Bitter winters for Peru's alpaca farmers

The winter of 2013, however, brought its own particular problems. Heavy rains soaked the Altiplano, leaving the anima...

The winter of 2013, however, brought its own particular problems. Heavy rains soaked the Altiplano, leaving the animals on which thousands of families depend sick and weak. Some female alpacas began to miscarry their crias, while many of the animals that survived eventually succumbed to infections and the cold.

As the snow came, Susana Mamani watched more and more of her herd sicken and die. __Last year, it rained a lot and my young animals got sick with toxaemia,__ says the 33-year-old farmer. __It was colder than normal and it snowed early. I lost around a third of my 50 alpacas.__ Despite her prayers, she was left to look on helplessly as many froze to death on the hillsides.

Existence in this corner of south-east Peru __ where the odd mobile phone, fence or corrugated iron roof on an adobe hut are among the few concessions to modern life __ has never been easy. The farmers who tend their animals in a landscape that sits 4,500 metres (14,760 feet) above sea level are, by nature and necessity, stoical.

But the weather of recent years worries them. The people of Melgar did not need the presence of delegates from 190 countries in the Peruvian capital, Lima, to discuss climate change to confirm its effects; they have only to look at themselves, the land and their animals. __When it is cold, it is colder than before,__ says Mamani. __When it is dry, we have more sun. The weather has been changing.__

Susana Chape, a 53-year-old farmer who supports her three sons and four daughters with the 2,000 soles [$680] she earns each year from her alpacas, cows and sheep, offers a similar observation. __Over the past two or three years, we__ve seen a change in the weather, with the summers getting hotter and the winters getting colder,__ she says in a mixture of Spanish and Quechua. __There__s more rain now and more snow, and it makes me sad to see my animals die.__

Faced with a climate that increasingly threatens their livelihoods, the farmers have been working with Soluciones Pr_cticas (the Latin American branch of the British NGO Practical Action) to protect their animals. Over the past three years, the charity has built 61 spring-fed mini-reservoirs to help the farmers irrigate new crops, such as oats and clover, which have improved the alpacas__ diets by providing year-round fodder. In previous years, the sun had scorched the grasses that grow on the hillsides, leaving them too yellow and dry for even the hungriest alpacas to eat.

Soluciones Pr_cticas has also introduced stud alpacas to help swell the depleted herds and to enhance the quality of the animals__ wool. The $700,000 project has enabled the farmers to sell about 160 tonnes over the same period, with the finest wool grade now fetching up to 44,000 soles ($15,000) a tonne.

While the changes cannot completely safeguard either animals or incomes from climatic variations, they have afforded the farmers of Melgar a little more control over their economic fates.

__My ancestors had to work harder because they didn__t have the genetic science we have,__ says Elio Chila Ccahubna, whose 70 alpacas bring him 2,000-3,000 soles a year. __Now we can choose the characteristics we want to get the most beautiful animals with the finest wool.__ As a bonus, he adds, the alpacas are finding the oats that make up much of their winter rations delicious.

Increased prices are also allowing the people of Melgar to plan. One of Chape__s sons is studying to be a teacher; she hopes her other children will also have the chance to choose their own careers. __If they want to work with alpacas, that__s great,__ she says. __But I want them to have the choice.__

Mamani, whose bowler hat and thick cardigan shield her from both the punishing Andean sun and the cold that comes when it sets, has ideas of her own. Her nine-year-old daughter lives an hour away by car so she can go to school. __I am confident that my daughter will get a good education because I will be able to pay for it,__ Mamani says. Unlike Chape, she has no desire to see her daughter spend her life herding alpacas on the freezing, burning hills of Melgar. __I don__t want her to do this work. I want her to become a professional.__

The Guardian | Sam Jones

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