Peru: Can the Shamans Save the Glaciers?

By Karsten Paerregaard*

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A ceremony at Mount Huaytapallana during the Andean New Year. / Photo by Karsten Paerregaard.

Peru – one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change – is experiencing a surge in religious ceremonies highlighting the plight of its rapidly shrinking glaciers, but the increased attention has downsides as well.  Peru has 70 percent of the world’s tropical glaciers, which provide most of the country’s fresh water and have been integrally linked to the identity of the Andean people since the Incas.  They are rapidly shrinking, however.  Mount Huaytapallana, a 5,500-meter-high glacier about 300 kilometers east of Lima, has shrunk 50 percent over the past quarter century – with profound implications for life throughout much of Peru.  Shamans in the region, whose ceremonies and offerings have long constituted a critical means of regulating the relationship between society and nature in the Andes, are reviving the practices to draw attention to this environmental crisis.

  • Most participants in ceremonies on Mount Huaytapallana come from Huancayo and other nearby cities in the central highlands, hoping that Huaytapallana will listen to their prayers and bring them good fortune. The Andean New Year on June 24, one of the most spectacular events, attracts more than a thousand people.  They offer food, drinks, candles, and cloths that are burned while the shamans say prayers to Huaytapallana in Quechua.  The event reminds people of the suffering that global warming is causing to the mountain.
  • In the southeastern highlands, Mount Ausungate attracts even bigger crowds. Around the feast of Corpus Christi each year thousands of pilgrims walk up to a sanctuary to pay tribute to an image called Señor de Qoyllur Rit’i (the Lord of the Snow Star), declared an Intangible Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2011.  The image represents Christ, who according the local legend revealed himself at the sanctuary in the 18th century, but it is also a religious relic of a pre-Columbian tradition of worshipping Andean mountain deities.  Dance groups from eight communities of pilgrims, known as naciones, play music and dance around the clock, and men dressed as bears climb the nearby glaciers of Ausungate to set up crosses and until recently set off fireworks.  An estimated 50,000 visited the sanctuary last year.

The glaciers are symbols of both the country’s indigenous past and the damage that global climate change is inflicting.  The growing participation in Andean ceremonies with religious overtones reflects the deepening concern for the profound social, economic, and spiritual implications of the environmental degradation.  It is fueled by a search for alternative answers to problems that global climate change is causing in Peru and that the country’s governments so far have failed to provide.  The surge in interest also, ironically, is cause for concern.  According to the regional government of Junín, responsible for the protection of Huaytapallana’s environment, visitors leave more than four tons of trash on the mountain every year.  The commercialization of the offering ceremonies makes it difficult to hold the shamans accountable for participants’ activities.  At Qoyllur Rit’i, Peru’s Ministry of Culture is in charge of preserving the pilgrimage according to Andean traditions, enhancing people’s awareness of Ausungate’s cultural importance, but pilgrims’ presence on the glaciers remains an issue of continuous dispute.  Shamans and environmentalists are a potentially powerful alliance, but even mitigating the environmental impact of activities by people concerned with climate change is not a simple matter.

February 6, 2017

* Karsten Paerregaard teaches in the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.  He has participated in a CLALS project, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, on Religion and Climate Change in Cross-Regional Perspective.

Mexico: Environmental Initiatives Likely to Stir Things Up

By Daniela Stevens*

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Mexico City’s Reforma axis under a blanket of smog / Lars Plougmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico has made a big push on climate issues over the past month that could have far-reaching consequences internally and in the hemisphere.  On August 16, it announced a pilot Emission Trading System (ETS), also known as “cap-and-trade,” that will begin a simulation in November and officially initiate trading carbon permits in 2018.  Two weeks later, at the second Climate Summit of the Americas (CSA), the Mexican federal government signed a joint declaration with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec to advance “cooperation activities on carbon markets.”  Mexico’s motives are not immediately clear.  For a middle-income nation, with annual growth (around 2 percent) compromised by the crash in oil prices, an ETS represents a potentially significant economic burden.  Mexican officials have not explained, moreover, how they might link their cap-and-trade to the Canadian provinces’ systems and to the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), North America’s largest carbon market and the second largest in the world.

The moves may be driven by increasing Mexican belief that more assertive, market-oriented approaches are necessary to meet its international commitments.

  • Mexico is dependent on fossil fuels for over a third of its total energy production, wreaking havoc with the country’s air quality. Over the last few months, Mexico City decreed several “environmental contingencies,” situations of abnormally high concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere.
  • Moreover, Mexico may be seeking the advantage that increased regional cooperation represents. Its international commitments on emission reductions are very ambitious, and a linkage to its North American partners lends itself almost as a natural solution to help in the advancement of its pledges.  Mexico could export sectoral offsets that American and Canadian partners need – contributing to Mexican revenues and to market stability.  Mexico would also benefit from the resulting transfer of information expertise, technology, training, and methodologies.
  • An important first step for the Mexican authorities would be to commit the resources to establish the robust institutional mechanisms and capacities to launch, monitor, enforce and sustain a system as intricate as a national ETS, and only after that, lend itself as a reliable partner in an internationally linked market.

The details of the pilot ETS have not been publicized, and the agreement with Québec and Ontario does not establish commitments beyond “identifying opportunities for linking systems as much as possible.”  Mexican companies already voluntarily buy and sell carbon bonds on a small national market – a system complemented by a carbon tax in place since 2013 – but an enforced and internationally linked market would highlight the disparities among the North American nations – and represent a challenge to Mexico.  Unlike its partners, Mexico is still an industrializing nation, with a thriving motor vehicle industry, and industrializing nations have traditionally been reluctant to pricing emissions.  Industrialized countries are the highest historical emitters and reached that status of development by polluting without paying the price.  Although the need to prioritize economic growth does not exempt Mexico from fulfilling its commitments as the eleventh highest global emitter, it does signal that besides opportunities, Mexico faces challenges with trading partners at different stages of development.  The Climate Summit of the Americas showed, however, that regional fora and of subnational partnerships can further environmental commitments beyond the global and national summits.  The CSA signaled an opportunity for the region to develop North American or, more ambitiously, hemispheric solutions to climate change.

September 15, 2016

* Daniela Stevens is a PhD candidate in the American University School of Public Affairs.  Her research focuses on national and subnational policies that put a price on carbon emissions.

El Niño Pummels Peru and Poses Challenges Elsewhere in Latin America

By Abby Lindsay*

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Mangrove against waves, Estuary of Rio Tumbes, Peru. Photo Credit: Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although advanced scientific models can better detect the severity of an upcoming El Niño, preparing for the impact of each episode remains a recurrent challenge for many Latin American countries.  El Niños change rainfall patterns in ways that result in extreme flooding in some regions and droughts in others, affecting food and energy production and other economic activities.  In July 2015, satellite and computer modeling predicted that an “extraordinary” El Niño would likely strike in six months – and although not record-breaking, this episode has wreaked havoc in parts of Latin America.  Citizens below the poverty line tend to be hit hardest, as many live on lands vulnerable to natural disasters, such as landslides and flooding, and rely on subsistence agriculture that cannot withstand weather shocks.  Studies by climate and atmospheric scientists argue that El Niños will become more frequent and severe in future years due to rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the urgency that governments build resiliency against the associated flooding and droughts.

  • Peru has been particularly affected by this year’s ongoing El Niño, especially in the northern coastal zone. As warming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean causes less upwelling of nutrient-rich waters, fish stocks have declined, damaging an industry upon which Peru relies for 2 percent of its GDP.  Extensive agricultural losses also result from changes in ocean currents and wind patterns that cause droughts in the southern part of the country and a spike in rainfall in the north.  Severe flooding is already having a detrimental impact; local media report that in the Tumbes area, in northwest Peru, 3,000 people have lost their homes and 30,000 have been affected because overflowing rivers have washed out bridges and devastated houses along river valleys.  Landslides have devastated dwellings constructed on the steep, marginal land on the outskirts of cities or in river valleys.
  • Other parts of Latin America are also affected during El Niño. In Central America, the warm Pacific Ocean temperatures are exacerbating existing droughts, which have reduced agricultural yields, while excessive rainfall on the east coast wipes out bridges and houses.  The Andean and Amazonian regions have seen reduced rainfall, leading to worries about forest fires in the rainforest.  The La Plata River basin is getting abnormally high levels of run-off.

With proper warning, governments can take action to mitigate the damage of El Niños.  Receiving predictions last July, Peruvian President Humala declared 14 regions in a preemptive state of emergency and called for preparations.  It is still too early to tell how much these measures have helped, but there is little debate that some preparation is better than none.  Local officials held planning meetings, and the national government provided funding for citizen programs – such as warning the population to move away from flood and landslide zones, and building infrastructure’s ability to withstand flooding and landslides.  In Piura, for example, they dredged part of the river and built diversions to direct water away from populated areas.  Given the predictions that El Niños will continue and worsen in severity, governments need to start thinking about long-term solutions and preparations.  Rather than last-minute preparations, however, governments could consider proactive measures such as conserving or constructing mangroves, wetlands, and riparian buffers that can naturally mitigate flooding; promoting crop diversity with drought-resistant strains; or harnessing water surges for benefits such as aquifer recharging.  Better planning could help Peru and other countries weather future episodes with less emergency scrambling. 

March 28, 2016

*Abby Lindsay is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service.  Her dissertation research focuses on global environmental policy, particularly water governance.