I’ve got friends in high places.

Up until now, I’ve spent a lot of time swooning over the alpaca, while paying precious little attention to its camelid cousin, the llama. So in my last blog about Peru (boo hoo!) I’m aiming to rectify the matter.

The llama doesn’t get much respect in many places in Peru– it’s the shaggy, blue-collar cousin of everybody’s favorite cuddle-bug, the alpaca, and the irresistible, Audrey Hepburn-channeling vicuna.

How can you compete with the ever-elegant vicuna?

But in reality, the llama is a working class hero – capable of carrying 35 kilograms of potatoes on its back, trudging long distances without breaking a sweat or requiring too much water, reproducing without drama, and providing tons of meat when it’s required to make the ultimate sacrifice.

To see the best llamas the world has to offer, we traveled to one of the worst cities I’ve ever seen: Pasco, Peru. Heifer’s charismatic country director, Alfredo Garcia, insisted I go to Cerro de Pasco (at 14,200 feet, one of the highest cities in the world) because he wanted me to see firsthand the destruction that mining has wrought …and boy, did I. The irony is that the countryside around Pasco is staggeringly beautiful, reminding me of nothing so much as Paradise Valley, Montana. 

Glorious Iscaycocha, which is Quechua for “land of two lakes.”

Yet when you enter Pasco City, you understand the meaning of “Something evil this way comes.” The mine isn’t near the city, it has consumed the heart of the city in a huge, gaping hole oozing rusty rainbows of effluents pooling into foul, oil-slicked ponds, billows of suspicious fumes, and enormous, variegated hills of toxic mine tailings. It’s a monstrous cavity in the maw of the drab, gray, cold city.

Cerro is the mining company plumbing for riches here in copper, zinc, gold and silver, and it employs most of Pasco City’s residents. It’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to live here or, god forbid, raise children in this toxic waste dump, but my Heifer translator Rosaluz Salazar assured me that having a job in the mines is a coveted position in Peru, something that kids from the countryside aspire to.

From here to the unimaginable mines?

Which makes the work Heifer is doing, supporting the tradition of raising llamas in 800 families in 13 agricultural communities around Pasco so critically important. We visited Iscaycocha, a community of 60 people who are part of this Heifer/FODESA project to celebrate a community greenhouse, witness a Passing on the Gift ceremony, and adore some spectacular llamas.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful … hate me for all my many, many awards.

The day was chilly and looked like rain, but when we walked into the 1-year old greenhouse it was toasty warm as Luis Basilio Ramirez and his wife Yaqueline Mesa greeted us. The greenhouse was built by members of the community, with Heifer providing materials and FODESA (a local NGO that’s been working here for 17 years) giving technical advice. It was placed at the Ramirez house because its proximity to the road means all the families can easily come for the robust harvests, and because Yaqueline, crippled in a car accident three years ago, was seriously depressed and needed something to grow. That’s just the kind of close-knit, caring communities that Heifer tends to create (“The projects teach us brotherhood,” one participant said simply.) 

Yaqueline Mesa Ramirez in the community greenhouse.

Now Yaqueline waters, plants, and oversees the organic garden that provides lettuce, tomatoes, beets, cauliflower, carrots, coriander, cilantro, cabbage, radishes and fava beans to family & neighbors who literally have never had vegetables in their diets before. (At 14,000 feet, there is no growing season without a greenhouse.) And those vegetables taste particularly beautiful with the llama meat that Heifer has helped these breeders to produce, promote, market and sell.

Fresh, nutritious fava beans .. yummmm!

For years, llama meat (like llamas themselves) was considered dirty, and vastly inferior to alpaca. But these prime breeders of Pasco are producing such high-protein, low cholesterol, super-clean meat with their award-winning llamas, they have quadrupled its price– and their business plan (written with a Heifer advisor) is to market their llama meat regionally and nationally, with specialties like llama burgers, llama sausage and llama hot dogs winning over dubious hearts & stomachs.

Do the best breeders come to resemble their llamas?

As we watched a third generation of really spectacular Heifer llamas being passed on from one Iscaycocha family to another, the sun came out, candy was thrown to celebrate, and the mining and environmental degradation of nearby Pasco City felt a million miles away. Where God willing, it will stay.

A gift for giving…

Goodbye for now, beautiful Peru!

Categories: Agriculture, Animals, Heifer International, Hunger, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

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27 thoughts on “I’ve got friends in high places.

  1. B, you took us all on an extraordinary journey through an extraordinary country. And tonight, you arrive home from another. Yippee! L

  2. The sixth picture isn’t loading! I’ve tried refreshing but it’s right after you talk about the mine so I really want to see if. Otherwise, beautiful photography as usual and I’m glad the llamas got some love.

  3. Donna Kilpatrick

    Hi Betty- I have been busy with our lambing and kidding program at Heifer International Learning Center at Overlook Farm and have not had the time to follow your blog as often as I would like. Your photo of the mines in Peru send me RIGHT BACK to my days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador where I worked as a large animal extension agent in a very remote location that boarders Peru. About an hour outside of the town where I worked and lived, there was a gold mine that looks similar to the photo in your blog. I had the opportunity to visit the mines with a friend who was a professional photographer covering a story for Parenting Magazine regarding child labor in mining towns. Of all the things that I have witnessed in my various travels throughout Central and South America, the two days that I spent in the gold mines still haunt me. Thank you sharing your experience which strongly reinforces the fact that there are thousands of people throughout the world (including children) who live in conditions that are unimaginably hard. I appreciate Pierre (our CEO at Heifer) for his constant reminder that our work is URGENT! Nearly half the world’s population lives on less than $2.00 a day and 25,000 children die each day due to hunger related illness. As an employee of Heifer, I hope to one day receive notice that I no longer have a job because hunger and poverty have been eradicated. For those of you following this blog- please help us in our work to END hunger and poverty. We need your support. Thanks again and safe travels. -Donna

    • Donna — Wow!! I am so happy to hear your story and can’t emphasize how much I admire your work both with Heifer now .. and as a large animal extension agent for the Peace Corps in Ecuador, as the people I’ve met working in that role do unbelievably important work with the communities Heifer serves. I found your comment about the gold mine really moving, as I will never forget the degradation that was Pasco City .. and the awful feeling that people were being enticed to take jobs out of the countryside into the mines because as Rosaluz put it, “They figure they’ll probably die at 50 of a disease, but at least their kids will be educated and they’ll have an income.” I totally love that Heifer is giving Peruvians another choice … and I also hope that people will feel moved to contribute to Heifer as they are able. It’s such a great organization!!

  4. That mining picture literally gave me the chills. Holy crap. But the llamas, they are awesome! For some reason, my youngest has become fascinated with llamas lately and he’s talking about them all the time. I will have to show him this post. By the way, I’ve never even heard of a vicuna before- how cool!

    • Mariza

      gracias por tu comentario, y compartimos el mismo entusiasmo por las llamas con tu hijo, somos del equipo de FODESA y nuestro correo es afodesa@hotmail.com, medio por donde compartiremos fotos y experiencias del trabajo que venimos realizando con las llamas.

    • JR –the animals of Peru are so fascinating — and vicuna are the very scarce, not domesticated, and carefully protected wild cousin of the llama and alpaca (it’s against the law to breed them). If you go on my facebook page, you’ll see some other really cool other photos of llamas which your son will LOVE! They are amazing creatures and practical beyond belief — really made for that high country! But I felt SO lucky to see the vicuna since they are very shy and reclusive — we just saw them alongside the road on the way to Pasco! (Their wool is really REALLY expensive and super- duper soft.)

  5. Deb Morrow Palmer

    I don’t have the words to tell you how much I look forward to reading your next blog. I am now sure I want to go to Peru more then ever!! In college I wanted to go and learn dyeing and spinning techniques. Going to Peru has now started me a “bucket list”. I have been very content with what I have seen and accomplished in my 59 yrs. Thanks for sparking a new desire!! I know this year is going to be wonderful following your blogs. What a huge gift you have putting all of this in words that create such strong empathy for others in difficult places.

    • Mariza

      Gracias por querer visitar Peru, te esperamos en Pasco. Tus amigos de FODESA

    • Thanks for the sweet comment, Deb — I highly recommend Peru to you — it’s SUCH a beautiful, amazing country!!! Hope you get there soon!

  6. Martha Radatz

    Llama Hot dogs?! :o)
    I cannot imagine what it took to get Yaqueline a wheel chair! When I broke my ankle in Cusco, my husband cut down tree branches in the back yard to make me 2 crutches, there were none to be had in town.
    I am so sorry this is your last report from Perú! I cannot tell you what a pleasure it has been to let these posts “take me back”. The pleasure has been doubled seeing through your eyes what Heifer is doing to improve the lives of communities in this beautiful country. We just hosted a Heifer Booth at Earth Day Fair in San Diego, which typically draws about 60,000 people—a constant flow of people all day long. As you have found in your writing, it’s a joy to share the simple but effective and profound vision that is Heifer.

    • Martha – Your day sounds WONDERFUL!! I too have no idea how Yaqueline got her wheelchair, but there is a powerful force at work in that village, and between FODESA and Heifer, I’m sure she is well looked after! So happy to share Peru with you …stay tuned!!!

  7. You are making a difference in the world. Few of us can say that.

    Safe travels my friend.

    • Thanks so much, Sybil!! Actually, traveling with Heifer is one of the safest things I’ve ever experienced but having just returned from Nepal/China … I’m so happy to be back and to get started writing on those countries … just you wait!!!

  8. Reblogged this on finnegan2749.

  9. So sorry to hear Peru is over for now. Gosh, I want to visit so badly now–what a gorgeous place. I got a laugh out of your characterizing the llama as the alpaca’s “blue collar cousin.” Well put, my friend.

  10. Always love having you around for the journey, Kathryn — you are SUCH great company!!!

  11. The horror I felt when I saw photo of the big ugly hole in Pasco City leaves me with an ache in my belly. I cannot imagine actually standing there and seeing it with my own eyes. Oh man…

    • Oh, Rosie — it’s just the worst city you can imagine… so polluted and ugly — plus, the air is so thin (at 14,200 feet) that all those fumes just hang in the air. GROSS!

  12. Your photo and commentary on the mining there is interesting Betty. Something that we see as unbearable is viewed with pride by the local–as residents know how things might be worse.

    Safe travels to you and thank you again for giving us perspective and highlighting the great work that Heifer Int. is doing around the world.

  13. Russell Liles

    Betty–Thanks again for picking up Rosaluz from the airport and sending her up Tennessee. She just left DC on the way to NYC and is having a wonderful time. Yes llamas do not get the respect that alpacas get. We have known about Heifer for 15 years or so but have been keeping llamas for about 5.They are a great source of organic fertilizer, great to hike with, as well as good fiber producers. They also have cuteness on their side. Thanks Russell

  14. Anonymous

    nice different ♥

  15. Pingback: Deep Thoughts About Peru… | Heifer 12 x 12

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