Tropical ice land: climate change hits Peruvians

By Bryan Walker 23/09/2010

It may not be strictly scientific, but anthropological observation like this is invaluable because in the end, people’s interpretation of the events they see around them count as much as or more than any peer-reviewed paper.’ Guardian journalist John  Vidal has been with other writers on an Oxfam-guided tour of Peru and Ecuador  to see on the ground how changing weather is affecting human development in the Andes. He’s been blogging as he goes. No doubt there will be longer and more carefully constructed articles to follow, but these reminders that already people are suffering the effects of climate change, often severely, are worth immediate attention. I agree entirely with the quote from Vidal which opens this post, and last year welcomed a number of Oxfam reports which recounted many human stories from frontiers of climate change in Bolivia, Nepal, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere.

Vidal reports meeting Julio Hanneco, ’possibly the world’s greatest potato grower’. He grows 215 varieties of potatoes in the high Andean region of Peru.

’…folk like Julio and their extraordinary diversity of crops are critically endangered by the massive changes they observe taking place in the High Andes. When Julio was a boy, (he’s now in his 50s) a glacier was just two minutes walk from his door. Now it is a nine-hour hike away.’

In Julio’s own words:

“The seasons used to be very clear, we knew when to plant. Now we have less water. We used to get the water from the glacier. Now we have twice as many mosquitoes. We have no light from the glacier. I don’t understand what is going on. We feel very disoriented. I think that I will have no water and that will be the end of the world for us.”

Peru has more than 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. Vidal reports most in rapid retreat, leaving behind devastated farmers and communities short of water.

In another blog post Vidal reports massive protest in the Espinar region. The Apurimac river ’is about to be hijacked’. The Peruvian government has signed a memorandum of agreement with the neighbouring province of Arequipa, to build a giant reservoir from where the water would be used to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation. But it will not benefit the people of Espinar who stand to actually lose the little water they have. The benefit will be exported to rich farmers growing food for export on the Pacific coast.

Vidal’s group found a massive strike under way in the city of Yauri. They spoke with the leader who described it as a climate change strike.

“They are condemning us to a slow death. In the future we know we will have less water. We cannot trust the rainy season any more. Every year the water levels are diminishing. Climate change and global warming indicate in the next years we will have even less. You don’t need to be clever to see climate change is affecting everything here.”

Out in the villages in the hills, whose inhabitants expressed solidarity with the striking townsfolk, the story was the same.

“Here we had snow and ice on all the hills. We don’t any more. All these lands had water but no more. Our grandparents lived very differently to us. It used to rain from October to April, and May, June and July were frosty. We used to use the snow melt water. Now we have nothing. Before we could have 300 to 400 sheep and llamas; now we have 20 to 30 and no more.”

Oxfam and a local NGO partner are working to demonstrate adaptation measures to cope better with the semi-permanent drought which now afflicts the region. There are grounds for hope that these will be effective.  But civil unrest is rife, with numerous ongoing conflicts over water.

Vidal asks ’Is this the future everywhere? Have the climate wars begun?’

[Fiery Furnaces]