A fight for life in the Andes

Peruvian villagers already on the edge of survival are enduring bitter cold linked to climate change. Now, reports Annie Kelly, they are having to choose whether to save their livelihoods or their children.

For alpaca farmer Ignacio Beneto Huamani and his young family, life in the Peruvian Andes, at almost 4,700 metres above sea level, has always been a struggle against the elements. His village of Pichccahuasi, in Peru’s Huancavelica region, is little more than a collection of small thatched shelters and herds of alpaca surrounded by beautiful, yet bleakly inhospitable, mountain terrain.

The few hundred people who live here are hardened to poverty and months of sub-zero temperatures during the long winter. But, for the fourth year running, the cold came early. First their animals and now their children are dying and in such escalating numbers that many fear that life in the village may be rapidly approaching an end.

In a world growing ever hotter, Huancavelica is an anomaly. These communities, living at the edge of what is possible, face extinction because of increasingly cold conditions in their own microclimate, which may have been altered by the rapid melting of the glaciers.

A consequence is that Quechua-speaking farmers and their families, who have managed to subsist for centuries at high altitude, believe they may not make it through the next southern winter.

There have been warnings from meteorologists in Peru that this month will see the Huancavelica region hit by the worst weather conditions in years with plunging temperatures, floods and high winds. The weather is already claiming lives; in December, seven people died and scores were treated in hospital after torrential rain caused flash flooding in Ayacucho, the capital of the neighbouring region.

The cold is tipping Pichccahuasi into a spiralling decline brought on by pneumonia, bronchitis and hunger.

Although designed to withstand the cold, Huamani’s house is crumbling and his roof, half-collapsed from the snowstorms that battered the village last June and July, offers scant protection from the freezing wind and rain.

His family, including four young children, sleep on wet ground night after night. His children have not yet recovered from illnesses from this year’s winter and he is terrified that they won’t be resilient enough to endure further freezing weather.

He points to his youngest son, aged two, who trails after him, soaking wet and racked with bouts of coughing, as he goes about his work

“All the children here are sick; they all have breathing problems,” he says. “The problem is there is too much cold, too much rain. We have had no time to recover from last winter before it has begun again. There is nothing I can do.”

Climate-change campaigners and development NGOs say that the failure of the Copenhagen summit last month has signed the death warrant for hundreds of thousands of the world’s poorest and that a quarter of a million children will die before world leaders meet again to try to thrash out another deal at the United Nations’ next climate-change conference, in Mexico in December. Among them may be these children of the high mountains.

Enduring prolonged sub-zero temperatures is a matter of course for Peru’s indigenous mountain people, many of whom live at more than 3,000 metres above sea level. Scores die every year from the cold, but in recent years the number of people succumbing to the freezing temperatures has triggered talk of a national crisis.

This year, the neighbouring district of Puno saw a severe spike in child mortality as the winter brought months of high winds and relentless ice storms. Government figures record that more than 300 children died in Puno in May 2009 from the cold; NGOs say that the figure was probably much higher.

Local government officers in Huancavelica could not provide figures for how many children died here last year, but admit that child mortality is rising in the region.

“There have been many dead children. I don’t know how many, but there are more and more and mainly the deaths have been from pneumonia,” says Rafael Rojas Huanqui, regional director for the Defensa Civil, the national disaster protection agency. “They have no resilience of any kind to deal with the weather getting colder.”

Huancavelica has always been one of Peru’s most deprived regions, with 80% of families, largely indigenous farmers living at heights of up to 5,000 metres, subsisting below the poverty line.

The changing weather has come on top of a lack of basic health services, animal diseases, rising food prices and a declining availability of water.

Since 2007, children’s acute respiratory infections have increased by 30% and staple food production has fallen by 44%. Latest figures show that one in 10 children do not live to see their first birthday.

Ignacio Huamani says that the main problem his village faces is a lack of water, as more extreme temperatures mean there is no grass or drinking water for the alpaca that people breed for wool and meat. “If the alpaca die, then we all die,” he says. He works with his neighbours to build shelters for the alpaca to give some protection from the elements, but he is fighting a losing battle.

Since 2007, alpaca mortality in Huancavelica has more than doubled, with pregnant animals aborting their calves, a huge psychological as well as economic blow to people who rely on their ability to keep their herds alive.

Any money the village has is spent on trying to keep their animals from dying. NGOs and children’s groups working in the area warn that in such desperate situations, the lives of alpaca become more valuable than those of children.

“The welfare of children is sidelined because the situation is so bad that everything has become about the survival of the animals, both for the families themselves and the agencies who are trying to support them,” says Teresa Carpio, director of Save the Children Peru. She expects to see child mortality in the region rise this year. “In the west we tend to think that children take priority above all else, but when there is this level of desperation, children can be the last to get the attention they so badly need – until it is too late.”

Four hours’ drive away in the larger community of Incahuasi, a health clinic is full of women and children waiting to see a visiting nurse. Helen dos Santos trained in nearby Ayacucho, but unlike most other locally trained health workers has stayed to work in the region. Now she spends her week travelling on foot between villages, walking for up to five hours a day.

“It’s always been poor here, but now the situation is getting critical,” she says. She points to the 20 or so children lined up in the waiting room. “All of these children are malnourished, some very dangerously so, and winter is still five months away. I don’t have any strong antibiotics to give them, only aspirin. I can’t even refer them to the hospital in Huancavelica because nobody has enough money to pay for transport there and the men here are reluctant to spend on anything but the animals.”

Rojas Huanqui says the regional government is working hard to strengthen health systems with more doctors and nurses in “most” of the villages, but admits that the state has been unable to deliver the basic services required.

“I’m not going to deny that it’s really hard to supply the great amount of villages there are, and they are used to getting everything for free, so the progress that the government makes is limited; but we do need to implement stronger medicines up in the villages that need it most,” he says.

There is anger among Huancavelica’s mountain people at what they see as the inaction of regional and central government. Although aid packages and clothing bundles arrive with the onset of winter, it does not compensate for what these people believe is the ambivalence of the authorities to their fate.

“We can only put ourselves in God’s hands, because nobody else is helping us,” says Carolina Flores, a mother of six whose six-month-old daughter is dangerously ill with pneumonia. “Our men have gone and talked to people in the government and told them what is happening to us, but they do nothing. We are not important to them, so we die up here and nobody helps us.”

How long the mountain people are prepared to wait for action remains to be seen. After hundreds of years of systematic discrimination, there are signs that indigenous people across Peru are prepared to fight what they consider to be threats to their survival.

Last July, dozens of indigenous protesters were killed and scores injured when riots broke out in Bagua Grande in the Amazonas region over claims that the government was giving away land to oil and gas drilling. The relationship between Peru’s indigenous people and the government of the president, Alan García remains tense.

Those working with indigenous populations in Huancavelica are warning that governments cannot expect people in threatened villages to accept their fate lying down.

“The conduct of the authorities in relation to Peru’s Quechua mountain communities is similar to the one they take to indigenous communities throughout the country, which is to ignore their problems because they don’t believe that they are a priority,” says Dr Enrique Moya, the former dean of Huamanga’s university, who now works with local NGOs that are running support programmes in the region.

“Religion is still a strong sedative in these communities, but although the first reaction to what they are facing might be fatalism – the feeling that they are in God’s hands – we are starting to see a change.

“The difficulty is that the government only reacts when things turn violent, so I think what we have here is potentially an area of great conflict, because no matter how used to poverty they are, these people won’t be left to die.”

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

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