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Research in Process: Climate Change, Livestock and Wetlands in the Highland Andes


By: Xoco Shinbrot

(July 31st, 2015, 6:41pm, Rio Negro, Peru) My stomach gurgled, head pounded, and feet sloshed around in my mud-caked boots. Anyone who didn’t know me would think I was a desperately out of shape grad student who’d eaten nothing but pizzas and beer the last year: I took deep labored breaths with each step. At 13,700 feet, it wasn’t surprising I was struggling.

“I can’t believe we made it back before sunset,” I thought to myself, remembering our sluggish pace. I had just enough light to heat up some dinner, air out my socks, and take a Wet Ones shower before hitting the hay to do it all again tomorrow. I smiled, shifting the 40-pound load around my hips before unclipping the buckle and dropping it to the ground.

This summer we visited the highlands of Huascaran National Park, Peru, which are legendary for the lush beauty created by one of the most extensive tropical glaciated mountains in the world. Huascaran is an area of interest for many groups: scientists are interested in the area because of its rapidly retreating glaciers, cattle ranchers and farmers use the region for their livelihoods, and tourists flock to the park for its picturesque landscape. Wedged within the mountain valleys are unique ecosystems called bofedales—English translation: ‘bogs’—that remain green and wet all year round providing food and water for cattle, birds, and wildlife during the long dry season. However, park managers are worried about the permanent degradation of these bofedales due to the local effects of cattle ranching and global consequences of climate change which has quickly and permanently altered the landscape.

We were in Huascaran researching how locals can adapt to rapidly changing climates and how resilient are they to changes. Additionally, we want to know how the park can alleviate pressure from cattle ranching—a livelihood that has been practiced since the Spaniards arrived in the 15th century—while finding an economically viable alternative. What would the new economy look like?

As we worked in Huascaran, I slowly began to realize the effects of climate change: there was not a glacier in sight. Our local guide Vicente, was old enough to remember when there was snow on the mountains. His face showed lines that spoke to years of time spent outside in the sun, although he swore he was only fifty-six. “Back in the 1970s” Vicente said “these mountains were ‘puro blanco’”—pure white as far as you could see. Now, there were only bits of white visible at the highest points.

Vicente, who had lived here his whole life, wanted to know why we were looking at this area—which was rather desolate in comparison to some of the more lush and attractive areas of the park. “Like you’ve noticed, some areas of the park have been hit hard and become almost unrecognizable,” I said. “If we can find out whether land uses like cattle ranching contribute to these changes, we can help people from this area and other mountain areas to understand, change, and adapt.” He nodded, looking around at the 30 some cattle lazily chewing their cud. “I’m glad you’ve come. When will you be back?”

I didn’t know what to say. Though I was overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the future for Vicente and his neighbors, I hoped I could answer at least a few of our research questions. So, while I thought about how this may turn into a lifetime of work, I answered, “You can expect to see me again next summer to do this all over again!”

Acknowledgements: This research is made possible by funding under the National Science Foundation devoted to the Global Women Scholars Network (GWSN) under Dr. Gillian Bowser. A big thanks to our long-term partners at Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina–particularly Drs. Enrique Mariazza and Javier Ñaupari–and The Mountain Institute. This work would not have been possible without their support.