Spending the night with somebody new is always kind of tricky, what with the awkward getting-to-know-you bits. So the day we Heifer folks went to Yanacancha (an hour from Marcopata, Peru) to spend the night in the community, we were lucky to kick things off with a guaranteed ice-breaker: an alpaca mating session at the home of Juan Yanac and Santusa Mamami.
Our exploration of Heifer’s Alpaca Bio-Diversity Project in High Andean Communities began with this X-rated “empadre” that represents a spectacular leap forward in a real life-and-death matter: the health and well-being of the Alpaca of Yanacancha.
At an altitude of 14,000+ feet, alpacas are the one and only lifeline of high Andean communities; nothing but a few varieties of potatoes grow here, and precious few animals can survive the cold, wet, wild weather and raggedy thin air. But alpacas, members of the camelid family, can survive and even thrive here, given the right attention – and that guarantees food and income-producing fiber for families that live on the razor’s edge of poverty and malnutrition.
And that is where Claudio Pacco, the Heifer/AMADARES vet/tech comes in. During the first year of this Heifer project, Claudio has visited every one of the 22 communities involved, identifying alpacas house by house, and beginning monthly Heifer workshops to share better breeding and husbandry methods with the breeders.
It’s a complex process, raising good alpacas. The end goal is a healthy animal that will produce fiber that is insanely thick, incredibly fine, and of a uniform color. After years of purging non-white animals from their stock, breeders are using 22 gorgeous Heifer stallions here to bring back black, brown, golden, and butterscotch hues to their herds. But the challenges go far beyond color.
Baby alpacas are born in January in the wet season, so they can easily find pasture, but the next three months are marked by extreme cold, constant wet, and vicious hail. The babies are fragile and can easily develop bacterial diarrhea that will spread through a herd in days and wipe out an entire generation. So much is at risk that from December (before the babies are born) until March, Claudio teaches the breeders to maintain daily contact with the grazing mothers and babies, making sure they are in good health, or quickly receive antibiotics before they can infect others.
In the intensive Heifer workshops, breeders are given vet kits with meds; sturdy 6-foot high nets that keep the babies safe from foxes and puma; a variety of good, nutritious seeds to cultivate fertile pastures; and trainings to harvest rainwater and bring water from the glaciers so the alpaca will never go thirsty.
The result? Last January, 60 alpaca babies in this community died (the equivalent of a $60,000 loss). This year, just twelve months into the Heifer program, only 15 died—a 75% reduction. And next year, Claudio believes the losses will be far less – with the help of 18 “promoters” like Virginia and Gabrielle, who are being trained to spread the trainings and mentor others. These unpaid volunteers, 8 of them women, follow Claudio around on his individual visits, learn everything they can from him, and then pass the knowledge on to other breeders in the community.
Gabrielle and Remauldo Quispe have so enthusiastically adopted the Heifer trainings that in their herd of 80 alpaca, Gabrielle didn’t lose a single baby this year. With only a third-grade education, Gabrielle is intent upon her children becoming professionals and wants to use her thriving alpaca herd and her beautiful handicrafts (where does she find the time??) to support their education. (I’m still hacked off that I didn’t buy her gorgeous work.)
By the time dusk fell, we were so cold, wet and altitude-challenged, (while all the villagers were walking around unfazed, in bare sandaled feet) we piled into the kitchen to warm up. Chef Johnny worked his magic in the kitchen with local women and made a gorgeous soup, while we drank tea and showed the children photos of themselves, which delighted them to no end.
After a singing/storytelling/dance fest, we went off to bed in the house of one of the villagers and I wore every piece of clothing I had on: 4 shirts, 2 pairs of pants and leggings, 3 pairs of socks, a down vest, hat and scarf–and I was still cold under about 20 pounds of wool blankets. But miraculously, I slept… only to wake at 5:30 a.m. to dogs barking, roosters crowing, alpacas being led out to pasture, and the smell of fires started for breakfast.
There is nothing that makes you realize how removed most Americans are from the earth, animals, plants, and weather than to spend 2 days in a village in a developing country. You walk away with a whole new level of respect for the dignity, creativity, and incredible work ethic of these people– and for the luxuries of hot water, flush toilets and yes, heat.