Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Courtney Cecale
Climate change has arrived in the Cordillera Blanca. Since 1970, this high altitude mountain range with the largest concentration of tropical glaciers in the world has lost around 30% of its icy mass (or around 200km²). The flowing meltwater converges into hundreds of new high alpine lakes, many of which grow overfull and unstable with each passing year. In a place already notorious for one of the worst environmental disasters in history (killing over 20,000 people), the consequences of further melt from climate change are potentially catastrophic. But in the last 15 months of fieldwork research here, climate change has taken multiple other forms — less sensational than a disastrous flood, but alarming and life threatening none the less.
Drought. The rainy season arrived four months late to the Cordillera Blanca last year. Farmers who planted seeds in August and September anticipating rain had nothing but dry dust and dead crops on their farms in November. Those who waited found that the ground was too hard to plant anything, though they tried anyway. By the end of November, fires raged across the countryside. Smoke filled the valleys of the region for weeks as people desperately burned whatever trash and organic matter they could find, a method locally believed to produce heavy, rain-bearing clouds. Concern grew until the last weekend of November.
I woke early to multiple text messages alerting me that dozens of angry campesinos (rural farmers) were marching through villages just above Carhuaz, collecting folks along the way. They were upset that the rains had still not arrived, despite their best efforts, and had a plan to end the drought once and for all. Together, they climbed up onto a nearby peak and destroyed the metal apparatus that resided there — a small metal box, solar panel, and antenna. People took turns speaking heatedly, but the local alcalde (an elected position like that of a mayor) guided the message. They knew the equipment was secretly the property of the nearby mining company. They knew it was sending signals to the sky to stop the rains. They knew it existed to make work at the open pit mines more profitable. And after everything the mine has done by poisoning nearby water sources, they’d had enough. They destroyed it to stop the signals and bring back the rain.
Immediately after the spectacle, people quietly returned to their homes. Chisme (gossip) traveled from village to village that not all participants were as certain as they claimed. After all, the equipment had been there for years, why would the mines wait until now to stop the rain? But they were desperate for a solution, they couldn’t imagine another reason this could be happening, and, well, the damage was already done.
Unfortunately for everyone, what was destroyed was not an anti-rain machine owned by a mining corporation. It was an early alarm system for possible glacial lake outburst floods, donated by Swiss researchers to the local municipal government. With the machine, if a flood were to threaten the townsfolk below, the alarm would sound with enough time to theoretically get thousands of residents below to safety. Now, without this equipment, there would be no warning if a disaster were to strike.
As timing would have it, the very next day it rained, and it continued to rain for months. How endlessly frustrating coincidence can be.
This conflict is just one of many facing climate change adaptation here in the Andes. In part, this possibly could have been prevented by holding more democratic and informative meetings with local campesinos, in their own language (Quechua) or presented by trusted leaders. But this isn’t the first time climate science equipment has been deliberately smashed, and it’s not the first time communities have blamed the mines for problems caused by climate change. This incident points to longer running tensions that underlay environmental epistemes.
Conflicts with foreign-owned mining companies here began during the early 1990s, under then President Fujimori’s mining boom. Land rights were restructured, granting the national government mineral rights across the country, allowing them to establish mines where locals protested. Subsequently, when people began presenting symptoms of tainted water and soil, they were politically gaslit by claims that they had no scientific proof. Capital-S Science was routinely used against them as a resource they didn’t have access to (Li 2015). This past year alone, dozens of locals were sentenced to decades in prison for protesting the mine and local government for failing to follow through on promises to improve their living conditions (not to mention the last few regional presidents have been incarcerated for embezzlement and corruption). So when foreign scientists arrive with the support of the government to place machinery on nearby mountain tops, it’s understandable why people might be skeptical.
Unfortunately, the lakes above town now threaten the lives of everyone living below them. Making the region safe and livable during the era of climate change will require millions of soles of resources. It will undoubtedly require social justice and healing. And these incidents illustrate a demand for both without paternalistic management or neocolonial saviors.
Over the next few weeks as a guest blogger, I will be writing from the field where I am currently wrapping up my dissertation research on some of the worlds within this hard-hit place affected by climate change. My writings will be primarily ethnographically oriented, as I begin to analyze some of the more existential questions raised by those with whom I research. I happily welcome opening a dialogue with others.
— Li, Fabiana. Unearthing Conflict: Corporate Mining, Activism, and Expertise in Peru. Duke University Press, 2015.