As we drove up and up, from Cusco to Marcapata through the Ausangate Range of the Andes, the air got markedly thinner, and the scenery got wilder and more spectacular. There were five of us in the truck: me; Lidia, the adorable Director of Heifer Cusco; Rosaluz, my Heifer translator; Carlitos, our jovial driver; and Kristen, an enthusiastic American volunteer working in the Cusco office. As we blasted Edith Piaf on the CD player (in complete & wonderful incongruity), they tried to explain to me the intricacies of Heifer’s Alpaca Bio-Diversity in High Andean Communities program. I was trying hard to follow, but I kept getting distracted by the amazing views of llamas, alpacas, glaciers and peaks out the window….and La Vie en Rose.
Beautiful and pristine, this part of the Central Highlands is inhabited almost exclusively by llama and alpaca herding communities in one of the few remaining pastoralist societies in the world. The wet season runs from October – May, when the pastures soak up water like a sponge, and fluffballs of grazing alpacas dot the hillsides. In the dry season, May- October, life gets a lot more challenging, as pastures shrivel and the grazing is sparse. It’s a never-ending struggle for survival, and the 22 Andean communities in Heifer’s program are far-flung, small indigenous villages that are almost exclusively dependent on the alpaca for income, meat and sustenance.
The Highlanders’ hard-wrung existence is further threatened by climate change, with disappearing glaciers leading to scarcity of water and diminished pasture; food insecurity (only potatoes grow at this rarefied altitude and 45% of children under 5 are malnourished), and the low quality of the alpaca herds.
In past years, white alpaca fur was by far the most valuable, so breeders began to kill their brown, black and tan alpacas. Before you could say “genetic disaster,” the 22 natural shades of alpaca became 90% white, and in-breeding caused a multitude of weaknesses in the animals.
Pretty blue eyes, but that's not a good sign in alpacas.
So Heifer is making an investment in these 4,333 alpaca-raising families to help them not only survive, but thrive. Working in partnership with AMADARES, a local NGO, Heifer is providing robust bulls in non-white alpaca colors, seeds and materials, as well as funding 2 veterinarian/technicians. In monthly workshops in each community, the techs teach the breeders better methods of reproduction, animal care, pasture maintenance, shearing, categorizing the fiber, and making alpaca handicrafts.
The alpaca rainbow coalition -- how beautiful!!
We met Claudio Pacco, one of the vet/techs, when we finally reached Marcopata at dusk, a sweet little town huddled in a valley between two giant mountains. Claudio lives in Puno and drives 9 hours every month to Marcopata to begin a 20-day stint where he rises daily at 4:30 a.m. to ride his motorcycle (brrrrrr!) to the remote villages so he can get there before 6 a.m. when the alpacas are put out to pasture.
Claudio at work, with a storm coming in.
Claudio is 31 and both his parents and grandparents were alpaca breeders, so he feels it was his destiny to be a vet. “I have a very inner feeling about alpacas,” he tells me shyly, “and I love working with them, even though they have lots of problems.”
Alpacas do have lots of problems – which I’ll be telling you about at length in my next post – but lack of love from Claudio isn’t one of them. I’ve rarely met anyone whom I felt was more committed, gentle and self-effacing (he wouldn’t even translate comments that praised him) – although I worried that he was never going to get married with a killer schedule like he’s keeping.
As we all walked back to our rustic hotel that night, getting ready for a big trip to the communities the next day, I looked up at the Ausangate Range and remembered that in Andean culture, the mountains are considered gods (“apu”), as protector and creator of the people, and source of water. Those sacred beliefs have held fast for six centuries — but now that gold has been found in the Ausangate, the mountains themselves are at risk of being torn apart, as well as the way of life of the alpaca farmers. The Heifer/ADAMARES teachings and trainings in community organization, empowerment, and building a sustainable economy are laying some great groundwork for a different outcome. Let’s just hope it’s in time for the next generation!
She's got her lasso and she's ready to go!
And just in case you’re longing for a bit of La Vie en Rose, here ya go!