On the top of the Santa Teresa mountains (1800 meters), there is no snow anymore
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« Here in the Salkantay Valley, we have Apu Salkantay, Apu Llamoja and Apu Humantay, which are very tall mountains. Apu Salkantay has changed over the last 5 or 10 years. The glaciers are gradually melting and disappearing. Margot, farmer in the Salkantay Valley
« This creates risks, because the snow is disappearing. You no longer see the completely white summit of the Salkantay. You see a black mountain, and this represents a threat to our water resources », says Margot, contemplating the valley that is her home.
Setting out from the fabled Inca town of Cusco, you must take a winding road that climbs to the summit of Salkantay Mountain, 4,300 meters up, to reach Margot's house. Having crossed the summit, we leave the mountains of the eastern Andes behind us, entering the western Andean cordillera. At a height of 4,000 meters we enter the Amazon. This being the height of the rainy season, we are immersed in the clouds and the mountain mists. The vegetation gradually changes and turns into tropical forest. The humidity seeps into us, all pervading, the waterfalls at the foot of the glaciers stream down and the driving rain beats down against the body of the car.
After a four-hour drive, we arrive in the village of Santa Teresa, one of a number of routes leading to the archaeological site of Machu Picchu, which was visited by more than 1.5 million tourists in 2018. At an altitude of 2,500 meters, we arrive at Margot's home in the Salkantay Valley, one of the four valleys that radiate out from Santa Teresa. She lives on her 2.5-hectare plot of land at Palmaderayoc with her husband, Glicerio, her daughter, Grisel, and her son, Adriel. They grow granadillas (passion fruits), which Margot turns into jam, ice cream and juice, to sell at the kiosk she has built opposite her house. Every morning, hikers who come from all over the world, following the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, stop there to take a break from their several-day-long trek.
For several decades now Peruvians have been migrating in large numbers to the interior of their country
Today, around 3,000 families live in the Salkantay Valley. Margot and Glicerio are part of the new generation who have returned to live on the lands of their childhood, after meeting in Cusco when Margot was studying fashion and hairdressing.
Margot is quite content in her valley, living her everyday life. She is the first one up every morning, at 5.30 am. Alone in her kitchen, close to the fire, she prepares breakfast – often rice with vegetables and good local coffee. When the men and children have left to go and work in the fields, Margot starts preparing lunch, while keeping an eye on her kiosk, ready to jump up and greet the tourists. Her mother, Alejandrina, who lives on the slope on the opposite side of the valley, regularly comes to lend her a hand. In January and February, during the long school holidays, Margot is also helped by her children. « The pace of my life is much calmer when my children are with me. They help me a lot, and always enthusiastically. My daughter, Grisel, loves greeting les amigos [the friends, aka the tourists] ».
Once the kiosk is closed, around midday, Margot serves lunch. In the afternoon, it's time to work in the vegetable garden and the orchard, to treat the plants suffering from new diseases that have appeared with climate change, to collect wood from by the river, to do the washing and prepare the evening meal.
Alejandrina (right), regularly comes to lend her daughter, Margot, a hand in the kitchen
Plastic sheeting stretched across the mountain slope, which threatens to collapse on Santa Teresa
According to several studies carried out in the valley where Margot and her family live, the results are indisputable: 71% of tropical glaciers are found in Peru and 43% of their area has been lost over the past 40 years, in other words, more than 1% per year. Over the same period, the Alps lost 33% of their glaciers. All of the Peruvian tropical glaciers located below an altitude of 5,000 meters could disappear by 2030. According to the most pessimistic scenario, only 6% to 8% of all of Peru's glaciers will be left by 2100.
This loss of the glaciers is causing a series of imbalances in the Andean region. During the rainy season, there is recurrent flooding, which can result in destructive mudslides. In the dry season, the lack of water leads to problems of competing needs between the human population, agriculture, and hydroelectric power resources. Such conflicts will intensify unless alternatives are put in place by the authorities to regulate the distribution of water: reservoirs, controlled irrigation systems, priority of uses, etc. There is a long list of actions that need to be taken, but the authorities do not appear to be inclined to make this major issue an investment priority.
And conflicting water needs are just one of the many consequences that Glicerio and Margot have to deal with. They have had to learn to live with the growing climate-related threats on a daily basis. Landslides, torrential rains and roads that have been cut off are an everyday experience for them. Huge avalanches of mud can occur overnight, as in February 2020, when an enormous mudslide swept away all of the bridges, the only major highway and several houses on the valley floor. The transport of basic supplies became a daily challenge during the weeks that followed, and the vegetable garden proved to be vital in terms of producing food to eat. Then, in March, the Covid-19 epidemic struck with full force. In just a few days, the thousands of tourists following the Inca trail vanished, Machu Picchu was closed and President Martin Vizcarra introduced a lockdown on 16 March. Left to their own devices, with no help from the state, the local communities set up their own improvised coping system: barter between neighbours, emergency assistance for those in greatest need, soup kitchens, and construction work by community work parties to rebuild the major highways.
Even before the destructive events of early 2020, Glicerio already had a very clear grasp of the situation: « Thanks to climate studies conducted in our valley, we were aware that the region would again experience a dramatic event similar to the avalanche of mud which destroyed Santa Teresa. It is not just a possibility or some myth, but a certainty ». In 1998, two successive mudslides had swept the entire village of Santa Teresa away. This event led more than half of the survivors to flee. Those who stayed tried their best to rebuild and to put their lives back together again, in spite of the trauma that is still apparent today.
This was 13 January 1998, exactly 22 years to the day before our arrival in the valley.
In the Andean Cosmovision, human beings have a role in nature, they are part of the ecosystem.
Margot feels that, « we should greet the rains gladly and with faith, because when it rains the plants thrive – and the rain is essential for us to be able to feed ourselves ». Margot's concept of the role of rain in life is rooted in the spirituality of the Andean cosmovision.
This spiritual heritage of the native peoples has gradually been lost over the passing centuries, with the imposition of the Spanish colonists' Catholic faith. Certain priests, however, like Father Donato, the priest of Santa Teresa, have combined the two cultures. « This morning, we're climbing Saint Valentin mountain, whose slopes loom over Santa Teresa. We're going to bless the mountain, which is threatening to collapse on part of the town (of 6 000 inhabitants), and attend a Mass for people to become aware of the risk, and to seek God's help », Margot explains to us. "The priest sprinkles Holy water and scatters wheat and quinoa seeds for them to take root. There is a risk that Santa Teresa might disappear once again ». An enormous expanse of blue plastic sheeting has been spread out in an attempt to impede extensive penetration by the torrential rains. Water-guzzling eucalyptus trees have been planted to absorb the rain.
One day, when torrents of rain were beating down on the valley, Margot's husband, Glicerio, took us on the zipline to show us the dramatic rise in river levels: « The river is swelling – it's about 25% higher. There, you can see the bridge we take when we're not using the zipline, the aerial route. The rain has increased the level of the river. It's normal for it to rise, but it's done so at a much faster rate than usual. Normally, it rises over the course of 3 to 4 hours, but this time it was much more rapid and very violent. Downstream, a town and houses sit on the banks of the river, and that's very worrying. The river is carrying bits of wood and mud, and these will most certainly have come from a landslide that has taken place higher up the valley. »
Higher up the valley, at Chaullay, lives Margot's uncle, Matias. In February 2019, an enormous landslide occurred on the road between Margot's home and her uncle's house. For two months it was impossible for inhabitants living higher up the valley to make their way down the valley. Since then, landslides cutting the road off have become very frequent during the rainy season and the family are very rarely able to visit each other. Grisel, Margot's daughter, always finds it a nerve-racking experience: « I get really scared. As you make your way past the landslide, stones come falling down. Any more of it last time and I would have fallen to the bottom. In the dry season, we can visit Uncle Matias, but during the rainy season it's not possible. »
From time to time, however, you still have to make your way up the valley, and the journey is always dangerous and stressful. One morning, at dawn, we go with Margot and her family when they decide to go and visit Uncle Matias, to find out how the rainy season is going, up there. Vans have come to a halt close to the landslide that stripped the mountain of all of its forest cover. Rockfalls have occurred during the night and travel by vehicle is now impossible. The only solution is to navigate it on foot, as Margot explains to us: «You can see stones falling. They're only small, but they fall constantly, and in large numbers. It's always quite hazardous to traverse but we don't have any choice if we want to get to Uncle Matias's house. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! And that's life for the inhabitants of the upper valley. They have to make the journey carrying food and all of the basic necessities on their backs, hoping that no stones come down on their heads. »
"Look at the river bed. It has risen very quickly. It's not usual", explains Glicerio.
The landslide higher up the valley has cut off the only major highway
During the rainy season life becomes complicated, for the elderly, in particular. Some live alone, have no relatives and have to walk for several hours themselves to pick up supplies of the basic necessities. Once a month the pensioners also have to go down to the village of Santa Teresa to collect their monthly pension. Here, there are no bank accounts and no automated pension payments. You have to walk through mountainous terrain for several hours to pick up the modest sum of 180 soles, on average [45 euros], in cash.
« We didn't have so many landslides in the past but, before, there were primary forests, which stabilized the ground. Now, we wake up almost every morning to find that the road has been cut off and we can't go down to the village », laments Matias. The deforestation which has taken place gradually, since the abortive land reform of 1969, has basically left the mountains in a fragile condition. This reform, carried out by the military government of Juan Velasco Alvarado, handed over to the peasant farmers the land that belonged to the latifundios, (large farm estates held by big landowners, often colonists). The reform was never implemented in full and the peasant farmers were left with plots of land that they know how to cultivate, but not to manage. The instruction planned under the land reform to support the smallholder farmers in managing their farmland was never carried out. Left to their own devices, the peasant farmers stripped their land of trees, without coordinating their action, and so in this way thousands of hectares of land were deforested, plot after plot. Trees no longer absorbed the rainwater and the subsoil was left in a fragile condition.
The result is that whole swathes of mountain are suddenly sliding down into the rivers under the weight of the rain and are sweeping away everything in their path.
Copyrights HCCS / Samuel Turpin
The data show that tourism practices in the region reflect and exacerbate the socio-economic inequalities within the local population. "
Jessica Ruth Figueroa Pinedo, holds a Doctorate in Tourism from the University of Girona (Spain). "Gestión turística y desarrollo sostenible en sitios patrimonio de la humanidad : una mirada al caso de Machu Picchu (Cuzco - Perú)"
« There can be no doubt that the question of tourism as a tool to preserve cultural heritage and support local development is fundamental. However, analysis reveals that in many cases the policies implemented and the programmes put in place on sites designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites fail to take into consideration or include the local communities.
In 1990, Machu Picchu received 120,549 national and international visitors. In 2016, this number rose to 1,419,507. The numbers of tourists have increased considerably, as have the hotel infrastructures created to respond to this demand. The archaeological site's capacity to receive them has been a matter of great debate during the past few years, due to the laxness of the approach adopted. It was eventually decided that the monument could not take more than 2,500 people per day, and the Inca trails, no more than 500 people. However, due to visitor pressure and a lack of monitoring at the entrance to the site, particularly in the high season (April to October) these measures have not been enforced. Management of the Machu Picchu sanctuary is very complex and it is also very chaotic. »
The big problem occurs during the rainy season when you have an excess of precipitation that falls in a very short period of time."
Holger Frey, a geographer and glaciologist from Zürich University, was one of the experts who took part in the Glaciares Project, a project supported by the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development, and carried out by Zurich University and the NGO, Care Peru
University Survey 2018
« The Santa Teresa zone, located in the region of Machu Picchu, has very particular characteristics. Even though it is still located in the heart of the Andes, conditions here are influenced by the Amazon river basin. In this zone, the drought is not as acute as in the other mountainous areas of Peru, because it receives a little more rain from the Amazon basin. The big problem arises during the rainy season, when you have excess rain falling over a very short period of time. There are often floods, landslides, rockfalls and debris carried by the rivers, which can cause serious trouble for the inhabitants. This has always been a problem, even in the past. The people are very aware of it. They suffer from it and it's a concern that's always present in everyday life.
As far as the melting of the glaciers is concerned, the link to climate change has been clearly established. It is quite simple: with global warming and the rise in temperatures, glaciers are receding. Where the rains are concerned, the links between cause and effect are harder to pin down. There is some evidence to suggest that there will be more droughts, but there could also be more heavy rains. A great deal of uncertainty persists in this area, far more so than concerning the link between global warming and the shrinking of the glaciers."
There is also another important aspect. In Peru, and in South America generally, you have the El Niño phenomenon. This is a natural climate variability phenomenon causing far heavier than normal rainfall some years. This occurs in Santa Teresa, and the severest effects were felt in 1998, when extreme weather was experienced in the area. »
Visit the Salkantay Valley with Margot
Grisel and her little brother Adriel cross this bridge every day to get to school
To go to school, I have to cross this bridge every morning and every evening. Every time, I'm afraid. It's very fragile and the swollen river could carry it away at any time, particularly during the rainy season. But, every time, I take a deep breath, I hold my little brother Adriel's hand tightly and we cross. We don't have any choice."
Grisel, 12 years old, Margot and Glicerio daughter
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Information Technology, 20.5% of the Peruvian population were living in conditions of extreme financial poverty in 2018. The rate in towns stood at 14.4%, but in rural areas this figure skyrocketed to 42.1%. The situation is improving, however, as between 2005 and 2013, the number of those living below the poverty threshold decreased from 52.2% to 26.1%. The fight against poverty nevertheless remains a major challenge which the Peruvians must tackle, alongside that of climate change.
We are at the edge of the Salkantay river, an hour's walk from Grisel's home further down the valley. To reach Playa Sahuayaco, the little village where the school is located, there is only one possible route: the bridge, which is at risk of collapsing at any time. Another bridge, a more solid one, was under construction right next to the dilapidated structure. The work on it began in June 2019 and was due to be completed in August the same year, but the work carried out by the authorities dragged on, and the much-touted bridge was never completed. In February 2020, the avalanche of destructive mud swept away everything in its path. The village of Playa Sahuayaco was completely flooded and its inhabitants were housed in tents. The reconstruction work was then brought to a halt by the lockdown introduced in Peru on 16 March to check the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The fragile wooden bridge that Margot's children have to cross every day is a prime example of the negligence of the authorities in Peru. The inhabitants of these high-traffic tourist areas are simply abandoned and there is a notable lack of financial and moral support on the part of the authorities. Margot's husband, Glicerio, is the head of the Frente de Defensa de la Communidad del Salkantay (Salkantay Community Defence Front), an organisation which is the voice of the inhabitants, conveying their requests and demands for improvements to their living conditions. « The requests we make to the local authorities often go unheeded", Glicerio tells us. « Most of the bridges and ziplines in the valley have been constructed by the inhabitants themselves. We are the ones who maintain the paths for hikers who come to tread the Inca trails to Machu Picchu! We organize the communal work needed to do this, with our neighbours ».
Left to their own devices, the people of these valleys organize minkas, collective labour by voluntary work parties, carrying out social utility and community projects, managed by the local communities themselves. Minka is a thousand-year-old Andean concept practiced by all of the native American peoples. In South America, and in Peru in particular, this tradition, which symbolises the community spirit, survived centuries of colonisation and represents one of the few hopes for surviving the disastrous climate events in the short term. At the time of the latest mudslide and during the Covid pandemic, the Salkantay populations were able to organize themselves within just a few hours to render emergency assistance, carry out evacuations, set up makeshift canteens and deliver supplies of food, etc.
In spite of this collective capacity for resilience, the Santa Teresa region smallholders' ability to adapt to the effects of climate change remains very uncertain, and the lack of support and investment on the part of the authorities increases this uncertainty. At a national level, the COP20 (20th international summit on climate change organized by the United Nations), which took place in Lima in 2014, helped to raise awareness of the climate issues in Peru. The government thus set up the Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes Project (PRAA), which carries out studies and implements projects to help Peruvians adapt to the effects of the accelerated melting of the glaciers, but the concrete implementation of this programme is falling behind schedule. The climate issue is still a subject of national political debate, but it is clearly not treated as a priority. Local authorities, meanwhile, are still not well informed about it or aware of the importance of the place climate matters should have in the local administration of their area.
Grisel on the road to her great-uncle Matias's home
Matias in his field, with Margot
« And what will happen later on? We are terrified, we are afraid, but we, the old people, will not be there! It's our children who are going to suffer », Matias fears.
Grisel's great-uncle, Matias, has lived at the top end of the valley, in Chaullay, for 40 years and he regrets that these lands that have been cultivated for thousands of years have been deserted. « When we were all still quite young, we went to settle in Lima. Then, one day in 1974, I came back to visit an uncle here, in the Salkantay Valley, at the time of the land reform invoking the principle that 'the land belongs to those who cultivate it. I am still a member of the Upper Salkantay Peasant Farmers' Cooperative. It is fated to disappear because nobody wants to work the land any longer. People are leaving. We have our land deeds and we will work our land to the end of our days – but we will probably be the last ones ». Matias has nevertheless constructed a little kiosk on the Inca trail that passes in front of his house, with his wife's help, and has set aside a piece of land to accommodate hikers who are camping. Like many other inhabitants of the Salkantay Valley, Matias and his wife grasped the importance of diversifying their economic activities so that they would not be completely dependent on either farming alone or tourism in their region.
Margot views the diversification of activities as an obvious choice: « Every morning I work at the kiosk, welcoming les amigos [friends, aka tourists], but I always keep in mind that we need to cultivate the land, in case we can no longer make a living from tourism ». At the beginning of 2020 – January and February being the two months of the long summer holiday period – there were very few tourists. With economic instability in Argentina, social revolution in Chile and the ousting of President Evo Morales in Bolivia at the end of 2019, paying tourist trips to Peru was not really a priority in the lives of its neighbours.
Grisel is aware of the valley's dependence on the tourist sector and the mass migration of young people to the towns. Unlike many young people who are attracted by the economic benefit of mass tourism, she wants to be a doctor and dedicate herself to improving living conditions for her community: « There are no doctors in the valley. In Santa Teresa, there is just a healthcare centre, and the nearest hospital is in Quillabamba, two hours' drive away. I want to go and study medicine at university and then return to the valley to care for my community. »
Incredibly mature for her 12 years, Grisel is very attached to her valley, and even though she is sometimes afraid of the landslides and mudslides, she cannot picture her life anywhere else:
« In order to study, I have to go to town, and I don't like that very much. I find it very polluted. You can't breathe clean air there, but I have no other choice, so I shall go, for a few years. When I return, I would like to work with medicinal plants, which are very effective in treating people. Horsetail, for example, is very good for the kidneys and mora mora for cholesterol... I know that the valley is very fragile from the point of view of the climate issue, but its climate and its air are very pleasant. If we had taken care of the environment earlier then we would not have this harsh sunlight and all the climate change we are experiencing today. The environment is very important: taking care of the whole ecosystem, taking care of the plants, the animals, everything that exists on this planet. I would like to talk about it to everyone, to promote change and to call for measures to be taken, to this end. »
Grisel, in her kitchen, looking thoughtful
In these times of sparse tourist numbers, it is no use counting on the big tour operators that come to expand their business in these isolated rural areas, without creating lasting financial benefit for the local economy. Margot emphasizes the sense of injustice she feels about this: « What saddens me is that the tourist accommodation in the valley belongs not to the local people but to the big international and regional tour operators. The profits go to these travel agents and not the local people. The local residents try to provide bed and breakfast options, but it's difficult, because when tourists go straight to big hotels with their tourist packages, everything is included, even the snacks! They don't spend any money in local places; the travel agents pocket everything – but we are the ones who maintain the roads and keep the passes and trails open. The tour operators don't do anything. »
This purely economic approach adopted by the tour operators is made worse by the political players, according to Jessica Ruth Figueroa Pinedo, PhD in Tourism: «We have seen in the chaotic management of Machu Picchu that the political players view tourism as a source of cash and not a business that can contribute to local development. In the Cusco region, the people are poor and have very little access to education and health […] The whole symbolic package created by tourist development and UNESCO recognition of the site as a World Heritage site blinds us to the worrying issues of the management of the sanctuary and the daily practices promoted by tourist activities: the informal economy, the porters who labour in poor working conditions, pollution, social conflict and the marginalization of local people, which keep the levels of health and education very, very low. »
The Santa Teresa district and the Cusco region turn tourism into a major focus of development. The whole of the local economy is based on this unreliable resource. In view of Peru's political instability and fickle world geopolitics, the number of tourists visiting Peru can plummet from one day to the next. This was a scenario that would have seemed inconceivable until the Covid-19 pandemic upset this fragile balance, based on mass tourism. In the space of a few days, the borders closed, the buses remained parked in the car parks of the Cusco hotels, the tourists returned home and Machu Picchu closed its doors for only the second time since it opened to visitors in 1948. The first time was in 2010, when heavy rains caused an enormous mudslide, destroying the railway line connecting the citadel to the town of Cusco.
Moving forward in a climate of uncertainty and absorbing the systematic blows that strike them is what Margot, Grisel, Matias and the whole of the Salkantay community are learning to do, and yet still with a smile and great zest for life.
Texts and photographs: Marion Esnault
Editing: Martine Béguin / Samuel Turpin
Translation: Karena Keelley