Frosts in the highlands: The struggle of indigenous communities against climate change

By: Leslie Moreno Custodio 18 AGO, 2019

For decades, indigenous communities living in the high Peruvian Andes have been dealing with the consequences of climate change, a lack of government support, and the loss of their principal livelihoods. The timing and intensity of the frosts have altered. Facing vulnerability, increasing numbers of people have left. Social scientists warn that abandonment of land carries cultural risks. Is climate more powerful than man in the Andes?

Rosita Chambilla, 67, has dedicated her entire life to caring for alpacas at an elevation of more than 4500 meters above sea level in the Peruvian Altiplano. She guides her camelids to the corral where they will spend a night and the temperature will drop to -10 ºC. Temperatures of as low as -22 ºC are expected this year. It is five thirty in the afternoon. The sky has gone dark and the only way to distinguish the livestock from the shadows is light of the Puno moon.

Rosita is sad that she no longer sees her children. “All five are gone. They left me. They got used to the city. The sale of [alpaca] wool was not enough to support us all. My husband got sick due to cold weather, and one of my children took him to Tacna. Why would they come back if there is nothing here anymore?”, she asks. The cold at night is increasing and threatens the survival of alpacas.

The 2017 census showed that Peru’s population had increased by more than 3 million people since the previous survey a decade earlier. In Puno, however, the rate of growth was lower than all but two other regions. And Puno also experienced negative net migration: the sixth highest of all regions across the country. This migration is affecting collective work in communities. Every year, individual members, especially young people and children, move to cities in regions such as Moquegua, Tacna, and Arequipa. When they leave, their traditions and cultural legacies cease to be transmitted to the next generations. Increasingly, the only people remaining in the Altiplano are older adults.

“In the past there was ayllu,” (a Quechua word that refers to collective work) says a relative of Rosita. People are leaving because they hear that, unlike the work in the community, labor in the cities is paid. According to Junior Flores, Coordinator of the Native Peoples and Environment Section of the Andean Cultural Studies Institute (Spanish acronym: IDECA), with only the elderly left to take care of the land, the work in the field suffers.

Rosita comes from the peasant community of Chichillapi, located in the district of Mazocruz in the Puno province of El Collao, and recognized in 1943 as an Aymara indigenous group. Historic records show that Mazocruz is one of the coldest places in the country. According to newspaper archives, the lowest temperature ever recorded in Peru was -27.8 ºC, in June 1973.

Almost fifty years after that event, the Chambillas who remain in Mazocruz say that the extreme weather continues to harm livestock and the health of community members. These areas are characterized by both the cold and a lack of moisture due to the altitude. But something has changed over recent decades: global warming is making its presence felt. The heat can scorch some of Rosita’s alpaca’s wool during the day, whilst at night the frost, an atmospheric phenomena that reduces the temperature to zero, is becoming more intense. Temperature change is also reducing available water supply.

In a report that projects to the year 2030, the National Service of Meteorology and Hydrology (SENAMHI) predicts that southern Peru will experience more frequent episodes of moderate and severe drought. This region includes the area most affected by frost: Puno, Cusco, Arequipa and Tacna. It estimates that the average temperature will increase by up to 2 °C in the Altiplano by 2020. This increase in daytime temperature combined with the lack of humidity will make the frost feel stronger at night.

According to a 2008 Andean Community publication, this variation in climate—evident in the Andean subregion for more than three decades—has increased the rate of melting of glaciers in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Approximately 600 thousand Peruvians live in areas that the government classifies at high or very high risk due to the occurrence of frosts. Over half of the population exposed to these temperatures live in the regions of Puno (34.6% of the total) and Cusco (22.3%).

According to Sixto Flores, Director of SENAMHI Puno, these areas are affected by the worldwide increase in temperature and greenhouse gases, the intensification of the El Niño phenomenon, and the deforestation of Amazon forests: “The energy that the soil absorbs during the day is lost more quickly due to the vast plain of the Andes, and the changes are abrupt [at nightfall]”.

Flores also points out that the rivers across the region that flow into Lake Titicaca—the highest navigable lake in the world and part of the border with Bolivia—are also under threat. The lake is the final destination of 90% of the water. The small creek located a few meters from Rosita’s house is one such current. It feeds the Cuipa River before finally flowing into Titicaca. “If the rains continue to decrease and the heat increases, there will be a lowering of the lake’s water level, whose main function is to regulate temperatures [by releasing the heat it absorbs during the day]”.

Neither Rosita nor the community members of Mazocruz know the exact temperature. But they do know that the white cloak that was characteristic of the mountains surrounding them is disappearing. The heat increases during the day, and this, they say, means the springs hidden in the plain no longer provide the same quantity of water as they once did: That in turns means less irrigation for planting and less water for sustaining life.

State actions

In the face of climate change vulnerability, since 2012 the State has been designing activities aimed at mitigating the effects. The Multisectoral Plan against Frost and Cold is developed and implemented on an annual basis. Its measures read like a dream for those who live at high altitudes, and include vaccination campaigns, periodic road works, improved housing and kitchens, tambos (warehouses for the storage of donations), rural electrification projects, the installation of automatic weather stations, and pedagogical kits and thermo environments fitouts in schools. The allocated 2019-2021 budget exceeds PEN376 million (more than US$ 112 million).

Even so, the efforts to curb the effects of the cold have not been sufficient and every year some people die and hundreds suffer adverse effects. In its Multi-Annual Plan to 2021 the Presidency of the Council of Ministers has acknowledge that the measure do “not necessarily reach the most vulnerable population in the district; but instead places with easier access.”

The situation is worse when other factors are taken into account: distance, the age of the affected population (children under five and older adults), and the impact on livestock and agriculture—the principle subsistence activities in the Andes. The communities of Mazocruz lack drinking water, internet access, and telephone signals. To communicate with a city, a person must travel by motorcycle for one hour to a mountain which can receive the signal of just one telephone company. “At least we have electricity,” says Andrés Quispe. The community’s electrical energy comes from solar panels that the government installed a year ago, some months after the construction of some high-roofed cement housing. Even wrapping themselves in five blankets at night is insufficient to ward off the penetrating cold.

Fabio Vargas Huamantuco, Mayor of the province of Carabaya, says that the reports the regional government requires "are for information only, but we have no support and the budget we manage is not enough." His observation is a reflection the “peloteo” (ping pong) between institutions when it is unclear who implements which activities in the various districts. The current mayor of Mazocruz, Euladio Charaja, complains that the previous administration left no clear plan. His administration, like many others, has to start from scratch.

Other individuals, who preferred to remain anonymous out of fear of losing their positions, claimed that the programs are a form of welfare and not a solution. The various programs created at the regional and national level to participate in the fight against the cold—among them Agroideas, Sierra Exportadora, Irrigation Programs, the National Institute of Agricultural Innovation (INIA), the National Service of Agri-food Health and Quality (SENASA), the South American Camelids Special Project (PECSA)—fail to coordinate their activities with those of the local and regional governments. “They do what suits them”, says an official.

June passes and Rosita complains about the lack of assistance she has received from the authorities. These communities believe that the government will one day remember them and provide the solution to their problems. But standing by and waiting for government help may not be their best option.

Sources of subsistence and social policies not reaching everyone

The peasant community of Lacca Alccamarini, in Carabaya, is an eight-hour drive north from Mazocruz. Pascual Flores, a potato farmer aged around 60 years, is a resident. Agriculture is one of the principal subsistence livelihoods for the families who inhabit the Altiplano. But in January the early frosts ruined the crop. Pascual and his family had to sow again a few months later; but, as it was still the frost season, the potatoes did not reach a proper size.

The little that has been harvested will be turned into moraya or white chuño, products which result from the ancestral practice of potato dehydration and preserve it better when the snow comes. Specialists say that the frost season no longer begins in a set month. Sometimes frosts appear months prior; sometimes well after.

The Puno Regional Agricultural Directorate reports that during the 2018/19 agricultural season some 134 hectares of cropped areas in Puno’s thirteen provinces were lost due to climatic phenomena and another 32,393 were affected. The future does not look promising. Senamhi estimates that because of the decrease in rainfall the potato crop yield will drop by between 11% and 15% by the year 2100. However, farmers like Pascual continue to sow. “There is nothing else to do. We are used to this situation”, he says, whilst adding that the State should intervene.

Crop loss is a scenario repeated in various indigenous communities across the mountains.

Frost without offspring

Macusani is alpaca producing capital of Peru and of the world. Sheds stand next to the peasant community of Queracucho, meters from what remains of the Allincapac snow cap. They form part of the Center for Genetic Improvement, built in 2017 by the National Institute of Agrarian Innovation (INIA). The center improves the alpaca through a process of selection and controlled cross breed. The wool it produces is worth 25% more than that produced in the Puno Altiplano. Today the sheds are empty because the mating season ended in March (it begins in November), just before the frosts begin. Birthing after that date is discouraged, although not everyone is aware of, or respects the advice.

Experts point out that newborns are more vulnerable to cold and face a greater risk of dying during the months in which there are frosts and increased likelihood of snowfall. The gestation cycle last between eleven and twelve months. “Families have forgotten that knowledge”, one comments. It is for this reason that the camelids of the Altiplano continue to be born out of season.

Few are committed to intensive livestock, a method which, by reducing the number of animals, allows farmers to better treat diseases, use barley for feeding and improve the breeding process. Alpaca breeder Ricardo Aruviri says that “the older farmers have a hard time understanding and prefer to have a lot of [camelid] livestock but they do not take care of them in the same way”.

This neglect is causing losses across the region. In Macusani, whose Huacayo and Suri alpacas were considered were rated by the Guinness Book of Records in 2017 as the finest in the world, temperature changes and lack of coordinated action to deal with these global phenomena continue to affect people and livestock.

A spokesperson from Agro Rural, a government program aimed at agricultural development in rural areas, stated for this publication that every time a shed, a canal, or an item of irrigation infrastructure is delivered, a community member is trained. During 2019, a total of 1765 sheds are to be donated as part of a multi-sectoral plan for five southern regions. Although the spokesperson claimed that a nationwide campaign to deliver and put into use veterinary kits has already been completed nationwide, he was unable to respond asked about the lack of service in Altiplano areas such as Chichillapi.

The donation certainly did not reach Rosita. Almost three hours away from modernity, a path of dust and stones separate her from the government’s “benefits”. The Interoceanic Highway that connects Peru and Brazil lies far from her community. Residents of other districts located closer to the multibillion dollar investment constructed by the corrupt firm Odebrecht to have not yet received the benefits, although they expect to do so in the future.

Resilience: Man and climate change

Irrigation, planting, water harvesting projects, revaluation of ancestral customs and practices—these are all topics increasingly under discussion in the community. “We have to unite!”; exclaims Fidel Chambilla, President of the Chichillapi community. However, he also points out that, like any other project in the area, implementation depends on a budget from government. “The snow caps maintain the springs, but they are drying up. In the past everything looked white. In a few years water will be expensive. It will cost more than gold”, says Fidel.

The community members believe that water harvesting would help conserve the resource. “We have talked to the regional government, but they told us that we have to ask the local government first. We have already spoken with the mayor, and we are waiting for an answer,” says Fidel.

— “Are we going to have water, nephew?” asks an old woman.

— “Yes, we will.” Fidel answers.

— “Oh, that would be wonderful! I won’t have to carry all that water anymore.

— “Don’t worry, aunt. Let’s see what happens”

The budget the municipality has requested for drinking water was approved in 2015. However, due to late disbursement, implementation could yet take a few more years. The municipality lacks its own financial resources. If there are not enough funds, the request must be met by the provincial government or the regional authority. Fidel is aware this, but he does not tell his aunt. The promise of the authorities may not be fulfilled during her lifetime.

While they wait, the community members look for other financial sources and knowledge.

Porfirio Chambilla has been incubating trout eggs for more than five years. “The cold doesn’t affect them [trout] and they don’t die”, he says. Thousands of eggs he purchased from Chilean and North American exporters are growing. Some community members have sought training in the cities to learn how to avoid and treat diseases in their fish. Porfirio complains about the low price of alpaca meat and wool, and sees trout farming as a new option. His children left the community and now study in the city. They return only during vacations and he teaches them the trout business. “There is an interest amongst some people in the breeding, but there is still a lot to do”, he says.

However, to adapt to ongoing changes in the Altiplano more knowledge is needed. Little in-depth research into the low temperatures exists. Yamina Silva, a scientist specializing in climate variability, says that “to carry out these studies, hydrometeorological data of between 30 and 40 years is needed, and Peru does not have enough stations to collect it.”

Cold that sinks into the body

Luperio Onofre, an anthropologist and a traditional Aymara doctor, says that people use the whitish wira, coca, and muña, among other medicinal plants to mitigate the effects of cold weather. However, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases remain the principal enemies in the area.

The national health campaigns that reach the community prioritize vaccination against measles. Pneumonia vaccines for children arrived months after the onset of the frost.

César and Elvis are the only students who attend primary school No. 70669 in the Cuipa sector of Mazocruz, near the border with the Tacna region. Both are eight years old. Neither the alpaca wool knitted chullos nor the sweaters and jackets they wear are sufficient to keep them warm under the classroom’s cement ceiling and as they walk along the cold road in the mornings, still feeling the effects of the nightly frost.

Teachers from various communities agree that over the years the number of children in the area has decreased. The population of the Altiplano needs not only health programs and proper nutrition but also better infrastructure for their children to be educated; such as classrooms with higher daytime temperatures that do not retain the cold of the night. The government has begun to implement a schools program in the highlands but the plan is yet to reach Cuipa Cuipa. Changing temperatures and respiratory diseases have caused families to migrate to cities in search of better living conditions.

— “We are the only ones here,” says César.

— “Do you know other children?” I ask him.

(Both children mutter in Aymara and Spanish.)

— There was another child, but he doesn’t come anyone. He got tired because he lives so far away.

This third child they are referring to in fact lives two hours away by bicycle. His mother does not bring him because of the distance and the fear that he will become ill. “The children’s learning level is affected, and cold weather prevents them from concentrating. They instead think about going out to the playground to play and get warm”, says their teacher, Dina. “It’s as if Cuipa Cuipa didn’t exist on the map”. The pneumonia vaccination campaign arrived in the middle of the frost season.


As the area health center, located in Chichillapi, keeps no record of disease or mortality, any official figures may be inaccurate. Ministry of Health (MINSA) estimates indicate that this year (up to July 2019) there were 584 cases of pneumonia and four fatalities amongst children aged under five in Puno. The figures were 398 and eight respectively for people aged over 60. The incidence is on the rise in other regions of the country. For this report we tried to communicate with MINSA’s General Directorate of Disaster Risk Management and National Defense in Health of the MINSA, but had received no response by publishing time.

Facing climate change from different fronts remains a pending challenge for the communities of the Altiplano, particularly those located in most remote areas. On the way back to Mazocruz I once again meet Rosita and her alpacas. The world that surrounds her is changing. To survive, she and her family will also have to change too and keep up with the shifts in a land that will be very different from the one they know today.