A short story about how climate change affects the livelihoods of farmers in the Andes
This is a work of fiction based on the author’s experience. Names, characters, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.
By Mariana Vidal Merino
“The rain is not coming” says Pablo while he stares at the dry grass and clenches his fists. Since he was a small child, his grandfather took him to the Pomacocha Mountain and showed him how to recognize the signs of mother nature: if you climb the mountain by the beginning of September and you find fresh grass already growing, this means the rain will come soon and it will be a good year for crops and animals. It’s already the end of September and the grass is still dry. “What’s happening? where is the rain?” he asks himself and thinks about his cattle that will go hungry this month.
Pablo is a member of the campesino community Marcatuna, located in the Central Andes of Peru. He has spent his life between school and the natural grasslands, 3,200 meters above sea level. Pablo learned from a very young age the art of guiding and shepherding sheep. Nowadays, at the age of 15, he guides all the sheep of his family, always looking for the best meadows, where the grass is fresher.
Marcatuna is located in the upper watershed, and its inhabitants depend on local ecosystems to supply them with the vast majority of food, water, and raw materials. Depending on nature gives them freedom, but also brings difficulties. In recent years, the climatic conditions have changed. Higher temperature conditions, changes in rainfall patterns, and increased frost and drought have led to processes of deglaciation and land degradation.
Such changes in climate conditions have affected the livelihoods of the whole community. The Sánchez for example, Pablo’s neighbors, lost this year a great part of their potato harvest to frost. Without potato, the main food and market crop in the community, getting through the dry season will be challenging. During these difficult times both families try to help each other, as they always have. For example, Pablo and his father work on the Sánchez’s farm and help them re-plant potato. In return, they let Pablo’s sheep eat the remains of the corn and olluco harvest.
“If we can no longer trust the seasons, how can we secure food for us and our animals?” Pablo asks himself. He fears that, if the frost comes again this year, the Sánchez won’t have any potato harvest at all. He wonders if he might need to go to the city and try his luck there.
Climate change is affecting Andean communities and their livelihoods negatively and irreversibly to a point in which local support systems and traditional livelihood strategies risk to be insufficient.
In Peru, as in many South American countries, a first step towards adapting to future changes in climate is to reduce vulnerability to the current climate conditions. This is not easy, and certainly not something that one community can achieve alone. That is why the Peruvian Government has identified important measures for the Andes, that include better land planning and management, adopting measures for the sustainable management of natural resources and restoration of degraded ecosystems. A good starting point is to plan and implement concrete measures to reduce the vulnerability and at the same time improve the livelihoods of the local population under an ecosystem-based adaptation approach.
Important activities to be reinforced in the area include the restoration and sustainable management of natural grasslands. These fragile ecosystems prevent soil erosion and retain humidity, contributing to water quality and availability while at the same time serving as the primary source of food for livestock. Another important aspect is the protection and maintenance of water sources upstream, which provides benefits that spam beyond the local, contributing to the supply of water to downstream populations in quantity and quality. Pablo and his community face the difficult challenge of finding a balance between the use of these resources for their livelihoods, and their conservation to secure essential ecosystem services to them and to future generations.
Solutions to achieve sustainability exist. For grasslands, livestock rotation systems for more effective and low impact grazing, could be implemented. The recovery of old irrigation channels, improving them with modern technology, can yield an efficient and well-organized irrigation system. This would increase the productivity of crops and minimize the risk of losses due to drought and frost. The collective planning and agreement on the management of public goods, like water sources and natural grasslands, would also be a good entry point. Pablo has heard that other communities have received support from the government and international cooperation to implement some of these solutions. He thinks the time to act is now. “eah Costillas, come here!” he calls his dog, “let’s go down to the town and talk to the community authorities. The work is just starting!”
(to be continued).
Facts about climate and agriculture in the Andes:
- The rainy season commonly starts in September and last till April 1
- About 80% of agriculture in the Peruvian Andes does not have formal irrigation. Only farmers with irrigation technology are able to harvest twice per year 3
- Farmers in Maracatuna and the sorrounding communities identify frosts, extreme rainfall, and agricultural droughts as main climatic hazards responsible for losses in agricultural production 2, 5
- Extreme precipitation and forest events have increased in the months from February to April in the central Andes of Peru 2, 4
1 IGP – Instituto Geofísico del Perú (2005). Atlas Climático de precipitación y temperatura del aire de la Cuenca del Río Mantaro.
2 IGP – Instituto Geofísico del Perú (2005). Vulnerabilidad actual y futura ante el cambio climático y medidas de adaptación en la cuenca del río Mantaro.
3 Palerm-Viqueira, J. (2010). A Comparative History, from the 16th to 20th Centuries, of Irrigation Water Management in Spain, México, Chile, Mendoza (Argentina) and Perú. Water Policy, 12(6), 779-797. In: Gutiérrez-Malaxechebarría, A. (2014). Formal and Informal Irrigation in the Andean Countries. An Overview. Cuadernos de Desarrollo Rural, 7/(74), 75-99. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.11144/Javeriana.CRD11-74.fiac
4 Trasmonte Soto, G. L., Chavez, R., Segura, B., & Rosales, J. L. (2008). Frost risks in the Mantaro river basin. Advances in Geosciences, 14, 265–270. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5194/adgeo-14-265-20085
5 Vidal Merino, M., Sietz, D., Jost, F., & Berger, U. (2018). Archetypes of Climate Vulnerability: a Mixed-method Approach Applied in the Peruvian Andes. Climate and Development, 0(0), 1–17. Retrieved fromhttps://doi.org/10.1080/17565529.2018.1442804