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.
Ahora | En conferencia de prensa, ministra @LuciaRuizO, presidenta ejecutiva del @InaigemPeru, @gorjeda y el investigador Lonnie Thompson, informan sobre la expedición científica al nevado Huascarán que se realizará en julio.#PerúNatural pic.twitter.com/OoNr8CmfwH— Ministerio del Ambiente 🇵🇪♻️ (@MinamPeru) June 27, 2019
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).
Presidente @MartinVizcarraC visita a expedición científica que busca información en el Huascarán. Perforaciones en el hielo permitirá conocer qué ocurrió en el planeta 20 mil años atrás, expresó ►https://t.co/R07jpEo1hq pic.twitter.com/MO0AP2xxiJ— TVPerú Noticias (@noticias_tvperu) July 9, 2019
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.
🏔️ Culminan labores de la Expedición Científica Huascarán 2019, a cargo de grupo de científicos conformado por expertos de @InaigemPeru y del equipo del reconocido glaciólogo estadounidense Lonnie Thompson de @OhioState.— Ministerio del Ambiente 🇵🇪♻️ (@MinamPeru) August 19, 2019
🗞️ + info: https://t.co/YEHBaBn2W6#PerúNatural pic.twitter.com/3nxF3otNr4
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.
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