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The Andean challenge: getting there and catching your breath

By Coco McCabe

Field coordinators do everything, says Danny Gibbons, a communications officer for Oxfam America in Lima, Peru. And he’s right about Arturo Rivera Vigil, the energetic and cheerful field coordinator for Asociación Proyección who took us to the top of the world—or so it felt—on a recent field visit to the tiny hamlets high in the Andes around Caylloma, Peru.

We were there, together with Angel Chavez, one of Oxfam America’s humanitarian officers, to gather stories about Oxfam’s work with alpaca herders. They had suffered serious losses in 2004 when a severe winter storm killed many of the wooly creatures that are the backbone of the local economy. So vital are these camel cousins to the well-being of the families scattered across the mountains that many of the shelters they have built for the animals are superior to their own mud-brick and stone homes.

The income from alpaca wool—softer than cashmere when it’s cleaned, spun, and woven—feeds and clothes families, buys them medicine, and helps cover the occasional extraordinary expense. Without the few hundred dollars herders earn each year from the sale of the wool, life in these barren, thin-aired mountains would not be possible for them. And for many, it’s the only life they have ever known, helping to account for Peru’s position as the world’s top producer—by far—of alpaca wool.

About 80 percent of the wool now on the market comes from this South American country; Bolivia produces another 15 percent; and the rest comes from a smattering of countries including Australia, Switzerland, and England. So you would think, given Peru’s dominance in the industry, that the work of these Caylloma herders would guarantee their families a measure of security. Not so.

There, at nearly 16,000 feet above sea level, nothing is certain: The cold kills, and changing weather patterns are robbing the region of the rain it needs for mountain pastures to grow. Life is hard, and people are very poor.

Sky high—and breathless

Oxfam’s work with Proyección has been to help Caylloma herders find ways to buffer themselves against future disasters by improving pastureland; planting barley to serve as an emergency reserve for their animals; and developing an early alert system, including the installation of a simple radio network—all at an altitude that has scared off just about every other aid group.

“Nobody has worked at this height,” said Rivera. “No one wants to come up here. Only us.”

There’s a reason: To reach Caylloma’s remote communities requires a degree of energy that would exhaust a lesser field coordinator and his team. But for Rivera, that challenge—and the need that is so evident among the families of this rugged terrain—is the inspiration that repeatedly draws him up the steep slopes to Chinosiri, Jachaña, and a handful of other hamlets.

From Arequipa, a city in southern Peru where Proyección has its offices, the drive in a pair of heavy-duty pickup trucks to the town of Caylloma took us about seven hours through rain, hail, and snow on a rutted mountain road—and that was just the first half of the journey. Following a night’s rest, we left at 6 a.m. for the three-hour climb to Chinosiri, the belly of our truck scraping the ruts as we inched around hairpin turns and splashed through streams carving gullies in the dirt track.

The snow was falling in fat, wet flakes, blanketing the mountains in white, when Rivera, in the truck ahead, pulled over and jumped out, signaling that this—of all high and remote spots—was just the place for a group picture.

“Beautiful!” he said, surveying the vast emptiness around us: no trees, no bushes, no dwellings—only mountains and more mountains with sharp rocks underfoot.

It wasn’t until I scrambled up the slippery bank to where Rivera and Chavez were already standing in the snow that I realized just how hard the work in Caylloma could be: Without the sea-level amounts of oxygen I was used to, a few quick steps at 15,748 feet high left me breathless and exhausted. Puffing hard, I slipped back down the embankment and into the truck, grateful to be sitting once again, and marveling at the stamina of my colleagues. Could I do this, like them, on a regular basis? Could anybody?

Rivera had already answered that question: No.

Mountain home

The air at the end of this Andean summer was cold and damp, and all of us in the pair of trucks were bundled in just about every stitch of clothing we had brought. I had on two shirts, a sweater, a fleece vest, a fleece jacket, a down vest, a windbreaker, thick wool socks, and a wool cap—just enough to keep the chill at bay.

So I was surprised to see, beyond the steamed windows of the warm truck, two boys hiking hard and fast through the mud on a slope of pasture: They had only sandals on their feet—no shoes, no socks to keep the cold away. They’re boys, I thought, and that’s what boys do: tough things.

But as we bounced along, there were others—men, women, children—all wearing sandals in the frigid air. And as the clouds swept across the sky, occasionally unleashing a shower of cold rain, some of the mountain dwellers hardly seemed to notice, and simply wrapped themselves tight in their woolen blankets and ponchos.

Jose Gonzalez Condo, who has lived all of his 39 years in the tiny community of Chinosiri, explained that he and his fellow villagers are used to the mountain weather and its variable conditions. Chinosiri is home, he said, and he likes it.

But as weather patterns have begun to change—the rains are coming late, which in turn delays the growth of pasture grasses and threatens the health of herds—raising alpacas at this altitude has become increasingly difficult, said Gonzalez. And in the recent past, there was no way to get the word out about challenging weather conditions—be they drought or cold waves—unless someone made the 30-mile trek down to Caylloma to ask for help. The only way to get there is on foot, and the walk takes a day.

Chinosiri’s new two-way radio, installed by Proyección in February, has connected this remotest of villages to the outside world. And with that connection has come the sliver of hope that a way of life for the 70 families there—and for more than 3,400 rural residents scattered across the Caylloma district—is now more secure.