Science and Politics in a Mountain Grassland in Peru

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

Marlene Rosario and Yulfo Azaña in Llaca Valley (source: Ben Orlove)
Yulfo Azaña and Marlene Rosario in Llaca Valley (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Wetlands in Copa Grande, Peru, with woodlands and grasslands on slope (source: Ben Orlove)
Wetlands in Copa Grande, Peru, with woodlands and grasslands on slope (source: Ben Orlove)

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

Entering the upper Llaca valley (source: Ben Orlove
Entering the upper Llaca valley (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Sign at entrance to Huascaran National Park from pasture user's group, requesting protection of the environment and respect for culture (source: Ben Orlove)
Sign from pasture-user group at entrance to Huascaran National Park  (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Stone wall built by herders to control movement of livestock (source: Ben Orlove)
Stone wall built by herders to control movement of livestock (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Location of study plot, with approximate boundaries shown in black (source: Ben Orlove)
Location of study plot, with approximate boundaries shown in black (source: Ben Orlove)

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

Rosario, showing the fence and ladder (source: Ben Orlove)
Marlene Rosario, showing the fence and ladder (source: Ben Orlove)

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 demonstrating the method of assessing plant vigor (source: Ben Orlove)
Azaña demonstrating the method of assessing plant vigor (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Edge of exclusion plot, showing taller vegetation on the left, inside the plot (source: Ben Orlove)
Edge of exclusion plot, showing taller vegetation on the left, inside the plot (source: Ben Orlove)

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

Upper Llaca valley, showing glacier (source: Ben Orlove)
Upper Llaca valley, showing glacier (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

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Officials, Experts, Local People Visit a High-risk Glacier Lake

Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)
Lake Palcacocha, showing the face of the debris-covered glacier that reaches the lake (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)
Moraine below Lake Palcacocha, showing the breach created by the outburst flood of 1941 (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)
Plastic pipes siphoning water from Lake Palcacocha. Note the floats which keep the intake suspended above the lake bottom (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Eloy Alzamora Morales, mayor of the district of Independencia, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)
Selwyn Valverde of Huascaran National Park, speaking at Palcacocha (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcococha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)
Pipes releasing water from Lake Palcacocha into the outlet stream during the dry season (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)
lunch for visitors to Lake Palcococha, served by the caretakers of the dam. Gualberto Machaca at extreme left (source: Ben Orlove)

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.

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New Report Highlights Vulnerability of World Heritage Glacier Sites

A new report entitled “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” highlights the vulnerability of key glacial World Heritage Sites to climate change. The report was coauthored by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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

Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) Base Camp and Rongbuk monastery. (source: Kartläsarn/Flickr)
Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) base camp and Rongbuk monastery. (source: Kartläsarn/Flickr)

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

Pazyryk carpet, found in the grave of a Scythian prince, in Altai Mountains in Siberia. Woven in the 5th century BC (source: Ninara/Flickr)
Pazyryk carpet, found in the grave of a Scythian prince, in Altai Mountains in Siberia. Woven in the 5th century BC (source: Ninara/Flickr)

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

Laguna Llanganuco in Huascarán National Park (source: UNESCO)
Laguna Llanganuco in Huascarán National Park (source: UNESCO)

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

Boat in Ilulissat Icefjord (Greenland), Denmark. (source: UNESCO)
Boat in Ilulissat Icefjord (Greenland), Denmark. (source: UNESCO)

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.

 

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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.

pastoruri skraldetur 30.5 (1)
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. 

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See it while you can: A Peruvian national park capitalizes on glacier melt

https://www.flickr.com/photos/inyucho/8059915843/
Tourists are flocking to Peru’s Pastoruri to see it before it melts. (Taco Witte/Flickr)

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.

 

 

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