Edith Piaf in the Andes

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!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

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28 thoughts on “Edith Piaf in the Andes

  1. Didi

    Oh my gosh Betty…I don’t know which picture to put on my desk top first. The mountains, the farm with such beautiful stone walls, the little girl with the lasso…each one just grabs at me so strongly. You are so fortunate to have gotten this most wonderful opportunity…and we all get a special treat by learning and watching behind you. Thank You…and Thanks to Heifer! Didi

  2. Beautiful!!

  3. Beautiful pictures! What wonderful work Heifer is doing!

  4. a1nunn

    In my head I switched from “La vie en rose” to “Je ne retrette rien” … then I switch the “je” to “tu” … and that was your song … you are doing so much …

    Merci, ton amie, Sybil

  5. Martha Radatz

    When we worked outside of Cusco some 25 yrs ago, the statistics in the villages were that half the children died before the age of 5 and the life expectancy was 45 yrs. Grim realities in stark contrast to such beauty!
    To honor the apu, there was (and probably still is) the tradition of climbing Ausangate Mountain, strapping a block of ice from the top onto the back, and trekking back into Cusco. I can still see the weathered wizened men bent under their load and their exhaustion plodding through the streets to the plaza.
    I have one of those yellow fringed hats!

  6. I love this post. I am sending it to my wife because I know she will as well

  7. Judith Brennan

    wonderful. what a gift
    thank you Betty

  8. Mary Lou

    You have me hooked! It is fascinating to read about these hard-working people in their remote communities and fragile locations. I feel like I am meeting wonderful doers who may still be able to affect changes that keep our world home to so many diverse peoples and sustain their cultural traditions.

  9. I had know I had no idea that folks prefered white alpacas. Glad to hear Heifer is helping bring color back to these flocks (Is that what they are called?). And the views/photos are stunning. Gosh! Love the work Heifer is doing!

  10. I was longing to hear Edith Piaf after reading your post … and to cuddle a baby alpaca. Love your posts, Betty! Also love learning more about Heifer.

  11. Ginger O'Neill

    Dearest Betty,

    Thank you for your brilliant pros and insight to yet another group of indigenous folk whose life style is threatened with foreign greed and commerce. The pictures are outstanding and I am constantly humbled by the small few who dare to make massive sacrifices for the meek of the world to improve their lot for the present and future generations.


    p.s. it was great to see you Lulu and Donna for a short bit on Easter. Per usual, I was running around with a small crowd of 40. Miss ya!

  12. Oh lord more human interfering. Does Claudio think he’ll be able to bring back the natural colors of the alpacas?

    Of course I love the photos of the two little girls – yellow sombrero and green jacket – but I’m also glad you included a view of the farms surrounded by the stone walls.

    • Rosie .. so sorry but i think my reply got lost along the way. Yes, Claudio and the breeders do believe they will be able to bring back most of the colors .. and how gorgeous are those little girls? They’re also really TOUGH … they work outside in bare sandals and look after the animals all the time … wow!

  13. Betty,

    What an exceptional post. Thanks for the education, beauty, and good deeds.
    The farmers market in Morristown occassionally invites an alpaca farmer to bring some animals to the market on summer Sundays. They are the softest creatures I’ve ever touched, and have beautiful, soulful eyes with long curling lashes. If only the world were as gentle and peaceful.

    PS I didn’t know they are used for their meat as well as their fur…

    • teresa hart

      Loverly beasties,beautiful people, wonderful pics. I am cherokee, and my people thought whites were driven crazy by gold, greed really is a sickness of the spirit, people who live close to the earth and are in touch with nature are not able to understand it….AND that is a blessing , I pray that heifer will help these beautiful people retaint their native ways and get the respect they deserve. People sometimes do desperate things not realizing the long term outcome. Glad heifer is there to restore some “color”. That’s a good thing…peace, teresa hart. p.s. the music was yummy…thanks.

      • What a cool adventure that was Sharlene! I love those kind of pleacs, where it is full of history and beautiful! It reminds a lot of my pictures of the North Cascades trip that we took a while ago, I actully had to look back at your post to make sure you were still in California! The picture of the bridge is almost identical to the one here. You have to look at my post and see what I am talking about. I love your pictures, especially the one of Mari in the woods.

      • Thanks so much for your comment, Teresa!! As someone who is totally white, I have to tell you I have an acute sensitivity to people losing their culture, too — and I’m SO happy to see these people teaching their children the old legends, working with the animals and staying close to the land — but ALSO finding a way to prosper in that and also infuse new technology and teachings into the old ways so the animals stay healthier and the farmers make more MONEY! love hearing from you,


  14. I am continuing to enjoy your posts. What great work Heifer is doing. What a great job you are doing describing it and getting the word out. Wonderful photos.

    • Hi, First of all great website/blog! I am an Alpaca lover just like you, but I don’t own any of my own (yet). I just mlaniy wanted to tell you hi and hopefully be able to exchange some Alpaca-obsession with you! Please feel free to email me at given email address, I love having Alpaca friends haha! Hopefully I will talk to you soon!/ Elin in Minnesota

      • Pule, any friend of alpacas is a friend of mine … so glad you liked the post and the blog … and since you’re in Minnesota, you’re probably in a climate that is amenable to raising alpaca! They are tender and require a lot of work — but SO cute, right??!

    • Thanks, Emilia!! so happy you are reading!!

  15. Thinking about Claudio’s frigid motorcycle ride makes me want to put on another sweatshirt. Wow.

    Wonderful images Betty. Thanks for including us in your travels.

  16. Stunning, thanks Betty.

    Can’t wait to see it myself…

  17. Phoenix

    What about water storage and an aquaduct system? If it rains so much and the drought is the problem, lets catch and manage water and then duct it to villages. It would be a small amount for each village, but far better than none! What about it, Heifer?

    • Pretty great idea, but this is such a small village, it would require a ton of money I think.. BUT they are doing a lot with cisterns and water harvesting for personal family use. It’s just the forage crops that are a challenge in the dry times! But Heifer reads this -so keep on with your suggestions!!

  18. Pingback: Feeling the love in Yanacancha. « Heifer 12 x 12

  19. Pingback: SOCIAL GOOD SUNDAYS: Cows R Us with Heifer International | Thirdeyemom

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