In the Andes: Climate Change Adaptation and an Apocalypse Fable

The last of the glaciers melted in Quispillaccta as political violence spilled from the basin in 1980 and rolled across Peru. Neighborhoods emptied as mass graves filled and people fled for Huamanga, the nearest city, or Lima, where dead dogs soon hung from street lights. Among the dispossessed was Marcela Machaca Mendieta. She and a few siblings earned engineering degrees in Huamanga as their community collapsed.

When Marcela and three of her sisters and one of their brothers returned to Quispillaccta in the late 1980s the tall earth had dried and their indigenous traditions cracked. Their father, whose education ended in the fourth grade, had sold their family's livestock hoping to send his 11 children to college so they could lead their community into the future. But when five of them returned, they first had to rebuild it.

They are fighting a prophecy. Time for the Andean people is not linear. It is cyclical like the seasons, and below a vast grassy plain along a cool river in a stone hut is evidence of a previous apocalypse: human skulls, femurs. A medicine man in Quispillacta says they are among the remains of an ancient people who disrespected the natural world and ignored warnings to repent. As the earth warmed they moved from the hot plains to the cool river thinking they would survive. But inside their homes of stone the Aya burned to death. The cycle began again, the medicine man said, when the glaciers began melting. Everything that has followed—the political violence, the erratic weather, the drying earth—is a punishment and a warning, he said. "All this bad time, all these extreme changes," another wiseman said, "start with the melting of the ice of the glacier."

To adapt, Marcela and her four siblings have built some 60 lakes throughout their sub-basin using the methods of their ancestors, a band of rebels expelled to this dry swath of the Andes by the Incas. They dam the far sides of mountainous lagoons so that water pools over several years and filters into another lagoon, which, likewise dammed, slowly pools and filters into yet another. Down and down they go until from afar the valley shines like a necklace of blue beads. These lakes, which drip steadily, replace the glaciers, Marcela says. Although the siblings plan to build many more already the lakes contribute some 15,000 cubic meters to the 80,000 cubic meter reservoir that channels water to the entire district of Ayacucho. (Today this reservoir is consistently below capacity because rains are more erratic, heat is greater, snow is melting earlier and the demand for water continues increasing.) Now the siblings are teaching the methods to other communities in the highlands of Peru. They are even teaching them to Costa Ricans.

Ill Nature

When the glaciers melted in Quispillaccta, Peru, an ancient cycle began again. Science tells us climate change ails the highlands; an Andean fable says it is the beginning of the end.