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Two figures quietly amble through the near-empty fields that line the western shores of Lake Titicaca, the vast blue expanse that stretches across the Peruvian border province of Puno into Bolivia. The air is crisp, filled with nothing but the sound of the wind and the odd sprightly greeting by man, sheep and, occasionally, from a distance, minibus. The passer-by might suspect that life here has remained essentially unchanged for centuries.
Melvis points to a patch of potato plants to my left, and comments that the flowers are blue. This is the first sign that something is amiss. It is early December, only the beginning of the warmer, rainy season – they should not be showing themselves yet.
Melvis, a 19-year-old amateur radio DJ, has returned from university to the lakeside community of Cruzpata. Cruzpata is part of Suma Yapu (‘beautiful field’), one of 20 Nuclei of Cultural Affirmation (NACAs) that constitute the Andean Project for Peasant Technologies (PRATEC). PRATEC was created in 1987 after its founders spent three decades working within the development field, concluding that development professionals entirely dismiss the Andean idea of Sumak Kawsay (‘good living’). NACAs accompany communities across Peru, collectively assessing climate and community changes.
There is no doubt the climate has changed here. In recent years the rainy season has become erratic. Often there are droughts. As you read this, storms induced by El Niño have caused rivers to flood, carrying livestock away and devastating crops. People in badly affected areas have no food, seeds have been lost and houses are falling down.
The disarray of nature’s rhythms imperils an Andean agriculture that traditionally depended on conversation with the pacha (life-zones) in which both climate and humans, as members of the ayllu (extended family), play a role. PRATEC member Jorge Ishizawa notes the feeling that the tourist industry has become greedy, disrespecting Pachamama (Mother Earth). The floods are her response.
According to Don Mateo Mamani, elder from the community of Vizcachani, the fox had always ‘advised us when to sow and…on the production of the year’ and the lizards ‘of the occurrence of frosts.’ Now ‘other signs have appeared.’ Deer, joskas (tragacanth), wild relatives of the turnip with yellow flowers come and ‘we do not know what they want to tell us.’ The floods are another hard-to-read sign.
PRATEC communities have spent decades affirming Andean practices of agriculture and conservation, medicine, governance and education. They incorporate the agro-festive calendar into schools, teaching children to respect the apus (mountain deities) and learn what different plants and animals tell them. They nurture school fields and learn to cook foods based on nutritious, diverse crops, rather than bought produce like rice and pasta.
Since the floods, Eliana Apaza of Suma Yapu NACA is concerned that although Andean communities have a tradition of reciprocity, many may still be at risk in the coming winter season without sufficient food, seeds and materials. Their situation is exacerbated by unstable glacial melt, along with open-cast mines, threatening the high pastures containing the greatest wild biodiversity in the mountains – wild plants that can provide during failed harvests.
The collective wisdom of these communities contains an abundance of eco-systemic knowledge that scientists can only dream of. As PRATEC’s founder, the late Eduardo Grillo, pointed out, the Andeans’ 10,000 year old conversation with their environment means to ‘dance to the rhythm which at every moment corresponds to the annual cycle of life’. It is how the disarray in the pacha that humans have caused may be repaired.