half a century. In developing countries such as Peru, the effects of glacier retreat greatly impact neighboring areas. For example, when glacier runoff from Cusco-area glaciers declines, it changes the hydroelectric output from the facilities of the Machu Picchu Hydroelectric Station.

Thus, Luis Vicuña, a researcher at the University of Zurich, explained in an interview with Glacierhub that there is a direct relationship between glaciers and society. “A wider understanding of the future of glaciers in our society implies research that involves different types of expertise in order to contribute to the understanding of the natural and physical changes, and also the cultural, political, economic and social changes that will determine the relationship between glaciers and society.”

Multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration can effectively enhance glacier-related work in the Andes and beyond. The cooperation agreement between INAIGEM and UNSAAC plans to facilitate the articulation of environmental scientific research with policy-making processes that regional governments need to  support local communities in adapting to climate change.

A Ritual to Honor Mountains in a Peruvian Village

Chicón mountain seen from village (source: Ben Orlove).

The residents of four Quechua villages in the Chicón valley in highland Peru performed a complex ritual on August 6 this year, as they have done for years, as a means of making offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother, understood as the source of vitality for humans and other beings. Such offerings, made at this time of year in other villages across the Andes, serve to renew the ties that link the villages with the spirits.

At this time, the villagers also speak to the mountain deities or apus. They directly face each mountain to which they speak and make a series of ritual gestures toward the mountain, a way of recognizing its power and requesting its benevolence for the coming year. The offerings express the villagers’ hope that the mountains will provide good rains and abundant streams to water their fields, so that they will have plentiful harvests.

These events are usually closed to outsiders, but in this case, some were invited by the guilds within the villages that manage the irrigation canals. They invited the staff of an NGO and a Swiss bilateral aid agency that run projects there, as well as some researchers from the regional university who work with them. This invitation was also extended to me and several other researchers who had attended a climate change conference in the nearby city of Cusco earlier that month.

Traveling to the Village

Woman walking from the village towards the site of the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

We gathered before dawn in a square in Cusco, some distance from the city center, and boarded a bus that took us over a pass and down to the Río Urubamba. We took a road that followed that river to its confluence with the Río Chicón, a smaller river which descends, in its length of 8 kilometers, over 2500 meters from glacier summits to the Río Urubamba.

Our bus turned up the Chicón valley, passing through fields, orchards and small clusters of low adobe houses, until we came to the final, highest village, where the road became too narrow and rocky for the bus to traverse. We were then ferried further in cars and pick-up trucks through a higher zone of rocky pastures and scattered trees. The Chicón valley narrowed as we advanced. Along the way we saw many villagers making the same journey, some also by car, others on motorcycles or on foot.

Villagers and visitors assembling at Occoruro Pampa for the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

The road came to a rise, from which the place where the ritual would be held came into view, Occoruro Pampa, a broad expanse about 10 hectares in area. Hemmed in by steep slopes, it was the last piece of flat land in the valley before the rugged terrain that leads up to the glaciers. For most of the year, this area would be empty, or have at most a herder or two with their cows or sheep. But by late morning, when I arrived, a couple of hundred people had assembled there, about a third of the entire population of the valley. They were standing in groups, waiting, as one of the Swiss explained to me, for someone who was missing, a representative of a guild that manages one of the irrigation canals in the valley. The leaders from the other canal guilds had already arrived, but the offerings to the earth, and the prayers to the mountains, could not be made until all those who receive water were present to take part.

After some minutes, this man arrived (or, according to some, his chief assistant arrived). The entire group then walked to the upper end of Occoruro Pampa. As we crossed it, I noticed many rocks and some large boulders. These had been carried down from higher up in a glacier lake outburst flood in 2010, which also damaged fields lower down. This event brought a number of relief projects to Chicón—a process which touched off complex, sometimes tense, negotiations between NGOs, government agencies, and the communities, and which contributed to the strong presence of researchers and NGOs in the area at present.

Performing the Rituals
Community members watching the preparation of the ritual offering (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

When we reached the top of Occoruro Pampa, the villagers and visitors formed a large circle around the specialists who would carry out the ritual, known in Spanish as a pago a la tierra, a payment to the earth, and in Quechua as a haywarisqa, an offering. (Some people also refer to the ritual by the term anqusu, which is more common in regions further west.)

The president of the Chicón peasant community gave a short speech in Spanish, welcoming the visitors and telling the whole group of the importance of carrying this ritual out year after year to assure the well-being of all. He urged people to not leave any trash behind, since pollution was a sign of disrespect to the mountains, and could make the glacial ice shrink even faster.
Coca leaves and other items laid out for placement in a bowl, in advance of its ritual interment (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

It soon became clear that there would be two offerings made, rather than just one. The first soon got underway as a man in a poncho knelt down, spread out a cloth, and opened a box containing many items wrapped up in paper bundles. He placed a clay bowl on the cloth and began to prepare small fan-like arrays of coca leaves, each containing exactly three leaves. These arrays, called k’intu in Quechua, are used in other rituals as well. An assistant, standing to his side, reached down—quite impatiently, I thought—to adjust a few of the k’intu. Other people distributed coca leaves to the people in the group; some took leaves to chew, and many formed k’intu of their own.
A community member distributing coca leaves to participants in the ritual (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

The leader held a fan of three leaves in front of him and blew on it. He recited in Quechua the names of eight or nine apus, the high mountain peaks of the region, blowing on the k’intu in the direction of each as he spoke its name. The first two which he mentioned were Salkantay and Ausangate; though Ausangate is 100 meters higher than Salkantay, it is not quite as important cosmologically. He continued through some lesser regional peaks, before getting to the local mountains, several of them at the headwaters of the valley. Having completed the list of mountains above us, he then recited the names of over twenty springs in the valley, all below us in elevation, and then began a prayer which requested for the streams to be full with water, and for rain to be plentiful, to assure good harvests. He spoke at length in a slow, loud, sonorous tone, urging the spirits not to forget the people, to be generous to them, and to assure them a year of abundance.

Arranging fans of coca leaves (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

He placed a piece of bread in the dish and then set four k’intu around it. Many people in the group came up, each blowing on their own set of leaves and handing it to the ritual specialist or his assistant. These eventually covered the bread. The specialist then placed additional items on top, starting with yellow maize kernels, which he called qori, gold. The final item was a dried starfish, all the way from the Pacific Ocean. He sprinkled flower petals, red and yellow and white, over the whole assemblage. He then turned to a pit which had recently been dug, about 50 cm across and 75 cm deep. He poured two liquids into the pit, first wine and then the locally brewed maize beer. He carefully set the plate in the bottom of the pit, along with a tiny jug and another small object, and covered them up with earth. He sprinkled petals over the surface, and his offering was complete.
Ritual specialist starting to assemble the offering (source: Richard Garcia Mira/Facebook).

The second offering was to be burned, rather than buried, so a larger pit was dug for it, and firewood and dried cow dung were assembled as fuel. Though these offerings are usually prepared by a single practitioner, sometimes with an assistant, as in the first, the second one featured both a male and a female practitioner, and it was the woman who conducted the preparation of the offering. She set a large paper square on one cloth atop a larger cloth, and held this paper down with four stones, one in each corner. This was a larger offering, layers of different kinds of maize, round colored candies, as well as other items; when it was complete, it formed a large mound. She placed brightly colored ribbons, each descending from the top of the mound in a different direction.

While she was assembling this offering, her male counterpart gave a long address in Quechua, combining the prayers to the spirits with commentary. He opened by emphasizing the seriousness of the ritual, and stressing that it was true, not at all a game. He stated that the whole ritual comes from God, offering a version of the Trinity which included, as is standard, God the Father and God the Son, but which contained as the third figure the Mother of God, rather than the more canonical Holy Spirit. However, he explained, the apus are the owners of the water and so it is to them that requests must be made. His list of apus was not in as precise a sequence from regional to local as in the first ritual, but he spoke with great feeling, apologizing to the apus whose names he had omitted. He requested that the apus whom he might have forgotten entirely not to be angry.
Ritual specialist preparing the offering, with a second ritual specialist (in poncho) next to her, and community members watching (source: Ricardo Garcia Mira/Facebook).

One by one he asked the apus, in somewhat varying terms, to watch for us, to send water, to send rain, to cause us to eat, to allow us to work. He evoked the earlier generations who knew better than present-day people how to make offerings, and he stressed the responsibility of the current generation of elders to pass their knowledge on. This knowledge must be raised up, and these offerings must be improved and made more beautiful, year by year. (This emphasis made sense to me after one of the Swiss researchers explained that these rituals had been neglected for many years. They were restored in 2007 by villagers who were concerned about the deteriorating environment that they saw around them.)

As he spoke, a group of five musicians began to play, not the more contemporary brass instruments that are popular in many village festivals but flutes and drums, older instruments that date back many generations. With this accompaniment, he closed his prayers with exhortations to the assembly: they must not look at each other enviously, nor hate each other, nor strike each other. Discord and violence offend the apus, he suggested, while harmony encourages their generosity, and might even help bring the glacial ice back.

Village children dancing after the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

The woman specialist wrapped up her offering in a square cloth, as the fire began to burn in the pit. She prepared to take the offering there, but the assembled people moved back down to the middle section of Occoruro Pampa. The dancing had begun. Six boys and six girls in costume performed line dances and circle dances, sometimes holding hands, sometimes holding ribbons, to the delight of the villagers and the guests alike.

The Meal after the Rituals

The food then appeared. One large cloth was filled with an enormous pile of boiled kernels of yellow maize, a kind of hominy, while a second held bread and fruit that the guests had picked up in the market in a town between Cusco and Chicón. Both were very popular with the people in attendance. Some continued the spirit of reverence by lifting a handful of maize kernels and blowing on it towards the mountains, as they had with the k’intu.

Boiled maize kernels, served to the participants after the ritual (source: Ben Orlove).

Maize was available in a second form as well, as the home-brewed beer, prepared with local strawberries for flavor and color. Soon, others came around through the crowd with large cloths filled with potatoes that had been roasted in small earth ovens, and others began serving local cheese. The symbolism seemed evident: the maize and potatoes come from the lower sections of the village lands, the cheese from the cows that graze in the upper pastures. Though many farmers now grow cash crops, such as broccoli and carrots for the restaurants of Cusco, and some have even started cultivating roses, their rituals still evoke the traditional subsistence foods, and indicate that agriculture supports the basic needs of the residents, rather than providing them with cash income.

As the villagers ate their meals, I had the chance to speak with the second ritual practitioner, the one who gave the speech about harmony. He is from the village, but had traveled and studied abroad, and had even received a medical degree in Havana. He returned to the village some years ago and became involved in the local rituals that he had seen as a child and then neglected for decades. He now runs a clinic of what he terms “Andean medicine” in a nearby town. The woman who prepared the second offering has also spent time outside the village.

Discussions of the Rituals

Luís Vicuña, a Peruvian sociologist, explained to me that these two had been contracted to prepare the offering by one group of farmers who were associated with irrigation water guilds, ones that date back many decades and that are now supported by the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture. The specialist who performed the first offering, he said, had been brought in by another group that has been seeking to improve domestic water supply, for cooking and cleaning, to the households; these groups are administered directly by the Peruvian cabinet as a whole, rather than forming part of a specific ministry. These rivalries, he thought, were expressed in the delayed start of the ritual, as well as to the presence of two ceremonies, rather than one, as had been the custom for some years.

Apu Chicon (source: BrunoAmaru/Flickr).

Luís and I continued our conversation on the ride back to Cusco, with Luís Mujica, an anthropologist at Peru’s Catholic University, joining in. Was there ever a time when conflict was completely absent in the villages? Researchers had reported disagreements in other villages in Peru over water management. And the multiplicity of projects, of agencies and of NGOs can create rivalries among their supporters. Perhaps the rituals, carried out with such attention to tradition, to well-being and to the watershed itself, can express both unity and division.

I mentioned that Andean rituals are being revived in a number of villages, not only ones like Chicón, confronted with glacier retreat and glacier lake outburst floods, but there must be nonetheless a link with these glacier issues in Chicón. The prayers of the ritual specialists seemed to express genuine feeling, rather than merely being a routine repetition of established formulas. And these feelings seem to be shared by the villagers as well, at least judging by their willingness not merely to attend the rituals but to observe them closely and to participate in them by blowing on k’íntu and on the maize.

As we rode back to Cusco, I reflected on these offerings to the earth and on this evocation of mountain spirits. They are not a simple tradition, one that has remained unbroken and unchanged. Instead, they have a more complex history, one of decline and revival, and one of engagement with environmental and economic change as well. But, despite the shifts in the ways they are carried out, they rest on the deep ties of the villagers to each other, to their mountain-ringed valley and its river, and to the Quechua language that the villagers understand as the only language in which one can address the earth and the mountains.  In a changing world, these ties endure.

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.