Posts Tagged With: Alpaca Bio-Diversity in High Andean Communities

Feeling the love in Yanacancha.

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.

Boy, howdy that did the trick! Despite ensuing cold, wind and rain, nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for this seductively adorable town and its inhabitants.

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.

Mr. Commitment: Claudio Pacco.

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.

Baby dearest...

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.

Virginia Huaman, 17, promoter & aspiring vet.

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 Quispe and her family (notice the bare feet in 40 degree rain)!

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.)

Why didn't I buy this??

Soup's on ...

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.

(And this is with nothing to drink....)

But the truth is, I’ll never forget that beautiful night. And the truth that our Yanacancha was never, ever lacking in warmth.

Categories: Animals, Heifer International, Peru, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 Comments

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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