This week’s video features the passion project of Quechua activist Irma Alvarez to preserve the Quechua tradition through orality and writing. Quechua refers to the original group of languages spoken by the Incan Empire in the Andes Mountains. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, use of the language was suppressed as the indigenous groups were indoctrinated to Catholicism and the Spanish language. Quechua is a linguistic family wherein distinct dialects vary from community to community.
Despite the lack of printed material written in the Quechuan language, indigenous peoples clung to their mother tongue. It is estimated around ten million people still speak it across five South American countries today. Without literacy, however, the language is vulnerable to extinction. Alvarez is on a mission to teach Quechuan speakers how to read and write in their native language by increasing access and availability of printed materials. The Quechua Alliance in the United States hosts an annual meeting as part of the effort to preserve the culture of the high Andes by expanding the availability of the Quechuan oral tradition. The video has English subtitles.
Translated from La República: “Studying in the United States is possible if you really want it. This is stated by Laura Balbuena, executive director of the Fulbright Commission in Peru, the entity in charge of the educational and cultural exchange between the United States of America and our country… One scholarship offered by the Fulbright Commission this year is aimed at Quechua-speaking professionals. Through the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) scholarship or Foreign Language Teaching Assistant, it is intended that Peruvian graduates who have mastery of the Quechua language – as a first language or learned – are assistants to the chair of this course that are offered in certain U.S. universities.”
From PNAS: “ If the world’s societies want to avoid crossing a potential threshold that locks the Earth System into the Hothouse Earth pathway, then it is critical that they make deliberate decisions to avoid this risk and maintain the Earth System in Holocene-like conditions…Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. ”
From The City Paper Bogota: “Climate change is taking a devastating toll on Colombia’s glaciers, according to the country’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies – IDEAM. In a study released last month, within the next 30 years, the six remaining glaciers that cover the peaks of Colombia’s Nevados will disappear if the ice continues to melt at current rates.”
The residents of four Quechua villages in the Chicón valley in highland Peru performed a complex ritual on August 6 this year, as they have done for years, as a means of making offerings to Pachamama, the earth mother, understood as the source of vitality for humans and other beings. Such offerings, made at this time of year in other villages across the Andes, serve to renew the ties that link the villages with the spirits.
At this time, the villagers also speak to the mountain deities or apus. They directly face each mountain to which they speak and make a series of ritual gestures toward the mountain, a way of recognizing its power and requesting its benevolence for the coming year. The offerings express the villagers’ hope that the mountains will provide good rains and abundant streams to water their fields, so that they will have plentiful harvests.
These events are usually closed to outsiders, but in this case, some were invited by the guilds within the villages that manage the irrigation canals. They invited the staff of an NGO and a Swiss bilateral aid agency that run projects there, as well as some researchers from the regional university who work with them. This invitation was also extended to me and several other researchers who had attended a climate change conference in the nearby city of Cusco earlier that month.
Traveling to the Village
We gathered before dawn in a square in Cusco, some distance from the city center, and boarded a bus that took us over a pass and down to the Río Urubamba. We took a road that followed that river to its confluence with the Río Chicón, a smaller river which descends, in its length of 8 kilometers, over 2500 meters from glacier summits to the Río Urubamba.
Our bus turned up the Chicón valley, passing through fields, orchards and small clusters of low adobe houses, until we came to the final, highest village, where the road became too narrow and rocky for the bus to traverse. We were then ferried further in cars and pick-up trucks through a higher zone of rocky pastures and scattered trees. The Chicón valley narrowed as we advanced. Along the way we saw many villagers making the same journey, some also by car, others on motorcycles or on foot.
The road came to a rise, from which the place where the ritual would be held came into view, Occoruro Pampa, a broad expanse about 10 hectares in area. Hemmed in by steep slopes, it was the last piece of flat land in the valley before the rugged terrain that leads up to the glaciers. For most of the year, this area would be empty, or have at most a herder or two with their cows or sheep. But by late morning, when I arrived, a couple of hundred people had assembled there, about a third of the entire population of the valley. They were standing in groups, waiting, as one of the Swiss explained to me, for someone who was missing, a representative of a guild that manages one of the irrigation canals in the valley. The leaders from the other canal guilds had already arrived, but the offerings to the earth, and the prayers to the mountains, could not be made until all those who receive water were present to take part.
After some minutes, this man arrived (or, according to some, his chief assistant arrived). The entire group then walked to the upper end of Occoruro Pampa. As we crossed it, I noticed many rocks and some large boulders. These had been carried down from higher up in a glacier lake outburst flood in 2010, which also damaged fields lower down. This event brought a number of relief projects to Chicón—a process which touched off complex, sometimes tense, negotiations between NGOs, government agencies, and the communities, and which contributed to the strong presence of researchers and NGOs in the area at present.
Performing the Rituals
When we reached the top of Occoruro Pampa, the villagers and visitors formed a large circle around the specialists who would carry out the ritual, known in Spanish as a pago a la tierra, a payment to the earth, and in Quechua as a haywarisqa, an offering. (Some people also refer to the ritual by the term anqusu, which is more common in regions further west.)
The president of the Chicón peasant community gave a short speech in Spanish, welcoming the visitors and telling the whole group of the importance of carrying this ritual out year after year to assure the well-being of all. He urged people to not leave any trash behind, since pollution was a sign of disrespect to the mountains, and could make the glacial ice shrink even faster.
It soon became clear that there would be two offerings made, rather than just one. The first soon got underway as a man in a poncho knelt down, spread out a cloth, and opened a box containing many items wrapped up in paper bundles. He placed a clay bowl on the cloth and began to prepare small fan-like arrays of coca leaves, each containing exactly three leaves. These arrays, called k’intu in Quechua, are used in other rituals as well. An assistant, standing to his side, reached down—quite impatiently, I thought—to adjust a few of the k’intu. Other people distributed coca leaves to the people in the group; some took leaves to chew, and many formed k’intu of their own.
The leader held a fan of three leaves in front of him and blew on it. He recited in Quechua the names of eight or nine apus, the high mountain peaks of the region, blowing on the k’intu in the direction of each as he spoke its name. The first two which he mentioned were Salkantay and Ausangate; though Ausangate is 100 meters higher than Salkantay, it is not quite as important cosmologically. He continued through some lesser regional peaks, before getting to the local mountains, several of them at the headwaters of the valley. Having completed the list of mountains above us, he then recited the names of over twenty springs in the valley, all below us in elevation, and then began a prayer which requested for the streams to be full with water, and for rain to be plentiful, to assure good harvests. He spoke at length in a slow, loud, sonorous tone, urging the spirits not to forget the people, to be generous to them, and to assure them a year of abundance.
He placed a piece of bread in the dish and then set four k’intu around it. Many people in the group came up, each blowing on their own set of leaves and handing it to the ritual specialist or his assistant. These eventually covered the bread. The specialist then placed additional items on top, starting with yellow maize kernels, which he called qori, gold. The final item was a dried starfish, all the way from the Pacific Ocean. He sprinkled flower petals, red and yellow and white, over the whole assemblage. He then turned to a pit which had recently been dug, about 50 cm across and 75 cm deep. He poured two liquids into the pit, first wine and then the locally brewed maize beer. He carefully set the plate in the bottom of the pit, along with a tiny jug and another small object, and covered them up with earth. He sprinkled petals over the surface, and his offering was complete.
The second offering was to be burned, rather than buried, so a larger pit was dug for it, and firewood and dried cow dung were assembled as fuel. Though these offerings are usually prepared by a single practitioner, sometimes with an assistant, as in the first, the second one featured both a male and a female practitioner, and it was the woman who conducted the preparation of the offering. She set a large paper square on one cloth atop a larger cloth, and held this paper down with four stones, one in each corner. This was a larger offering, layers of different kinds of maize, round colored candies, as well as other items; when it was complete, it formed a large mound. She placed brightly colored ribbons, each descending from the top of the mound in a different direction.
While she was assembling this offering, her male counterpart gave a long address in Quechua, combining the prayers to the spirits with commentary. He opened by emphasizing the seriousness of the ritual, and stressing that it was true, not at all a game. He stated that the whole ritual comes from God, offering a version of the Trinity which included, as is standard, God the Father and God the Son, but which contained as the third figure the Mother of God, rather than the more canonical Holy Spirit. However, he explained, the apus are the owners of the water and so it is to them that requests must be made. His list of apus was not in as precise a sequence from regional to local as in the first ritual, but he spoke with great feeling, apologizing to the apus whose names he had omitted. He requested that the apus whom he might have forgotten entirely not to be angry.
One by one he asked the apus, in somewhat varying terms, to watch for us, to send water, to send rain, to cause us to eat, to allow us to work. He evoked the earlier generations who knew better than present-day people how to make offerings, and he stressed the responsibility of the current generation of elders to pass their knowledge on. This knowledge must be raised up, and these offerings must be improved and made more beautiful, year by year. (This emphasis made sense to me after one of the Swiss researchers explained that these rituals had been neglected for many years. They were restored in 2007 by villagers who were concerned about the deteriorating environment that they saw around them.)
As he spoke, a group of five musicians began to play, not the more contemporary brass instruments that are popular in many village festivals but flutes and drums, older instruments that date back many generations. With this accompaniment, he closed his prayers with exhortations to the assembly: they must not look at each other enviously, nor hate each other, nor strike each other. Discord and violence offend the apus, he suggested, while harmony encourages their generosity, and might even help bring the glacial ice back.
The woman specialist wrapped up her offering in a square cloth, as the fire began to burn in the pit. She prepared to take the offering there, but the assembled people moved back down to the middle section of Occoruro Pampa. The dancing had begun. Six boys and six girls in costume performed line dances and circle dances, sometimes holding hands, sometimes holding ribbons, to the delight of the villagers and the guests alike.
The Meal after the Rituals
The food then appeared. One large cloth was filled with an enormous pile of boiled kernels of yellow maize, a kind of hominy, while a second held bread and fruit that the guests had picked up in the market in a town between Cusco and Chicón. Both were very popular with the people in attendance. Some continued the spirit of reverence by lifting a handful of maize kernels and blowing on it towards the mountains, as they had with the k’intu.
Maize was available in a second form as well, as the home-brewed beer, prepared with local strawberries for flavor and color. Soon, others came around through the crowd with large cloths filled with potatoes that had been roasted in small earth ovens, and others began serving local cheese. The symbolism seemed evident: the maize and potatoes come from the lower sections of the village lands, the cheese from the cows that graze in the upper pastures. Though many farmers now grow cash crops, such as broccoli and carrots for the restaurants of Cusco, and some have even started cultivating roses, their rituals still evoke the traditional subsistence foods, and indicate that agriculture supports the basic needs of the residents, rather than providing them with cash income.
As the villagers ate their meals, I had the chance to speak with the second ritual practitioner, the one who gave the speech about harmony. He is from the village, but had traveled and studied abroad, and had even received a medical degree in Havana. He returned to the village some years ago and became involved in the local rituals that he had seen as a child and then neglected for decades. He now runs a clinic of what he terms “Andean medicine” in a nearby town. The woman who prepared the second offering has also spent time outside the village.
Discussions of the Rituals
Luís Vicuña, a Peruvian sociologist, explained to me that these two had been contracted to prepare the offering by one group of farmers who were associated with irrigation water guilds, ones that date back many decades and that are now supported by the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture. The specialist who performed the first offering, he said, had been brought in by another group that has been seeking to improve domestic water supply, for cooking and cleaning, to the households; these groups are administered directly by the Peruvian cabinet as a whole, rather than forming part of a specific ministry. These rivalries, he thought, were expressed in the delayed start of the ritual, as well as to the presence of two ceremonies, rather than one, as had been the custom for some years.
Luís and I continued our conversation on the ride back to Cusco, with Luís Mujica, an anthropologist at Peru’s Catholic University, joining in. Was there ever a time when conflict was completely absent in the villages? Researchers had reported disagreements in other villages in Peru over water management. And the multiplicity of projects, of agencies and of NGOs can create rivalries among their supporters. Perhaps the rituals, carried out with such attention to tradition, to well-being and to the watershed itself, can express both unity and division.
I mentioned that Andean rituals are being revived in a number of villages, not only ones like Chicón, confronted with glacier retreat and glacier lake outburst floods, but there must be nonetheless a link with these glacier issues in Chicón. The prayers of the ritual specialists seemed to express genuine feeling, rather than merely being a routine repetition of established formulas. And these feelings seem to be shared by the villagers as well, at least judging by their willingness not merely to attend the rituals but to observe them closely and to participate in them by blowing on k’íntu and on the maize.
As we rode back to Cusco, I reflected on these offerings to the earth and on this evocation of mountain spirits. They are not a simple tradition, one that has remained unbroken and unchanged. Instead, they have a more complex history, one of decline and revival, and one of engagement with environmental and economic change as well. But, despite the shifts in the ways they are carried out, they rest on the deep ties of the villagers to each other, to their mountain-ringed valley and its river, and to the Quechua language that the villagers understand as the only language in which one can address the earth and the mountains. In a changing world, these ties endure.
A faculty member and students from a provincial university in Peru recently presented the results of a class project on glacier research at an international conference. Their study of glacier retreat and environmental risks draws on the familiarity of the faculty and students with local environments and cultures. It sets an important example by showing how this familiarity makes such work possible in what might be seen as an unfavorable setting: a small university in a developing country.
Renny Aguilar Diaz, the faculty member, teaches environmental engineering at the National University of Juliaca, located in the Puno region in southern Peru. He also works with SENAMHI, the Peruvian National Meteorological and Hydrological Service.
Speaking with GlacierHub last month, and following up with an email interview, Diaz explained that the project focused on Mount Vizcachani, a peak 6044 meters above sea level in the Cordillera Apolobamba, located on the border between Peru and Bolivia. He expressed his appreciation for SENAMHI, which provided data and logistical support to the project. He noted as well that the university, founded in 2007, is smaller and less well funded than older universities in Peru.
The students used two different methods to study the peak, its glaciers and the associated lakes and streams. They examined LANDSAT satellite images from 1985 to 2016 to identify recently formed glacier lakes. This project gave students experience in using the Normalized Difference Snow Index (NDSI) to analyze these images and detect changes in glacier cover and new lakes. The research also included field trips to the glaciers to provide ground-truthing of the satellite images and to assess water quality.
The field work involved significant challenges: a five-hour drive on unpaved roads in poor condition, and then another five hours of hiking to the glacier. The hiking provided an opportunity for the students to converse with the members of the local community of Pampamachay, whose livelihoods rest on the cultivation of cold-tolerant potato varieties and on the herding of sheep and alpacas.
Several of the students, who are from the Puno region, speak Quechua, the primary language of the community. The local residents explained their concerns, particularly about the expansion of artisanal gold mining in the higher sections of the Cordillera, which could lead to water pollution. To assess water quality, the students analyzed the water samples which they collected in the lakes, and found that it was mildly acid, with an average pH of 6.5.
The students later shared this information with the communities, who expressed a fear about possible impacts on pasture and on alpaca herds. Fortunately, this level does not seem threatening, though there is a possibility of increased acidification from the weathering of rocks that are newly exposed by glacier retreat. Diaz wrote to GlacierHub, “the meeting with the community unfolded in a friendly manner.” He mentioned a positive note of the contacts with the community members: the sighting of eight Andean condors. This species is the largest flying bird in the world, of importance throughout Peru. It appears in the country’s first coat of arms and in indigenous rituals.
Diaz, along with another faculty member from the National University of Juliaca, Ricardo Chambi and three students, presented a poster at the International Forum on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, held in Huaraz, Peru in August. The poster, titled “Glacier Lakes as Indicators of Glacier Retreat in Vizcachani, Cordillera Apolobamba” indicated that the glacier cover in the Cordillera Apolobamba has decreased by 57% between 1985 and 2016. There had been only one lake at the start of this period, Japucocha, but by the end there were five, two of them covering 10 hectares in area. These other lakes are so new that they do not yet have names, but only have been given numbers.
The researchers reported that there is a significant risk of glacier lake outburst floods. They commented on the instability of the moraines behind which the lakes have formed, and showed an image of one of the new lakes, into which a glacier had recently released ice through a calving event. They comment that the community of Pampamachay lies in the path of these possible flood events, another finding of potential importance to the community.
A number of participants in the forum listened to the explanations which Diaz and the students gave of the poster. Benjamin Morales, the director of INAIGEM, the institution which sponsored the forum, asked several questions after their explanation. One of the student authors, Franklin Hancco, explained to GlacierHub that this forum was the first conference that he attended outside his home region of Puno. He indicated that it was an exciting opportunity for him to meet researchers from other parts of Peru and Latin America, as well as from Europe and North America.
The poster demonstrates the potential for training students in scientific research methods, even in small provincial universities that lack the support of wealthier institutions located in the capital city of Lima. Such methods can serve to document processes of glacier change. The poster shows as well the value of linkages between glacier researchers and mountain communities, and the importance of language and culture in establishing these linkages.
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.
Zoila Mendoza, an anthropologist and the chair of the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, is also the producer of a documentary recorded in the high Andes of Peru. “The Pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i: The Walk Experience,” first released in February 2015, has won five honors, including a 2016 International Gold Award for Documentary and Short International Movie Awards, held in Jakarta earlier this month.
Mendoza’s film provides a detailed view of the largest pilgrimage in the Andes. Each spring, about 50,000 people, many of them indigenous Quechua, travel to the sanctuary of the Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i in the Cusco region of Peru, located at 4,800 meters above sea level at the foot of a glacier. At this site, they perform ritual dances and pay homage to the miraculous image of Christ on a rock and to the mountain itself, the glacier-covered Qollqepunku. Mendoza accompanied villagers from the community of Pomacanchi on three different annual pilgrimages, as they walked the 135 kilometers from their home village to the sanctuary. This journey takes three days and two nights, and leads them over four high passes. Her video shows the continuous music of flute and drums that accompanies the entire pilgrimage, as well as the dances in Pomacanchi, at points on the path to the shrine, and at the shrine itself.
The film documents the integration of sounds, sight and movement that together compose the pilgrimage experience. With its close-up view of a group of pilgrims, showing the heavy loads they carry on the journey and the long hours of vigorous dancing, it conveys the depth of their devotion of the pilgrims to the saints and mountains. In an email interview, Mendoza discussed the production of her documentary with GlacierHub.
GlacierHub: Though many people who have described the pilgrimage of Qoyllur Rit’i emphasize the importance of dance, you have subtitled your film “The walk experience.” Why do you place such importance on walking? What relations do you see between walking and dancing?
Zoila Mendoza: This was a result of my experience with the people of Pomacanchi, for whom doing the walk itself was the most important aspect of the whole pilgrimage. Walking has been the way of travel for Andeans for millennia, the same word is used in Quechua for “walking” and “traveling”: puriy. Even today, with the available motorized vehicles, many Quechua-speaking people in the countryside still spend several hours a day walking to go to their fields, herding their animals, etc. As I argue at length in my articles, the walk to Qoyllur Rit’i is carried out with the incessant music of flute and drum so, even at moments of rest and of introspection, the music is always there. There is a tune for walking and one for worshiping and saluting. The walk has also a choreography since it has to be done in a single file with the icons and flags in front and the music in the back. The whole musical walk can be considered a “dance” to the sanctuary.
GH: Your film depicts other bodily movements in addition to walking and dancing. In particular, you show the importance of two other bodily gestures: carrying heavy items, such as rocks and pottery icons that represent chapels, and kneeling in front of sacred sites or along paths. What do these gestures represent?
ZM: The participants use the same gestures to salute and pay homage to the sacred images and to the mountains. Carrying rocks uphill and unloading them is a way to kinesthetically level or flatten the ground (pampachay in Quechua) in order to heal any possible unevenness that might have emerged between the humans and the higher powers that are the saints, the Christ figures, and other sacred images and the mountains. They kneel and pray to both the images and the mountains. They do all of this always with music as an accompaniment.
GH: In your discussion, you emphasize that the pilgrimage combines beliefs in pre-Columbian mountain spirits and in Catholic saints. Do the people of Pomacanchi see these as separate beliefs, or as one set of beliefs? And are their participants’ own understandings of these beliefs changing?
ZM: This question addresses a very important issue that emerges when scholars and non-scholars bring up when they address Andean festivals. They always want to separate the pre-Columbian and the Catholic components. But in my 30 plus years of studying festivals, I have never run into a situation where the participants see those beliefs as separate. Sometimes they are forced to make that distinction because of the questions posed to them or because of outside repression that seeks to remove elements deemed primitive or pagan. In my case I had to put it in the documentary because I know it would be a question that many viewers would be asking in their heads. The participants’ own understandings of the beliefs are always changing. New stories come along, new practices are brought in, new names and new logics are integrated into the system.
GH: The majority of the pilgrims travel from the village to the sanctuary, with only the Ukukus—the men wearing bear costumes—continuing up to the glacier itself. Do the Ukukus perform particular rituals during the walk to the sanctuary? Do they sing in falsetto only on the climb to the glacier, or at other points as well?
ZM: During the walk, the main role of the Ukukus is that of guarding the order and the good behavior of the pilgrims. They also take on the role of the main helpers for the procuring of water and other elements for cooking during the trip. In my experience with Pomacanchi people, some of the most knowledgeable members of the group were the Ukukus who tended to be the more experienced having done the trip the most times. During the walk they did not perform different rituals than the rest and did not speak or sing in falsetto. I have only heard falsetto at the sanctuary.
GH: In recent years, the ukukus have stopped the practice of taking ice from the glacier. Do the ukukus, and other pilgrims from Pomacanchi, comment on this change? Do they harvest other kinds of ice at Qoyllur Rit’i, such as frozen stream or pond water?
ZM: Many of the rituals and practices that seem to be important for other participants in the festival do not seem as important for the people of Pomacanchi, even though they still take the crosses up to the glacier and then bring them back the next day with the rest of the groups, there did not seem to be much expectation about this part of the ritual. This might have changed since the bringing down of the ice ceased around 2004, and I have only traveled with them since 2006 when the ban was already established. But I did not see people interested in taking melted ice or water from the streams that come down, as I have seen people from other places do. They are also not interested in the large procession at the principal shrine, which takes place on the main day of the pilgrimage. Instead of participating, they pack up to go during that time. Finally, they have never taken part in the so-called 24-hour pilgrimage that takes place the last day and night of the celebration when the groups carry the image of the Lord of Tayankani, closely associated with the miraculous image of Christ, to the town of Ocongate and perform important rituals at sunrise.
GH: A number of sources on Qoyllur Rit’i comment on the changes in the pilgrimage that have been brought about by global warming, particularly the shifts in climbing to the glacier. But other factors are also transforming the pilgrimage: the expansion of roads in the region, indigenous movements in Peru, the growth of tourism that brings foreigners to the pilgrimage. What future do you see for Qoyllur Rit’i?
ZM: Change has been a constant in this pilgrimage from the beginning, different factors have made it the biggest of the Andean region. At least one scholar, with whom I agree, Guillermo Salas Carreño, has argued that in fact the apparition and cult to the Lord of Qoyllur Rit’i started only in the 1930s and not at the end of the eighteenth century as was widely believed. He suggests that it was stimulated by local conflicts and later fueled by nativist movements. Roads, tourism, and indigenous and other current movements (e.g. movements to stop the government contracts with the mining companies) only make the pilgrimage more important and better known. As I state at the end of the documentary, since people in the Andes place great importance on the integration of kinesthetic, visual and auditory experiences in their everyday lives and other cultural practices, rituals such as Qoyllur Rit’i will continue to play a central role in their lives.
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