Calling Caylloma: mountain radio connects far-flung herders

By Coco McCabe

In a small mountain hut high above the town of Caylloma, Peru, Simón Quispe Chipa, the mayor, picks up a microphone and within seconds makes contact with the outside world—a link that just a few months ago would have taken a whole day of walking to establish.

"Caylloma. Caylloma. Caylloma," he says into the mic, and over the airwaves, not slowed for a moment by mud or steep ridges or gushing streams, comes the scratchy answer—accompanied by a big mayoral smile.

This is Chinosiri's new radio, one of four Oxfam America and its partner, Asociación Proyección, have installed in remote mountain hamlets around Caylloma following a devastating cold snap and heavy snow three years ago. The storm lasted five days, dumping nearly three feet of snow in the highlands, paralyzing families of alpaca herders who make their living there, and killing the grasses on which their precious animals feed. In some of the remotest communities, help didn't arrive for 10 days.

Now, for the 70 families living close to 16,000 feet above sea level in Chinosiri, calls for emergency aid can be broadcast instantly. And on the receiving end, storm alerts, picked up via the new radio, may soon give residents of the hamlet and their far-flung neighbors a chance to get ready.

"We can keep communications with authorities both ways," says Jaime Condori Inca, Chinosiri's 27-year-old radio operator whose job it is to establish contact twice a day—at 7 a.m. and again at 7 p.m.—with the world far below his hamlet.

Early warning system

The radio network is part of an early warning system that is helping 355 families scattered throughout the Caylloma district prepare for future emergencies.

Training has included the compilation of a list of natural signs—much like a farmer's almanac—that could indicate a pending change in weather. What can you expect when the sky is pink in the afternoon? Frost. If you should hear a sheep bleating at night, snow is surely on its way. And about that black lizard: its color announces plentiful rain. But if the lizard is white, the rain may be in short supply.

Gleaned from generations of herders' experiences with the harsh conditions in the Andes, the list now appears in a colorful training guide published by Oxfam and Proyección and distributed widely among Caylloma residents. But as weather patterns begin to shift—during the last three years, for instance, November rains didn't come until January—mountain families need new ways of understanding their environment. And that's where the radio comes in.

With it, Condori can send details about daily changes in the local weather to a national repository that collects meteorological data as part of a long-term tracking initiative. Caylloma is working with the Meteorologist National Services and the ministry of Agriculture on the project. Environmental details are gathered with the help of a small weather station—a sturdy white box with a thermometer mounted inside—that stands just behind the radio hut. It's checked daily and the temperature, along with noticeable precipitation, is carefully recorded on a chart next to the radio.

Across the highland plains, in the hamlet of Jachaña, sits a second radio, which in turn connects with another in Chinosiri and with a fourth one in the Caylloma town hall. It's here that Proyección has a small emergency operations center equipped with a computer, a printer, first-aid supplies, and a list of all the relevant radio frequencies.

Small though the radio network may be, it represents a major step forward for Caylloma—and is testament to the commitment of the entire district. Families arranged, for instance, to carry parts of the Chinosiri weather station up the mountainsides on the backs of llamas.

"The people from every community got involved," said Danny Gibbons, Oxfam America's communications officer in Lima. "They shared the burden."

Additionally, the radio network has helped people communicate about other emergencies such as health crises and alpaca rustling as well as improved coordination among different levels of government.

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