Huascaran National Park covers 1,375 square kilometers of the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region of north-central Peru. The Cordillera Blanca hosts hundreds of glaciers and glacial lakes.
An international team of scientists taking ice cores from glaciers on Huascaran, Peru’s tallest peak, was forced to halt their research and evacuate the mountain in early August. Residents of the nearby Musho village suspected the scientists were damaging the mountain and mining illegally.
After leaving the mountain, the scientists negotiated with locals and government officials for a solution that would enable them to retrieve their ice cores. After a few tense days, the government provided a helicopter to transport the ice cores and drilling equipment.
The episode hightlights the sometimes tense relations between researchers working in the field and local populations.
Check out GlacierHub’s report on the Huascaran dispute and take a look at images from the excursion provided to GlacierHub by Ivan Lavrentiev, a member of the research team.
A multinational team of scientists taking ice cores from glaciers on Peru’s tallest peak, Huascaran, withdrew from their research site on August 5 due to opposition from residents of the nearby Musho village, who suspected the scientists of causing environmental damage to the mountain and of illegal mining.
When they were asked to leave, the scientists had been on Mount Huascaran for about four weeks and had already completed the extraction of the two pairs of ice cores that they needed for their project. The team was evacuated soon after by a helicopter provided by the national police force. However, they left the samples they had collected on the mountain. Soon after, they entered talks with locals and government officials to find a solution that would enable them to retrieve the ice cores. After a few tense days, the government provided a helicopter to transport the ice cores and drilling equipment. Peruvian members of the expedition were allowed to bring the ice cores and drilling equipment down the mountain, and the expedition came to a successful close.
Where the dispute took place
Huascaran National Park covers 1,375 square kilometers in the Cordillera Blanca in the Ancash region of north-central Peru. It is home to 660 glaciers, 300 glacial lakes, and 27 snowy mountains, Huascaran being just one. The park was created in 1975, declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
Some of the tension that led to the conflict can be traced back to historical influences from the founding of the park and the governance of land areas within it. The park is managed by the National Service of Protected Areas (SERNANP), under Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. There are a number of communities, Musho village included, located close to its boundaries. The roads into the park pass through community lands and the peasant communities often exercise rights over those roads. They sometimes regulate, limit, or close traffic to the park. In theory, the government could set rules for travel on the roads, but local communities exercise control over them. Additionally, local communities hold customary rights over pastures and woodlands within the park. Those rights existed prior to the establishment of the park. However, now the communities’ access to these areas is more limited.
Peru passed legislation that bans resource extraction within protected areas without explicit government approval. For those projects that do receive approval, concessions are granted within park land, usually to private firms. In spite of this legislation, the area has a long history of illegal mining operations which take place without formal approval. Over time, they have generated suspicion in local communities of the intentions of outsiders visiting Huascaran.
Luis Vicuña, a sociologist at the University of Zurich, explained that the Ancash region is the site of many environmental problems related to mining. He told GlacierHub that “in recent years, illegal mining has increased in this region,” referring to small scale operations by individuals and groups.
Legal mining operations conducted by large, international firms have also raised suspicions. Some of these operations have caused soil and water contamination. People in affected communities have suffered a variety of health problems, from nosebleeds and headaches to cancer and neurological disorders, and their water supplies have become too polluted to serve for irrigation or domestic use.
The parties involved
The three main parties to the dispute were the team of scientists, the government agencies which issued the permits, and the local communities who objected to the expedition.
The expedition was led by the renowned American paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson. It was composed of about a dozen scientists hailing from around the world. Team members were French, Russian, Italian, American, Mexican, and Peruvian, and included scientists from the National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (Instituto Nacional de Investigación en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña or INAIGEM). Over the course of his career, Thompson has published 245 peer-reviewed publications, acquired 76 research grants, and gained world-wide recognition for being one of the first scientists to collect and analyze ice cores from mountain glaciers in tropical and subtropical regions. His expedition was funded with $1.5 million provided by the National Science Foundation. Analysis of the samples was planned to be conducted at Ohio State University, where Thompson has been a professor since 1991.
Gustavo Valdivia, who assisted Thompson with logistics for his expeditions, described it as a joint project between Ohio State University and INAIGEM. “INAIGEM has been doing field research in the Huascaran Glacier since 2014, so this expedition was supposed to build on INAIGEM knowledge, research experience, and relations in the area,” he told GlacierHub.
Paolo Gabrielli, an Ohio State University researcher and one of the scientists on the expedition, told GlacierHub that “the major goal of the expedition was to collect a tropical ice core that was cold enough to extract a pristine record of methane.”
Methane is an important greenhouse gas that is more powerful in retaining heat than carbon dioxide, despite being less common. It is also less well understood than carbon dioxide.
“Another important objective,” added Gabrielli, “is to infer information about the development and evolution of this large forested area [in South America] since the last glacial age (25,000 years ago).” The National Science Foundation website has an online summary of the award Thompson received to fund the expedition. It lists six main objectives for the research, including establishing timescales for the ice cores and studying climate and environmental effects variations in the mid-Holocene period.
Peruvian government agencies granted permits to the research team. The Ministry of the Environment and INAIGEM, a specialized technical body attached to the Ministry of Environment, oversaw the granting of the permits. According to its website, INAIGEM was founded to promote scientific and technical research on glaciers and mountain ecosystems for the benefit of citizens and to adopt adaptation and mitigation measures in the face of climate change.
The locals came from the village of Musho, a small village near the national park. It is the main entry point to the park for climbers who wish to summit Huscaran. The researchers went through Musho on their route to ascend to the glacier. The research team chose mountain guides and porters in the best interest of safety and the training and experience of the guides, Thompson told GlacierHub. “Most of the high elevation porters came from Huaraz and Cusco while porters, arrieros and burros/horses were hired from Musho. Local Musho residents transported expedition equipment, core boxes etc. from Musho up to the Alpine Hut,” he said.
Timeline of Events
“Press conferences were held in Lima on June 27, Mancos on July 4, at the base of Huascaran and on July 5 at the headquarters of the Huascaran National Park,” Thompson told GlacierHub. He continued, stating that they were held “to explain the scientific objectives and to answer questions and concerns of local people and the press concerning the Huascaran Expedition before starting the project. These press conferences were widely aired on TV and local papers.”
An article announcing the upcoming expedition was published on June 26 in Agencia Peruana de Noticias, a news outlet run by the Peruvian government. Prior to the 26th, foreign scientists and Peruvian agencies coordinated with each other about the expedition. On June 27, the Ministry of the Environment tweeted about the goals of the group’s work and included photos of Thompson meeting with Minister of the Environment Lucia Ruiz Ostoic and the executive president of INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández at the Lima press conference.
Gabrielli maintained a log of the expedition’s progress on his Twitter account. It tells how the team began ascending the mountain with an acclimatization hike to Laguna Shallap (elevation 4,250 meters), before reaching the Refugio Huascaran, a rustic mountain lodge (elevation 4,675m).
On July 9, the president of Peru, Martín Vizcarra, flew in a helicopter to visit the research team at the climbing hut above the village.The trip was reported on by several Peruvian news outlets, both on their own websites and on their social media feeds. Stanislav Kutuzov, another member of the research team, told GlacierHub that during his visit the president “offered all support including providing a helicopter for the transport of the equipment and ice cores from the basecamp to the heliport at the valley.”
After President Vizcarra’s visit, the researchers continued up the mountain, making camp at various elevations. On July 20, the 24th day of the expedition, the first ice core was extracted and on day 27 the drill reached bedrock at 167 m. On day 28, the team started to drill a second core at the same altitude, which they completed two days later, on July 26. Drilling began at the south summit to collect the second pair of ice cores on July 31 and both were completed by August 3.
The villagers from Musho first expressed their discontent with the expedition around July 31 or August 1. Kutuzov was a member of the team that had gone up to the summit to check progress on the drilling. “The drilling team was still at the summit of Huascaran when we received the text message that the local villagers are not happy about this project and suspect a mining operation at Huascaran mountain,” he told GlacierHub. “The next day (1 or 2 August) about 50 agitated local people went up to the basecamp and demanded an immediate termination of all works, and that all foreigners should leave the mountain, ” Kutuzov said.
Thompson and two other members of the expedition met with the group of protestors at the basecamp and listened to the complaints. “The complaints ranged from our team polluting the local drinking water to the President’s helicopter killing a cow,” Thompson said.
On August 5, a Peruvian police helicopter evacuated all foreign members of the scientific team to the city of Huaraz to wait until a solution could be found. This was done to meet the local community’s demands. All the materials, equipment, and ice cores were left on Huascaran.
The porters and mountain guides were asked to descend from the mountain on August 7. On their way down, they and their police escorts were detained by local people in a field outside of Musho. The group remained in the field until 6am when 30 police cars and armed officers arrived to escort them out of Musho.
A Facebook page was launched in the immediate aftermath of the evacuation called La Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán (The Defense Front for the Interests of Mount Huascaran). It posted statuses explaining why locals interrupted the research and stating concerns of illegal mining and a lack of information coming from the Peruvian government regarding the expedition.
On August 10, Gabrielli tweeted that the scientists, villagers, and local institutions were working to resolve the situation. On August 11, the researchers were invited to Musho village to explain the goals of the project to the local communities, Kutuzov told GlacierHub. The video below shows Thompson speaking at the meeting in Musho village. It was taken by a local resident who posted it to Facebook.
After several days of negotiations, it was agreed that the ice cores and drilling equipment could be retrieved from the mountain, a point which had been a matter of deep concern for the scientists. However, Wilmer Sanchez Rodriguez, an environmental engineer and a member of the expedition, told GlacierHub that only the Peruvian porters, mountain guides, and scientists from the expedition were allowed back on Huascaran. The foreigners did not return.
The team was given three days from the first helicopter flight to retrieve the ice cores and remove all the materials left on the mountain. The time was set from the first flight because the team needed time to get people back on the mountain after everyone had been evacuated. The three day period lasted from August 16 to 18.
The expedition came to an end on August 18 when the last of the materials was removed. Orjeda, the president of INAIGEM, and the Ministry of the Environment tweeted that the expedition achieved its goals that day. Various news sources posted articles stating that the expedition successfully concluded on August 19 and 20. However, the Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascaran posted on August 21 and called the incident an attack on the country’s heritage and ecosystems.
Different Points of View
Vicuña said that the “two perspectives are lacking a kind of dialogue,” characterizing the breakdown in communication between the scientists (and the national agencies which supported them) and the local communities which led to the growth of rumors and divisions.
From the point of view of those who supported the expedition, the scientific research could advance both basic and applied science. The expedition’s underlying scientific mission centered on studying changes in temperature, precipitation, atmospheric chemistry, temperature, and biodiversity in the region over the last 20,000 years. Huascaran is influenced by both the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Amazon to east—both areas of great interest in research. The research could also contribute to a better understanding of climate change and the challenges the region may face in the future as the glaciers melt and water supply from meltwater changes. The results could inform public policy going forward. Moreover, from the perspective of the scientists and the agencies, the expedition was fully legitimate. According to INAIGEM, the expedition was authorized by the Ministry of the Environment, through INAIGEM, and was authorized by the national park authority, SERNANP, to enter the park. In other words, they had obtained the necessary approvals to legally conduct their work.
Additionally, Thompson told GlacierHub: “For the Huascaran project (and indeed all of our projects) local people are informed through local lectures, press conferences and a project brochure that are widely distributed before an expedition, written in both English and the local language (in this case Spanish).” Due to these actions, the research team believed they had taken the necessary steps to make residents aware of their work.
Liam Colgan, scientific editor for the International Glaciology Society’s Journal of Glaciology, told GlacierHub about why the taking of ice cores in the Southern Hemisphere is considered particularly important research. “Since these records are often regional, Southern Hemisphere records are very valuable for complementing Northern Hemisphere records,” he said.
Colgan added, “Mid-latitude Southern Hemisphere glaciers currently have some of the highest ice loss rates in the world, which makes them some of the most endangered ice masses on Earth.”
From the point of view of the locals, however, there was great dissatisfaction with poor communication and concerns that nefarious activities were taking place. Some of their suspicions came from preexisting distrust created by illegal mining operations and from the long history of tensions between the park and the communities. Expeditions have sometimes been connected to mining that harmed the region and the local people were suspicious of outsiders who brought drilling equipment to the peak. Locals stated that they had not been involved in or notified of the permitting process carried out by INAIGEM and were unsure of the intentions of the scientists.
A resident of a local village, Elmer Aguilar, told the Associated Press that villagers were angry that they had not been informed of the expedition and that many farmers were under the impression that the scientists were scouting for a mining company. An article in Prensa Huaraz also blames INAIGEM for a lack of communication. In addition to the rural residents who expressed concern, a more senior official, the mayor of the province of Yungay, Fernando Casio Consolación, told ABC Noticias Peru that he was never informed by INAIGEM that the research would take place.
There was a large online response to the events by local community members, with discussion on certain groups, pages, and an individual’s status being shared hundreds of times. The Facebook page of Frente de Defensa por los Intereses del Nevado Huascarán posted on August 7 that 50 people were on the mountain illegally trying to extract minerals. The post was shared 617 times as of September 2.
Similar Situations in Peru and Elsewhere
“As far as we know there are no official studies or statistics that refer to whether [such conflicts] are recurring,” Vicuna told GlacierHub.
He gave an example of a project, financed by Swiss development assistance funds, which installed a high-tech early warning system for glacier lake outburst floods high in the Cordillera Blanca near Huascaran, at Laguna 513. A number of locals opposed it. The Laguna 513 case escalated. After rumors spread that the equipment was preventing the formation of clouds and causing a drought, a number of locals dismantled the station.
Data on the frequency of such conflicts taking place in Peru does not exist.
Valdivia mentioned other occasions where agencies met opposition from locals. He cited problems with the National Meteorological Service installing a weather station and the Ministry of Culture operating archaeological excavation sites.
Potentially adding to or fueling the locals’ suspicions are the high rates of corruption in the Ancash region. According to a recent document produced by La Defensoría del Pueblo, a constitutional body meant to investigate claims against public authorities, the Ancash region experienced a 67 percent increase in cases of crimes against the state between 2016 and 2018, the highest increase in Peru. In 2018, there were 661 complaints of illegal agreements between public officials and entrepreneurs or large businesses.
Outside of Peru, issues of land rights and sovereignty have led to similar conflicts and debate between scientists and local communities. For instance, the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii was temporarily blocked by protestors to whom Mauna Kea, where the telescope is being built, is sacred. The protests have brought up issues of land rights and self-determination of local communities.
However, there have also been projects that have successfully been completed by building trust and relationships with local communities. One such case is that of construction of the Kitt Peak National Observatory, where relations between scientists and native peoples developed slowly over decades, allowing trust to be established. Scientists explained their purpose and goals to the tribal council elders who governed the Native American Tohono O’odham Nation and the elders willingly leased 200 acres of land for the construction of an observatory for educational and research purposes. The conflict in Peru played out more along the lines of the Kitt Peak case than the Mauna Kea dispute.
What caused the opposition?
The strength of the opposition in Peru stands in stark contrast to the large amounts of publicity which the expedition received in Peruvian media before it began. It is unclear why it took locals almost a month to respond to the researchers’ presence and how misinformation spread despite public endorsements of the expedition from the Ministry of the Environment, INAIGEM, and even a visit from Peru’s president. Valdivia pointed out how both INAIGEM and Thompson have a history of doing research in this area of Peru and emphasized the need to determine what was different about this expedition from past trips that took place more smoothly.
“The project suffered greatly from inaccurate and deliberately false statements made on social media during the course of this project even by some of our own team members which actually put team members and the success of the project at risk,” Thompson told GlacierHub.
Some elements can be traced to explain this conflict, including the long history of tension between the park and the communities, the negative effects of mining in the region, and the corruption of officials. Scientists’ statements about their intention to drill down to bedrock may have also created concerns about covert efforts to develop mining. Flights of helicopters over Musho likely also contributed to speculation about the expedition and its purpose.
Gabrielli described how the research team was grateful for a visit from the president. He added that it was possible the visit put the expedition on locals’ radars for the wrong reasons. “This event put also our activity on the spot of the local population from the village of Musho and other communities,” he said. “They concluded that our ice core drilling activity was part of a business agreement between us and the Peruvian government to extract minerals such as gold and silver from Huascaran, heavily impacting this mountain,” he told GlacierHub.
Thompson offered another possible explanation for the events. “According to the general overseeing the operations, instigators were being paid to cause our Huascaran project to fail since the President of Peru had endorsed the project,” he stated.
Valdivia said, “Reading this situation as a case in which the locals ‘confused’ this scientific expedition with a mining operation is too simplistic.” He suggested that outreach activities to inform Peruvians of the expedition were more focused on national and urban audiences than on the local rural populations.
The solution that was reached rested on establishing a dialogue with the locals who objected. Valdivia suggested that if the locals had been fully informed of the expedition and its purpose, there might not have been a conflict.
Similarly, Kutuzov ended his statement to GlacierHub by saying, “We’d like to thank everybody who was helping us in Peru, president of Peru Martín Vizcarra, president of the INAIGEM Gisella Orjeda Fernández, all the authorities, the people of Musho, and all the communities for allowing us to successfully complete the project.” His comment highlights the important role that communication played in resolving the conflict.
Thompson highlighted the complexity of the environment they were working in, saying “the important thing to understand is that we are the outsiders and do not and cannot fully appreciate the history and the culture and that we need to find a way to work through these issues as they arise.” He added, “the Huascaran project was one of the most successful of my career for which I credit an excellent international field team with an array of diverse talents, great team of mountain guides and porters, local support from friends and colleagues at INAIGEM, the Minister of Environment and the President of Peru, Mr. Martin Vizcarra, and indirectly, the people of Musho!” Thompson was invited back to the region to give lectures on the findings of the expedition.
Despite the successful conclusion of Thompson’s expedition, the elements of discord that originated long before the researchers arrived—and which erupted in a dramatic fashion when they entangled with the project—seem to have returned to a simmer. The sudden and suspenseful turns near the end of the expedition might well bubble up again should the ingredients for conflict combine once more.
A recent visit to a research site in a high-elevation grassland in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru demonstrated the importance of these rapidly changing ecosystems. It showed as well the challenges of carrying out studies in this area, and the opportunities for collaborations between different organizations.
The Science of Grasslands
On August 17 I drove from the city of Huaraz to Laguna Llaca with Marlene Rosario, an environmental engineer at the Peruvian National Research Institute for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems (known by its Spanish acronym, INAIGEM), and Yulfo Azaña, an agronomy student at the Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo National University. Judith Dresher, another visiting American, also joined us. This visit came several days after an international forum on glaciers and mountain ecosystems, organized by INAIGEM.
Several talks at the forum focused on these grasslands. Enrique Flores, the rector of the National Agrarian University, reported on the deterioration of the quality across the entire Andean region of the country . He indicated that these grasslands have contributed to human livelihoods for millennia, providing grazing for llamas and alpacas since pre-Columbian times and for cattle and sheep as well in the centuries after the Spanish Conquest. They improve regional water resources by promoting the infiltration of surface water into ground water and by removing heavy metals, which can occur naturally or result from mining. Grasslands also support biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
Molly Polk, the associate director of Sustainability Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, presented results of analysis of satellite images, which demonstrate the reduction in area of wetlands—a key component of grassland biomes—across the Cordillera Blanca in recent decades, and noted this decline in areas that receive glacial meltwater, as well as other areas.
Flores and Polk indicated that grasslands are affected both by climate change and overgrazing. As Rosario explained to me, INAIGEM had begun research to sort out the relative importance of these two factors—a matter of practical importance as well as scientific interest, since they can be addressed by different means.
Planning the Research Project
As we drove up, Rosario, the sub-director for Climate Change Risks in Mountain Ecosystems at INAIGEM, explained the origins of the project. INAIGEM scientists had decided to conduct grazing exclusion experiments. This method, well-established in grassland ecology, consists of fencing plots so that animals can no longer graze in them, and then assessing the vegetation at regular intervals.
INAIGEM staff reviewed maps and traveled through the grasslands to select possible sites. They recognized that they would need to coordinate with several organizations to receive permission. The first was Huascaran National Park. This protected area, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains large high-elevation grassland areas. The park staff was supportive of the project, both because of their interest in learning more about the grasslands and because it could promote tourism. They discussed installing explanatory panels near the research sites so that hikers and climbers could learn more about the park’s ecosystems.
The second group consisted of the herders who graze their cattle in the region. When the national park was established in 1975, the long-established customary rights of numerous peasant communities to lands within the park were severely curtailed. These communities of Quechua-speaking farmers and herders could no longer build houses or collect wood in the park, and they were forbidden from cultivating fields in the small sections of the park below the upper limit of cultivation around 4000 meters. This loss of rights came just a few years after a major agrarian reform program had granted official recognition to these communities, and was deeply resented within them.
The park allowed some grazing to continue. It set up committees of pasture-users (comités de usuarios de pastos naturales), in this way granting grazing rights to individuals. Other community members were excluded, even though in earlier times they would have been able to gain access to grasslands if they acquired livestock. Moreover, each pasture-user was allowed to pass the rights on to only one heir, rather than to all their offspring as was the practice before the park was established. The concerns of the pasture-users is shown by a sign erected by their group at the park entrance, calling for protection of the environment and respect for local culture as well as compliance with directives from park rangers.
INAIGEM staff met with the management committees (juntas directivas) of two groups of pasture-users, Quillcayhuanca and Llaca, both of them in the drainages closest to Huaraz. They proposed using solar-powered electric fences to establish 2 to 4 exclusion plots of 5 hectares each, indicating that this would provide valuable information about pasture quality and might lead to an increase in tourism revenue. The group in Llaca—all members of the community of Cachipampa, with fields and houses lower down—showed greater interest, and agreed to allow INAIGEM staff to set up the plots.
This agreement did not end the tensions. When INAIGEM staff came to delimit the plots, the herders challenged their selection. INAIGEM preferred areas with more established vegetation, but the herders wanted them to study the sections of most deteriorated pasture. The herders claimed that INAIGEM’s actions would lead them to lose their grazing rights. They also expressed concerned that the electric fences would kill the cattle. After tense discussions, the two groups compromised on one initial plot, a bit under 5 hectares, that included woodlands and wetlands as well as grasslands.
The final challenge to INAIGEM came, not from the people, but from the animals. Azaña explained how the cattle of this high area were fierce and wild (bravos), unlike the tamer animals of the lower agricultural regions. When an engineer came with the stakes, he was charged by a bull. Fearing that he would be gored, he ran into the middle of a marshy area where the ground was too soft for the bull to enter. He remained there until others rescued him.
Visiting the Research Site
After this long account, Rosario, Azaña, Dresher and I reached the lake at the foot of the glacier. Rosario pointed out the walls that the herders had built to separate different areas of pasture. We walked down the river valley past some wetlands, and reached the plot. She showed us the electric fence, with four wires at even intervals strung between sturdy posts.
She indicated as well a ladder that passed over it into the plot. It had been added at the insistence of the community of Cachipampa, which had built an intake for a canal on the river within the plot. The community members use the water to irrigate fields well below the park.
Azaña demonstrated to us the vegetation assessment procedure. He had established 3 transects—lines which ran the length of the plot, each at a different elevation. He visits the site every 3 months, collecting data on the plant species which are present at a number of determined spots on each transect, as well as the vigor of the dominant species and the percentage of bare soil at each spot.
Even after less than a year, the initial results were clear: the plants were taller and thicker inside the plot than outside. Rosario described a meeting that she had with the management committee of the herders; they agreed that the pasture showed recovery when the grazing had stopped. She was hopeful that this finding would lead to discussions of changes in grazing patterns. The national park staff was also eager to reduce herding, though they and INAIGEM both recognize the strong attachment of the herders to these areas and their distrust of government agencies.
Considering the Next Steps
On the way back to Huaraz, Rosario, Azaña and I discussed ways to promote further engagement of the herders in the research and the management. We talked about involving the herders directly in the assessment of pasture quality. Rosario said, “We don’t just study trees and water. We pay attention to the social component.” She and Azaña were interested to hear that an indigenous pastoralist—a Saami from Norway—was a co-author of a chapter in the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, and considered the possibility of having Quechua co-authors of reports and papers on their research. We discussed including text in Quechua, as well as Spanish and English, on the explanatory panels about the project. Dresher suggested reintroducing llamas and alpacas into the area, with the tourist restaurants in Huaraz as a possible market for the meat.
“We are Andean,” Rosario said, as we drew closer to Huaraz. “We are familiar with these places.” Indeed she and Azaña are both from the Ancash region, where Huaraz and the national park are located. They both speak Quechua as well as Spanish. These common identities and connections to the landscape may prove important as the ties between researchers and herders unfold.
Over 30 people, including government officials, researchers, students and journalists, recently visited Palcacocha, a lake at the foot of a large glacier high in the Peruvian Andes. This one-day trip was a tour that came the day after an international glacier conference held nearby. The group discussed natural hazards and water resources associated with the lake. The conversation revealed that a number of different agencies and organizations have claims to the lake, and that their concerns, though overlapping, differ in important ways, raising challenges for those who wish to manage it. These issues of governance are characteristic of the management of glacier lakes in other countries as well, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland and Tajikistan.
Lake Palcacocha, located about 20 kilometers northeast of the city of Huaraz at an elevation of 4550 meters above sea level, is well-known in Peru and beyond as the source of a major glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). This event occurred in 1941, when a chunk of ice broke off the glacier above the lake, sending waves that destroyed the moraine that dammed the lake. The floodwaters, mixed with rock, mud and debris, rushed down the canyon and inundated Huaraz, located well below the lake at an elevation of 3050 meters. The death toll was high, exceeding 5000 by many accounts, and large areas of the city were destroyed. The residents of the city remain keenly aware of the risks presented by GLOFs, known as aluviones in Spanish.
The visitors traveled up to the lake in buses and vans, hiking on foot to cover the final, and roughest, kilometer of the road. They assembled at the wall at the base of the lake that had been built in the 1940s to reinforce the moraine dam. The first person to speak was César Portocarrero, an engineer from the Peruvian National Institute for Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, the group which organized the international conference. This institute, known by its Spanish acronym INAIGEM, is a branch of Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. It is charged with managing glacier issues in the country, including this lake. Portocarrero discussed the wall, indicating that it has been repaired several times after damage from earthquakes. He showed a sluice gate through which a number of plastic pipes were threaded. These serve to siphon water from the lake and pass it into the outlet river below, relying on gravity rather than pumps to move the water.
By lowering the level of the lake, the agency also lowers the risk that waves in the lake (which could be produced by icefalls, avalanches, or earthquakes) would overtop the wall and create another GLOF. Portocarrero indicated as well that an intake valve further downstream directs the water from the river to the city of Huaraz. This lake supplies the city with nearly half its water. The key goal, he emphasized, was to keep the lake level low. He mentioned that glacier melt was particularly heavy in January, due to high temperatures associated with an El Niño event. The lake was so high that the siphon pipes had to be removed, allowing the maximum possible flow through the sluice gate. It took several months after the excess water was drained to thread the pipes through the gate and reinstall them.
The second person to speak was Eloy Alzamora Morales, the mayor of the district of Independencia, the administrative unit in which the lake is located. He emphasized the importance of a multisectoral approach that would link disaster risk reduction with sustainable water use, providing potable water to Huaraz and to rural areas above the city, and supporting a hydroelectric plant that he wished to build. He expressed his hope to coordinate government agencies, civil society organizations and private firms to promote sustainable development through integrated water management. The key goal, he indicated, was to keep the lake at an intermediate level, retaining enough water for urban consumption and hydropower generation while also reducing hazard risks.
After this second talk, most of the journalists who videotaped these first two speakers dispersed to take photographs of the lake, the glacier and the surrounding peaks, which rise up to over 6270 meters in elevation. A few remained to listen to Selwyn Valverde, a conservation manager at Huascaran National Park, the large protected area in which the lake, glacier and peaks are located. He emphasized the national park’s goals of supporting ecosystems in as pristine a condition as possible. He spoke proudly of the park’s biodiversity, emphasizing that it contains sizable populations of high mountain plants and animals that are more seriously threatened elsewhere in the Andes. Pointing to the outflow stream from the lake, he mentioned that it supports high-elevation wetlands which support groundwater recharge. The key goal, he suggested, was to manage the park to support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services; any alteration of unimpeded stream flow would require careful consideration.
Jeff Kargel, a geoscientist from the University of Arizona, spoke more informally, with one or two journalists taking notes. As a researcher who focuses on the earth and other bodies in the solar system, he, too, had a kind of standing to speak for the area. He pointed out the rocky bluffs halfway up the glacier. When glacier ice, moving downslope, reaches them, it tends to fall off because they are so steep. As a result, they appear as black masses halfway up the glacier. They are large enough to be visible in satellite images. Kargel reported that these were the features that NASA had interpreted in 2003 as newly formed cracks within the glaciers. They issued a warning of increased GLOF risk, which led to near-panic in the region and a sharp decline in tourism for over a year. This incident, he indicated, showed the importance of taking care in issuing warnings, and the danger of false alarms.
These discussions over, the group dispersed. Some people hiked down from the wall to the lake. One of these was Gualberto Machaca, a native speaker of Quechua, the indigenous language of the region. He works with a small NGO, Asociación Bartolomé Aripaylla, which focuses on the use of traditional knowledge and culture in promoting sustainability and well-being. His focus was on the indigenous communities that had long held traditional rights to the lake, but which were expelled from the park at its formation in 1975. Walking slowly around the shore of the lake, he commented that the customary rituals of making offerings to the lake spirits, common in other regions of Peru, seemed to be less evident here, but he thought it was likely that they were still carried on, probably at night, by small groups. He provided an overview of the lake rituals in which he had participated, further south in Peru. He suggested that the support of such rituals would promote the integration of indigenous knowledge into efforts to address climate change.
After a half hour, the conference organizers called the people to walk back to the vehicles. We drove a short distance to a cluster of stone huts, where the caretakers of the dam lived. They had prepared a lunch for us, a traditional meal of meat and potatoes baked in an underground oven. The group sat at rough-hewn tables and on benches, eating the local food with their hands, as is the customary practice—a striking contrast with the banquet that ended the conference, where food was elegantly served on fine dishes on tables covered with tablecloths. No discord was evident, even though different forms of management of the lake had been discussed, and the lake had been claimed by different organizations (a branch of a ministry, a municipality, a national park, international scientists and indigenous communities). It seemed that everyone could agree on the importance of the lake, the value of the excursion, and the affirmation of customary foods. As the visitors returned for the drive back to Huaraz, a number of people exchanged business cards and handshakes. From these networks and exchanges, new activities may emerge to address the substantial challenges that glacier retreat brings to the lake and to the area, offering lessons for mountain regions around the world.
Since 1972, UNESCO has been protecting more than 1,000 World Heritage sites in 163 different countries, with the goal of maintaining them for the benefit of future generations, and for all humankind. Most of these sites are iconic tourist destinations, ranging from natural wonders such as Yellowstone National Park, scenic wild landscapes such as the Galapagos Islands, to cultural icons, such as Stonehenge. Many are glaciers and glacial mountain ranges.
But climate change impacts, such as sea level rise, higher temperatures, habitat shifts, and more frequent and extreme weather events, threaten to quickly and permanently degrade and destroy both the natural beauty and cultural value of these sites. Moreover, climate change exacerbates the effects of other processes which endanger these sites, such as urbanization, pollution, natural resource extraction and, increasingly, poorly managed tourism.
The report argues that damaging what it calls the “outstanding universal value” of World Heritage sites harms not only the site itself, but also the local communities and economies that depend on these sites for tourism.
UNESCO and its World Heritage program were both created in a spirit of internationalism. UNESCO was formed following World War II, and in 1972, it created the World Heritage Centre to “encourage international cooperation in the conservation of our world’s cultural and natural heritage.” Now, climate change threatens these universally loved sites, as well as their surrounding local communities.
The report details 12 full case studies and 18 briefer “sketches” of the climate change vulnerability of 31 World Heritage properties in 29 countries. Four include glacier landmarks.
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
Sagarmatha National Park encompasses the highest point on earth: the peak of Mount Everest. The National Park is listed as a World Heritage site for the abundant natural beauty of its mountains, glaciers, and valleys, and for the cultural significance of local Sherpa culture. One third of the people on Earth depend on glacial melt water from the Himalayas, including water from Sagarmatha. However, glacial retreat caused by rising temperatures are threatening the reliability of Sagarmatha’s water source. Glacier loss in the region also threatens to cause catastrophic landslides, glacial lake outbreak floods (GLOFs), and erosion.
Golden Mountains of Altai, Russian Federation
The Altai Mountains are listed as a World Heritage site for their biodiversity and for the region’s cultural and archaeological traditions. The mountains hold the frozen tombs of the ancient Scythian people, who were documented by ancient historian Herodotus (484-425 BC). Climate change and rising temperatures threaten both threatens the tombs’ preservation, which are remarkably protected by permafrost, and the Altai mountain glaciers.
Huascarán National Park, Peru
Huascarán National Park rests in Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range in the world’s tropics, and the Park encases Huascarán: the highest peak in Peru. The Park contains incredibly diverse flora and fauna and 660 glaciers, making it a popular tourist destination. The famous Pastoruri Glacier is one of the park’s main attraction, but it may disappear altogether within the next few decades. Since the 1930s, the Park’s glaciers have shrunk by 30 per cent. This poses concerns about water availability for many local communities, as well as for hydropower.
Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland, Denmark
The Icefjord serves as a major summer tourist destination, where visitors travel to the enormous Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier, which hangs off of the Disko Bay. In the summer, visitors can hear and see the ice cracking and caving into the bay. Increased temperatures have increased the amount of seasonal ice caving. The glacier is listed as a World Heritage site for its contribution to improving the scientific understanding of glaciology, for its global importance as a geological feature, and for its wild and scenic landscape.
The report stresses the importance of fulfilling the Paris Agreement, which was adopted in December of 2015. The report’s foreword states that achieving the Agreement’s goal of keeping global average temperature rise to well below 2°C is “vital for the future of World Heritage.” It contains as well a number of other specific recommendations which link many stakeholders–local communities, indigenous peoples, policy-makers, tourism agencies, intergovernmental organization and the World Heritage Convention–to monitor, manage and protect these areas.
In addition to detailing the climate vulnerability of World Heritage sites, the report also details a “clear and achievable” mitigation response. The paper recommends preserving and managing forest and coastal habitats, using World Heritage sites as “learning laboratories” to study resiliency and mitigation management strategies, and increasing visitors’ understanding of and appreciation for World Heritage sites, as well as how climate change affects them.
The report also suggests that in a changing climate, tourism can play a positive role in securing the future of many World Heritage sites by providing an economic incentive to invest in mitigation and adaptation strategies. In this light, glaciers may serve as an important rallying point for climate change mitigation. Their natural beauty and cultural value can inspire people at the local, national, and international level to take action.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ecotourists want to experience the power, beauty, and wonder of nature. But do they also want to be exposed to its fragility?
Not long ago Peru’s Pastoruri glacier attracted around 100,000 visitors per year, but the number of tourists has dwindled as the glacier has shrunk. As it shrank, it divided into two smaller glaciers in 2007 and into three in 2012. So what are the businesses and local guides who depend on the tourism economy to do?
Huascaran National Park is opening a “Climate Change Route” to showcase firsthand the impacts of climate change on these centuries-old glaciers, in what could be seen as part climate change adaptation and part savvy public relations maneuver. The project began in 2010, will be 35 km long, will have an interpretive center, feature mineral springs with drinking water and unusual native plants including the world’s largest bromeliad (a relative of pineapple) which grows over 12 feet tall. The plan is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Commerce, total of over $1.5M.
In part because of Peru’s diversity of species and its vulnerability to climate change, the country was chosen to host the 20th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in December. The goal of the conference is to advance towards developing a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in 2020. A stronger version of the international agreement will help Peru’s glacier tourism, if it’s not too late, that is.
Local businesses and guides near Peru’s Pastoruri glacier are hoping that tourists will pay to visit the vanishing glacier, just as some ecotourists trek to see vanishing animal species. A three-day route through several villages in the Andes is open for the first time during the tourist season. When the season ends in September, there will likely be an assessment of the success of the first year.
Though it’s too early to tell if strategies like this one work, glacier communities who look to tourists to support the local economy, such as those in Switzerland, New Zealand, and Nepal, will have to weigh their options. They could shift away from glacier-based tourism towards other activities or convince tourists to spend their vacations witnessing the impacts of global climate change firsthand.