Between ice and earth

28 May 2012 | News story

At the foot of the Chimborazo, in Ecuador, the indigenous community Kichwa fight against climate change by conserving groundwater while the ice at the higher altitudes is melting, writes Ramiro Escobar of diario El País.

One Saturday at 7am, moderately wrapped up, Baltasar Ushca, an indigenous man of the quiche people with a skin like leather, strong arms and a friendly look about him, starts to load his daily burden on a small truck: at least six blocks of natural ice, each of them weighing about 30kg, wrapped in straw, will be rushed to the market La Merced in Riobamba, about 20 minutes from the rural community Calshi, in Ecuador.

In the background, the spectacular Chimborazo (6.310m) struggles his way through the morning haze and shows his eternal white glacier. The peak dominates the surrounding landscape. Ushca confirms in his Spanish with the notorious quichua accent that “it is very difficult to get up there”, with the three small donkeys, in order to bring the miraculous blocks down.

Water above and beneath
He has been doing the same trip of four hours since he was 15 years old (today he is 68), when there were more “hieleros” (people transporting ice) and much more ice. Now he is the last one, the only one who is taking the challenge, alone and with his old axes, to benefit from this magic mine of solid water, still present on this gigantic Andean mountain, which, like so many others, is melting at a devastating and alarming rate.

According to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), the Chimborazo loses about 70cm of its ice cover per year, which presents a dark prognosis for the future. Not only for Ushca and his unusual business, but also for the communities of quichua and mestizos who live close to this volcano blessed with snow. It provides much of the water that sustains the earth and the lives of the people.

On one of the slopes of the snowfield, at a height of about 4000m, lives Mariano Toaza, who is called Tayta Mariano (the word Tayta in quichua refers to a father or a protecting god, like the very same mountain). Another contributing aquifer has its source here: the so-called pajonales, the pasture lands that cover the Andean paramo and contribute also essentially to the water cycle. Whether the rain falls or simply humidity roams these heights, the plants capture the liquid element and let it run down to the soil, so that the groundwater gets recharged. “This is why we are protecting it”, says Tayta sitting on the same pajonal.

In 1987, when the Ecuadorian government established the Reserve of Fauna Production “Chimborazo,” the quichua people were almost evicted, perhaps because it was assumed that they would prevent the conservation work. But thanks to an intelligent reaction and support of some of the NGOs, like Ecociencia, they set up a process of recovery of their own ancient knowledge which supported the environmental objectives.

Goodbye, sheep, goodbye
One of the fundamental changes for the protection of the pajonal, which constitutes the biggest resource to “harvest water”, was changing the domestic fauna: sheep which had been bred intensively “since the times of the Colony” as the quichua Olmedo Cayambe explains, were eradicated. These seemingly nice and peaceful animals have the pernicious feature of almost devastating the soil and the pastures.

Due to their hard hoofs they contribute significantly to the erosion of the ground and, in addition, they tear out the weeds. Even worse: in order to satisfy them, the farmers adopted the harmful habit of burning the pajonal so that the sheep could feed on soft pajonal, because the bigger weed burned their eyes. The result was the degradation of the whole ecosystem.

Juan Cayambe, the father of Olmedo, shows the soft hoofs of an alpaca in his corral: “They are not like the sheep”, he confirms. Acknowledging,  or even better, restoring the role of lamas, alpacas and vicuñas in the conservation of the paramo was crucial. Our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and ancestors – “our elders”, as Olmedo comments - always lived like this, but the bad habit adopted during the times of the Colony and later in the time of the republican plantations favoured the sheep on land that was not theirs.

A return to breeding the South American camelidos is not only a pilgrimage to the past. To populate the paramos with these species contributes to the conservation of the pajonal, which in turn conserves the water that is vital to the lower grounds, as at the higher grounds the ice is vanishing. When in some years the Tayta Chimborazo will be without his grey strands, the last resource of water will be the ground.

Hot Andes
Of course, it will take decades, but the process has already begun and can be noticed through the continuous climatic changes in the area. It is not that cold anymore, there is less ice, the rain and blizzards can occur any moment. IUCN has recorded these variations in a case study in the region, even though the observations of the quichua people themselves warn of how global warming would unfold.

“Before we even had the “small summer of the El Niño”, now this is not certain anymore”, says Olmedo, explaining the presence of a short dry period which usually occurred in December, when the rainfalls had already started, which nowadays is no predictable phenomenon. In the past, the indigenous people of these areas could predict the harvests according to the variations in the climate and to the presence of certain birds. This small certainty is vanishing.

Therefore these people have had to reinvent themselves culturally in the quest to adapt to climate change, although, strictly speaking, they have returned to a past which they should never have abandoned, in order to face the future. Together with the return to the lamas and alpacas (the vicuñas are not originally from Ecuador, they were introduced from Peru in the 90s) the farmers have happily returned to crop-rotation instead of using monoculture, so that the earth can better withstand it.

When the ice won't be anymore
Numerous fincas where beans grow alongside pumpkins, barley, potatoes or medicinal plants, are starting to expand over the region, to the point where a single person can grow up to 50 species on their small field. To the sequence of protection of the pajonales, the water and the South American camelidos, is added organic agriculture and plant diversity - another step of the adaptation process.

The last hielero of Calshi tells that he will continue doing his work as long as he feels strong enough, but his sons do not want to follow his way. It is impossible to know if anyone will follow in his footsteps. What is known is that the Chimborazo is disappearing and the only way to save his legacy is to protect the water, which beneath the ground is keeping his secret veins.

Changing everybody
The experience of the indigenous people on the slopes of the Chimborazo is captured by the project “El Clima cambia, cambia tú también” (The Climate is changing, and you can too”), which the IUCN is promoting in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. The purpose of the project is the collection of testimonials of inhabitants of communities in these four countries in order to find out how they are trying to adapt “from their traditional practices” to the imminent climate change which is progressing in the Andes.
The main objective is that these changes become public policy, something that IUCN as well as AECID (the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development), who is financing the project hope that it will happen. The dialogue between traditional knowledge and western scientific facts are key for this initiative which seeks to improve the quality of life and the protection of ecosystems.