In Peru, Oxfam helps mountain hamlets prepare for the next bout of bad weather

By Coco McCabe

There’s a saying in Peru that describes the remotest of destinations: “the place where the devil lost his poncho,” a place where disaster could strike and the outside world would never know until it was too late to help.

It’s the kind of place Oxfam America and its partner, Asociación Proyección, are working in now—at nearly 16,000 feet above sea level in air so thin that newcomers lose their breath and no other aid agencies have the fortitude to venture.

The place is the district of Caylloma, and the people who live here are alpaca herders. Oxfam’s mission is to make sure that when trouble does come—as it has in the past and surely will again because of the changing weather patterns families in these Andean hamlets are already grappling with—they will be prepared to cope.

Three years ago, after a severe cold snap wiped out tens of thousands of llamas and alpacas across Peru’s southern highlands, Oxfam and Proyección joined forces to find a way to prevent a repeat of the suffering people experienced then. Their proposal—a form of disaster risk reduction—included a range of self-help ideas, a smattering of technology, and the most important tool of all: planning.

Today, acres of barley now grow on the slopes—a buffer against food shortages for livestock. New adobe sheds with metal roofs stand in some of the coldest mountain pockets, offering critical shelter for alpacas that had none before. Gravity-fed sprinklers irrigate enclosed pastures of rye grass, guaranteeing a steady source of nourishment for animals. And a handful of radio towers dot the district, connecting far-flung hamlets with the world at large.

Simon Ccalachua, who lives in the little village of Jachaña, put it this way. Without this project, nothing would have changed for him and his family. They had no choice but to accept what nature brought, good or bad. If the cold came, their animals died. But now, armed with new ways of growing the grasses their alpacas need and a way to shelter them, families like Ccalachua’s can overcome the troubles nature brings—on their own.

Hard lessons

For Arturo Rivera Vigil, a field coordinator for Proyección, the importance of equipping people with tools to solve their own problems was a lesson he learned the hard way, and one he vowed to share with Caylloma.

Working in another region of Peru during a different emergency, Proyección decided that the best approach would be to provide direct aid to the families in need. So the agency purchased vast quantities of dried alfalfa to help feed the livestock on which those families depended. But that commodity was in short supply because of the emergency, and instantly, its price nearly tripled. Nevertheless, Proyección moved ahead with its plan, delivering tons of alfalfa to the troubled communities. But when the supplies arrived, Proyección learned there was no place in which to store it all.

“We realized we weren’t teaching anything to the communities,” Rivera said. When the cold snap paralyzed Caylloma, Proyección and Oxfam decided to take a longer-term approach—and find sustainable solutions to the problems rather than offer a temporary fix.

But that decision required a new way of looking at the situation: Could there possibly be things communities could do to prepare for disasters at such high altitudes?

“The typical thinking was people living up so high were so remote and had their own culture and own system of raising animals,” said Rivera. “No one thought they could help them, and no one thought anything could grow up that high.”

Proyección and Oxfam proved them wrong.

“We came here because the local government asked us to come, and when we suggested planting barley, everyone said we were crazy,” Rivera told a crowd during a recent ceremony at the Caylloma town hall honoring the project’s high-altitude accomplishments for 355 families. “Three years later, here we are.”

Far away and poor

Oxfam and Proyección have helped Caylloma take solid first steps towards addressing a problem that is all too familiar to poor people living in precarious places around the world: When something goes wrong in their environment, they suffer the most.

Cataclysmic events—deep freezes, drought, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions—only turn into disasters when people get caught in them and have few means for managing the consequences. That has been the case in the Caylloma district.

From the hamlet of Chinosiri, for instance, it’s an all-day walk down to the town of Caylloma for help. When the storm hit, assistance didn’t arrive for a week. In sturdy, four-wheel trucks, it’s a three-hour drive from Caylloma to Chinosiri along a rutted track that snakes in hairpin turns up the sides of ridges and back down through streams.

Even at the end of the summer the weather at this height is harsh. Thunder rolls over the mountain plains as hail ricochets off the stony ground. At higher elevations, snow blankets the thin pastures.

Far from one another stand tiny dwellings, made of stone or adobe with thatched roofs. Inside, small fires burn. There is not a tree or bush in sight for fuel, so families make do with dung and Ichu, a spiky grass that livestock will only eat when it’s young and tender.

Widespread poverty across the region means that beyond elementary school, there are few opportunities for learning. Students determined enough to attend one of only two high schools in the province wrestle with a good deal of hardship in pursuit of that dream. The son of Jose Gonzalez Condo, now in his second year of high school, walks four hours to get there in the morning, and another four to return home at the end of the day.

For Gonzalez, the effort his son is making is worth every step: An education will give the boy the tools he needs to live a better life—not necessarily far away in a city, but right here in Chinosiri, perhaps.

Uncertainty ahead

With the uncertainty that lies ahead for herding families in Caylloma, education is an important asset and it has been a component of Oxfam’s and Proyección’s disaster risk reduction program. For example, the agencies have produced a series of colorful guides on storm alert systems, the construction of livestock sheds, and improving the use of water resources.

Lately, families have begun to worry about shifting patterns of rain that are affecting the growth rate of the grasses on which their animals feed. The rains are supposed to fall in November, but for the past two or three years, they haven’t come until January, stunting the progress of the grasses. That in turn prevents them from dropping their seeds to start a new round of growth before the May ice season arrives.

Having the means to cope with the consequences of those changes—stores of barley, irrigated pastures—will go a long way toward easing the hardships people would otherwise face. And that explains the enthusiasm with which the mayor of Caylloma has embraced this disaster risk reduction project.

“A project like this can be applied to the whole province,” said Simón Quispe Chipa, the mayor. “This project has been a real motivation for the whole town.”