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.

Latin America (Overall) Embraces Paris Climate Accord

By Fulton Armstrong

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Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Latin American support for the landmark climate agreement signed at the United Nations last week may not have been enthusiastic during the negotiations, but all but Nicaragua seem eager for early ratification and implementation of measures to mitigate the harm of global warming.  A record-breaking 175 countries signed the accord in one day, including a number from Latin America, committing them to take concrete steps to keep the increase in global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius (or, ideally, 1.5 degrees) over preindustrial levels.  To take effect, at least 55 countries producing 55 percent of global emissions must ratify the agreement.  Fifteen small island nations, including several in the Caribbean, already presented their ratification papers last Friday.  China and the United States, the two greatest emitters of greenhouse gasses, have said they’ll ratify this year – as have France and other EU countries.

The region’s leaders have made significant contributions to the accord over the years.  Mexico and Peru, which were hosts of crucial international conclaves leading up to it, have given it a Latin American imprint, and others supported the final round of talks in Paris last December.  Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s reference in her speech to her political troubles back home overshadowed Brazil’s leadership, including its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent of 2005 levels by 2030.  In the past, ALBA countries complained loudly that the wealthy, developed nations, which produce the vast majority of climate-harming gasses, should shoulder the burden of reducing them and should compensate poorer countries for harm that environmental measures cause them.  All but Nicaragua, however, have submitted national plans (called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, INDC) required for full participation in international efforts under the Paris Accord.  Nicaraguan Representative Paul Oquist told the media that “voluntary responsibilities is a path to failure” and that wealthy countries should compensate Nicaragua for the $2 billion cost the measures would entail.

Latin America has clear incentives to support the accord.  Various scientific studies underscore the impact of global warming on the region, with potentially dire consequences.  The World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have reported that failure to act would cause further extreme weather threatening agriculture; rapid melting of Andean glaciers that provide much-needed fresh water; erosion of coastal areas; catastrophic damage to Caribbean coral reefs; and dieback of Amazon forests.  ALBA demands for compensation may be overstated but contain a grain of truth – they aren’t prodigious producers of greenhouse gasses – and skepticism that the big guys will meet their targets isn’t entirely unwarranted.  President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his personal commitment to addressing the problem, but obstacles posed by the U.S. Senate (which must ratify the agreement), Supreme Court (which in February stalled implementation of his Clean Power Plan), and politicians seeking the Republican Presidential nomination (who have sworn opposition to deals like the Paris Accord) have all but shut down U.S. movement toward ratification.  The ALBA outliers, on the other hand, have made their complaints heard and appear likely to join the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean in pushing for ratification and quick implementation – and probably will soon renew the push for even tougher measures by industrialized nations.

April 25, 2016

Climate Change: Creating Spaces for Action

Pacchanta women with Ausangate Glacier in the background.  Photo credit: Oxfam International / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Pacchanta women with Ausangate Glacier in the background. Photo credit: Oxfam International / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Organization of American States (OAS) has resolved to strengthen its role in addressing climate change, but it has yet to demonstrate that it can convene Latin American countries around this urgent issue.  Participants at a recent OAS roundtable agreed that Latin American leaders have moved beyond debating the existence of climate change and are now focused on mitigating its immediate and future effects.  Of primary concern are the potentially devastating economic consequences of climate change for the region, which the Inter-American Development Bank estimates will reach $100 billion per year by 2050 – severely jeopardizing national economies that are currently growing at a healthy rate.  Based on recent climate change reports and initiatives, the potential of a looming transnational cataclysm is driving a sense of urgency for action within an effective regional framework.

Within the consensus for action, there will be competing priorities.  Climate change presents different challenges to different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean.  In Peru, for example, a major concern is glacier melt in the Andes, which affects fresh water resources, agricultural irrigation, and sustainable urban development.  This has created a need not only for new dams and reservoirs to redirect water, but also for managing internal social conflicts generated by an increasing scarcity of basic resources.  In the Caribbean, where tourism revenue represents the greatest proportion of the regional economy (14 percent of GDP), the top priority is managing the triple threat of rising sea levels, the loss of coastal livelihoods, and intensifying weather conditions.  And in Brazil, as Evan Berry highlighted here recently, deforestation, carbon markets and land use, among other concerns, need to be addressed.

The OAS would appear to be the logical forum to address these issues and provide a negotiating framework regarding climate change.  On recent non-environmental issues, however, the OAS has struggled to coordinate actions and lost prestige among many in Latin America.  The OAS response toward Honduras following the 2009 presidential coup was divisive and ultimately was end-run when the United States cut a deal with the coup regime.  The 2012 OAS assembly in Bolivia was plagued by persistent absenteeism of member states.  Washington has repeatedly pressed the OAS toward a more political agenda, especially pressing for condemnation of Venezuelan Presidents Chávez and Maduro, and has even threatened to suspend its contributions to the organization’s budget.  Insofar as the OAS is perceived as a U.S. proxy, its effectiveness on difficult issues with a north-south spin, like climate change, is undermined.  At the same time, the OAS is competing with other regional bodies, such as UNASUR and CELAC, and the region has raised its profile in international venues such as the 2010 alternative climate summit held in Bolivia after UN negotiations in Copenhagen failed.  With the UN’s 20th Conference of Parties (COP20) taking place in Lima in December 2014, Latin America will again be center stage during conversations on ways to strengthen and replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  Should the OAS overcome its problems of effectiveness and image, and participate successfully in the current dialogue around climate change, this issue could redefine its existing agenda and give it relevance for years to come.