Peru Looks to Traditional Adaptation Practices to Cope with Climate Disruption

The Best Responses to Climate Change will Combine Modern Science and Ancestral Knowledge

On the Great Plains of United States, corn and soy crops have withered in the heat. In Eastern Africa, severe drought has prompted massive famines. From pine beetle infestations in the Rockies to thinning ice in the Arctic, the impacts of climate change have become inescapable.

Unfortunately, the prospects for a binding international agreement on emissions look bleak, at least in the short term. And even if all emissions were to stop tomorrow, temperatures would still continue rising, thanks to greenhouse gases already accumulated in the atmosphere.

Photo by Jorge Lascar The Incas and their predecessors re-shaped entire valleys in Peru, turning steep hillsides into fertile
fields. The agricultural section of Machu Picchu, for instance, contains more than three hundred
terraces that provided nearly six hectares of cultivable land.

Preparing for the impacts of climate change, from melting glaciers to longer droughts, is thus a crucial next step. Adapting to a warmer world will require the best in modern science and engineering. It will also require us to draw on traditional sources of knowledge from rural communities and Indigenous Peoples. 

Nowhere is this truer than in the Peruvian Andes. Here, melting glaciers and shifting seasons mean that climate change is already a part of daily life.

“Huascaran used to be white. Now it is black, with rocks,” said Lucy Garcia, who lives in a small farming community at the foot of Huascaran, Peru’s highest mountain.

“The rainy season began in one month, and it rained all the months we knew, and it stopped. Now it rains when it wants to, it stops when it wants to,” said her neighbor Raul Ramos Garcia.

In the Andes, poor farmers and herders are facing new crop pests, prolonged droughts, and sudden frosts. In their struggles to cope, they are making use of techniques and ideas that date back centuries. Thanks to El Niño, Peru’s climate has always been subject to sudden shifts. Ancient civilizations like the Incas had to find ways to handle erratic weather. This knowledge has been handed from one generation to another until the present day. It represents an extremely valuable tool for dealing with human-induced climate change.

A young farmer named Aquila Chahuaya Torres said that she grows 180 varieties of potatoes in her fields. Peru, which is the birthplace of the potato, is home to thousands of different types, including many that are especially resistant to heat, cold, drought, or crop pests. By planting traditional varieties, farmers can increase the odds of a good harvest, regardless of the weather. 

In a valley called Andamarca, in the southern Andes, local farmers are still planting crops on terraces that go back thousands of years. Through generations of backbreaking labor, the Incas and their predecessors re-shaped this entire valley, turning steep hillsides into fertile fields. Terraces reduce erosion, keep soils damp, and help minimize swings in temperature. By using terraces, farmers can protect their crops from droughts, intense heat, heavy rains, frosts and other impacts of climate change.

Still, local communities cannot be expected to manage on their own as climate change grows more severe in the coming decades. Rural communities “need an official answer”, said Armando Mendoza, an economist who has studied climate change issues in Peru.

Government agencies and organizations can offer technical assistance and information about climate change. Just as importantly, they can work with local communities to preserve and recover traditional knowledge, which has often been eroded by violence, oppression and marginalization.

In the areas surrounding Andamarca, for instance, nearly two decades of violent conflict in the 1980s and 1990s left rural communities shell-shocked. In the process, valuable knowledge about how to maintain terraces and irrigation systems was lost. 

“Farming went to zero,” said archeologist Ann Kendall. An organization she started, called the Cusichaca Trust, works with local communities to rebuild abandoned terraces and canals.

“We talk with the old people,” said Adripino Jayo, who works with Asociacion Andina Cusichaca, the Trust´s local counterpart.

Today, globalization and urban migration — what Jayo calls “the fog of modernity” — continue to pose a threat to local knowledge.

Native potato varieties, for instance, are being replaced by imported white potatoes. Although white potatoes are faster-growing, they are more vulnerable to crop pests and temperature extremes.

“In 70s…we had many varieties,” explained Alejandro Usorio Cuchachain, a farmer from the town of Matacoto. “[But] farmers changed the custom of planting native potatoes”.

A number of organizations and groups are working to reverse this trend. The International Potato Center in Lima, for instance, has created potato seed banks and conducted research on native potatoes. The Ministry of Agriculture in the Cusco region has crossed hardy native potatoes with white varieties.

In 2004, six communities in Cusco decided to begin working together to preserve native potatoes. They formed the “Potato Park”, where they now grow hundreds of different types using organic methods. They also organize tours and seed swaps with other rural areas.

Of course, the best responses to climate change will be those that combine modern science and ancestral knowledge. Such is the case in Peru’s Piura region, where an NGO called Soluciones Practicas has worked to incorporate traditional indicators into seasonal weather predictions.

Local people have always had their own ways to forecast the weather. Northerly winds in October and November, for instance, signify a dry year. Similarly, the flowering of the mango and huaranago trees can give clues about future rainfall months in advance.

Soluciones Practicas combines these local indicators with official predictions from Peru’s weather agency. The resulting forecasts can be tailored to individual towns and watersheds, and are often more accurate than the official scientific projections, explained Alcides Vilela, who worked on the project.

Rural and indigenous communities have often been discriminated against in the past. “Racial and cultural prejudice,” explained Mendoza, is still a problem.

One can only hope that their contributions will be recognized over the coming decades.

As Claudia Figallo, a specialist in adaptation at Peru’s Ministry of the Environment, explained: “Local residents [are] the best at adapting.”


Emily Kirkland is an undergraduate at Brown University studying Economics and Latin American Studies. She spent the summer traveling through Peru on an AT&T New Media Fellowship learning about adaptation to climate change.


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