Life at sub-zero degrees

Climate Change

Life at sub-zero degrees

Meteorologists warn that the Huancavelica region of Peru, home to the great Inca civilisation,  will be hit by the worst weather conditions in years. Getty images

For alpaca farmer Ignacio Beneto Huamani and his young family, life in the Peruvian Andes, at almost 4,700m 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 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 rising 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.

Will they make it?

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. Climate change campaigners and NGOs say Copenhagen’s failure 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 next climate change conference at Mexico in December.

Enduring prolonged sub-zero temperatures is a matter of course for Peru’s indigenous mountain people, many of whom live at more than 3,000m 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 last year from the cold; NGOs say the figure was probably higher.

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

Lack of amenities

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 per cent and staple food production has fallen by 44 per cent. Latest figures show that one in 10 children do not live to see their first birthday.

Ignacio Huamani says 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. Children’s groups and NGOs 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.

Four hours’ drive away in the 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.

Critical conditions

“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.”

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 winter, it does not compensate for what these people believe is the ambivalence of the authorities to their fate. For how long the mountain people are prepared to wait for action remains to be seen. After years of discrimination, there are signs that indigenous people across Peru are prepared to fight what they consider to be threats to their survival.

Those working with indigenous populations here warn that governments cannot expect people 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 Enrique Moya, former dean of Huamanga University, who now works with local NGOs which are running support programmes in the region.

The Guardian

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