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



As the ice melts, communities ask: Should I stay or should I go now?
A local walks in one of the dozens of villages from Chavin to Chacas in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca region. (martynas/Flickr)

As the global temperature increases, vulnerable communities seem to be faced with a choice: adapt or collapse. Migration is frequently proposed as an adaptation strategy, or in some cases, as an unavoidable outcome for communities lacking the capacity to change. Some researchers, however, have criticized this perspective, saying that it reflects an environmental determinism that discounts the role of governments and other institutions in creating or exacerbating underlying vulnerabilities.

A new study from David J. Wrathall of the United Nations University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security investigates migration as an adaptation response not only to climatic stress, but to political structures as well.

Historically, smallholder farmers in the Cordillera Blanca in highland Peru largely relied on ad-hoc, informal access to water from springs and streams for agriculture and grazing. In the 1960s, a series of reforms promoted more formal management of water resources; along with an agrarian reform, it fostered the growth of smallholder agriculture. Peru’s transition in the 1990s to export-led growth increased urbanization along the country’s coastal region, drawing large-scale emigration from rural highlands.

Competing water needs of the newly urbanized coast, hydroelectric stations and coastal export-oriented agriculturalists, led Peru to introduce a new water management law in 2009. The law is “premised on the concept of integrated water management,” but the authors state that water laws are opportunities for powerful actors to increase the rigidity of water provisioning and control resources even further. Given several recent high-profile disputes, this increasing rigidity in water redistribution appears to be playing out. In the case of the Cordillera Blanca, towns, hydroelectric plants and coastal agriculture have captured water resources that used to be managed informally by smallholders, exacerbating the impacts of glacier retreat on water scarcity.

The study’s authors found that while the new wave of migration is driven by climate change-related stresses, “dominant institutional forces” shape and direct this form of climate change response. They conclude that migration is a strategy of last resort among a menu of limited alternatives, and acts as a necessary pressure valve to relieve the water stress that arises from competition to a limited (and dwindling) resource among powerful and less powerful actors. Migration in this institutional context is a conflict resolution mechanism as much as an adaptation to climate change, and is an adaptation alternative that is promoted by, and reinforces, existing power structures.

Expanding the discourse beyond ecological determinism to an ecological and social “possibilism” is the way forward, according to the paper’s authors. This, broadening, they hope, will allow for alternative adaptation responses and not force “the undesirable scenarios in which migration occurs.”