The Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru’s Canchis province is the world’s largest tropical glacier, but it has been melting steadily — a harbinger of climate change.
By Vanessa Romo
The Quelccaya Ice Cap is perched 5,600 meters (18,400 feet) above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. With a surface area of 44 square kilometers (17 square miles), it was named the world’s largest tropical glacier by U.S. geologist Lonnie Thompson, who has been studying the process of deglaciation on the mountain since 1974.
Donato Bermúdez, the president of the indigenous Quechua farming town of Phinaya at the foot of Quelccaya, has known Thompson for as long as he can remember. When he was born, the scientist had already started working on the ice cap. Back then, it was almost intact.
In the past, it took Bermúdez an hour from his doorstep to reach the snow. By his account, he has spent many days sitting and looking at the white mountain, feeling its power. He learned to respect it when he was a child. “It’s the apu. It’s our protector,” his mother would repeat. As he grew up, he understood that there was no life without Quelccaya. The water from the ice cap feeds the Vilcanota River and Lake Sibinacocha, the site of a dam that provides energy to a large part of Peru’s Cusco region, including Machu Picchu.
Phinaya hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. But its inhabitants have noticed an important difference in the apu: now Bermúdez has to walk up to two hours to reach the glacier. And the rivers now flow with a stronger current. That might appear to be positive, but it serves as a warning. “It means the ice is melting faster,” Bermúdez said. According to Thompson, Quelccaya is retreating by 60 meters (200 feet) per year, experiencing an accelerated deglaciation process.
The Quelccaya Ice Cap is part of the Ausangate mountain range, the guardian apu of the Cusco region. The Ausangate range, in turn, is part of the larger Vilcanota mountain range, an extension of the eastern Andes. Miguel Ángel Canal of Cusco’s Regional Directorate of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, highlights the importance of this ice cap, Lake Sibinacocha, and the broader Ausangate range. The area, he said, “is considered a global thermometer where the relationship between global warming and glacier melting can be studied.”
That’s why, in 2008, the regional government of Cusco proposed this area for protection as the Regional Conservation Area of Ausangate. To date, however, the area has yet to be protected.
Ausangate’s biological significance
The area proposed for protection encompasses the Ausangate mountain range, which includes Quelccaya and the stunning Vinicunca, known by tourists as the Seven-Colored Mountain or Rainbow Mountain. Apart from the spiritual and hydrological value of the area proposed for protection, the regional government of Cusco has also identified important ecological elements in the flora and fauna. Seven plant species endemic to Peru live there, as well as a number of endangered plant species.
The area is strategic for the conservation of vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) and pumas (Puma concolor), both classified as Almost Threatened by the regional government of Cusco, and of deer called tarucas (Hippocamelus antisensis), classified as Vulnerable. As for the birds living there, the black-faced ibis (Theristicus melanopis) is classified as Vulnerable and the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) as Endangered.
“In the proposed area we have 17 species of flora protected by Peru, 6 protected by the IUCN and 27 rare flora species. There are also 25 species of mammals, one rodent species and 77 bird species. All these conservation targets rely on the hydrological resources that we want to protect with the creation of the Regional Conservation Area,” said Canal, who leads the conservation area’s technical team.
A decade of negotiations
Besides Phinaya, Sallani is the only other town at the foot of Quelccaya. Both towns are in Pitumarca district, in the province of Canchis. The two communities are the only ones left in the proposed Ausangate conservation area after 10 years of negotiations and bureaucracy to create it.
When the process started in 2008, the regional government of Cusco thought about including 14 towns from the provinces of Canchis and Quispicanchi in the proposal. The area proposed for protection totaled 1,300 square kilometers (500 square miles). But when the work to inform the communities and obtain documents of commitment was initiated, the number started to go down. By August 2017, when the process of prior consultation started, there were nine towns, and the proposed extent had been reduced to 1,255 square kilometers (485 square miles).
The process has been long, and it’s not over yet. According to the project’s technical lead, Canal, between 2008 and 2013, the delays happened because the proposed Ausangate regional conservation area was not a priority. Changes in the regional government and officials in Cusco, and the heavy bureaucracy, were also factors.
Emerson Alata, a lawyer with the Directorate of Prior Consultation in the Ministry of Culture, said the delay caused the communities to feel discouraged about the entire process of creating the conservation area. Alata knows the situation well because he held a previous job with the regional government of Cusco determining the need to conduct prior consultation for the conservation area. Between the time when the conservation area was first proposed in 2008 and when it was reconsidered in 2013, the rules of the game for working with traditional communities had changed.
“The nine towns involved until now are Quechua and we found out that the creation of the Ausangate [regional conservation area] could have positive and negative effects on their collective rights, such as the right to land, access to natural resources and the ability to keep their cultural practices,” Alata said. They had to be informed of the plans and there had to be commitments between them and the regional government of Cusco, which would manage the protected area.
The consultation process for the Ausangate conservation area was the 35th to take place in the country and the fourth in Cusco. However, Alata said this one was special because it was conducted entirely in the Quechua language, the mother tongue of the communities involved.
In the middle of this consultation process, it was necessary to identify people who lived in the area who could promote the project and help resolve doubts about it that were circulating in the communities. That’s how Freddy Chuquichampi got involved, becoming one of the community members most enthusiastic about the creation of the conservation area.
This wasn’t the case at the start. When the first officers came to Phinaya in 2008 to tell residents about plans for the conservation area, Chuquichampi and most of the people in town looked at them with distrust. He was 23 years old. “We thought that they would be coming to take away our lands,” he told Mongabay Latam.
Alata said this feeling was common in areas where people had received land with the agrarian reform of the late 20th century. “At the beginning, many were scared because there is this idea, especially among older people, that landowners are going to come back and take these lands,” he said.
They also fear mining concessions, and the environmental and health problems they often bring. The NGO Conservación Amazónica, which participated in the creation of the proposed conservation area, found 50 mining concessions granted in the two provinces that the area extends into. And locals know that deposits of various metals remain untapped under their lands. “We don’t want to experience the same as Espinar, with so many people contaminated,” said Chuquichampi, referring to a town in southern Peru where a large copper mine is located.
During the process of prior consultation, many hesitant towns withdrew from the project. In Pampachiri, the proposal for the Ausangate conservation area included Vinicunca, the Seven-Colored Mountain. “The leaders decided to withdraw from the consultation process because they thought that the profits they make from tourism in this location were going to be managed by the regional government,” said Canal, the project’s technical lead.
On June 19, the Peruvian organization CooperAcción released a statement warning that a concession for the mountain had been granted to the mining company Minquest Perú S.A.C., a subsidiary of the Canadian company Camino Minerals Corporation. The government had granted the concession for exploration in March, just 10 days after the dialogue stage in the consultation process ended. However, on June 20, Miquest Perú S.A.C. said it would return the concession to the Peruvian government to protect the integrity of cultural and touristic development in the area.
Before this happened, Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, had communicated that the Seven-Colored Mountain would be preserved. “It’s our duty to safeguard and protect a beautiful creation of nature in Cusco,” he wrote on Twitter.
Experts from Conservación Amazónica told Mongabay Latam that the urgency to approve Ausangate stems from the appearance of another request for a mining concession that overlaps with the conservation area.
Plans for the Regional Conservation Area of Ausangate
The consultation process finished in March this year with just two towns agreeing to join the conservation area: Sallani and Phinaya. The final proposal for the conservation area suggests an extent of 810 square kilometers (310 square miles), including the Quelccaya Ice Cap and Lake Sibinacocha.
Those pushing the initiative are hopeful that in the future other towns will join in. “In the [Regional Conservation Area of] Tres Cañones we had a similar case two years after the creation of the area. The communities that at the time were not convinced to join now want to be integrated,” Canal said.
The proposal for the Ausangate conservation area’s creation is scheduled to be submitted to Peru’s National Service of Natural Areas Protected by the State (SERNANP) in August to begin the approval process. The regional government hopes it will be approved this year.
Chuquichampi, Bermúdez and the more than 600 residents of the two participating towns look forward to the same thing. It’s been years of process with no tangible result. “At the start, when we were listening to the government officials, I thought nothing they said would go anywhere,” Bermúdez said.
“We plan to have an interpretative center for the South American camelid to tell the world about it and about what we do,” he said. “When the [conservation area] is in place, we would like help to improve our production through genetic enhancement.”
Companies typically buy alpaca fiber for about $6 per kilogram (about $2.70 a pound), according to Bermúdez. With that much fiber, they can make at least three sweaters that they sell for about $85 each. In the case of vicuña fiber, the price per kilo is close to $400, although it has been going down. “It’s important for us to have the support of the regional government in the negotiations so that [the buyers] won’t try to lower the price,” Bermúdez said. The final plan is to export clothes made in their communities, but they need machinery and training for that.
Bermúdez is also concerned about the future of the mountains. He thinks his community can’t do much to halt deglaciation, but he trusts that with the new conservation area they’ll have better tools to manage the now-abundant water.
“I’ve wondered a few times if my grandchildren will see the ice and what I can do to make it so they can. I think that we can do something if we protect the Quelccaya. I would like to teach my grandchildren to be thankful for it, to [repay it] for everything it does for us,” Bermúdez said.
It’s taken four decades to lose 30 percent of the ice in this glacier that took 1,600 years to develop. Bermúdez’s mission, and that of the others who live at its foot, is to work so that the apu’s death doesn’t come too early.
(Feature Image – The tropical Quelccaya Ice Cap is the largest of its kind. It perches 5,600 meters above sea level in the Vilcanota Mountain Range. Image courtesy of UMass Climate System Research Center.)